Ep 32: Leslie Zane on Breaking the Rules with Subconscious Marketing

On this episode of Marketing for Good, Erica is joined by Leslie Zane to talk about subconscious versus conscious marketing (which is what the vast majority of marketing is). They discuss the premise that instinct most often guides our decision-making rather than conscious thought. Leslie gives examples of marketing and branding strategies that use subconscious thought to drive sales and gain market share. They also talk through the physicality of thoughts, cause competency, brand connectome, and the opportunity for brands to emerge from COVID most distinctively.


This is a transcript of Erica Mills Barnhart and Leslie Zane on the Marketing for Good podcast. You can listen to the episode here and listen to more episodes on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. Enjoy!


brand, connectome, people, marketing, brain, positive associations, marketers, associations, organization, feel, subconscious, conscious, company, listeners, tree

Erica Barnhart  00:31

Hey there, in this episode, you’re going to hear the word brand about 3971 times, I am approximate being there. But it’s a lot. And I realized that we haven’t taken a deep dive or really talked a lot period about brand on the on this podcast. So I promise you that soon. But in the meantime, I wanted to make sure that you had context or framing or whatever word you want to use for this episode so you can glean maximum goodness from it, because there there’s a lot. My guest is Leslie Zane, she just has such interesting work and very interesting research and she has this idea about the brand connectome. And so like, in order to understand that, and really get the most out of it, I feel like we have talked about brand here for a second. So there’s so many different definitions of brand. And sometimes marketers use the word brand interchangeably with organization or company and like, they’ll just prefer the brand and imply that it’s your organization. I’m not a fan of this approach, because I feel like it, like muddies the waters organizations are at you know, can be more than a brand. So for clarity, let’s say brand is all the things, images, words, experiences that someone associates with your organization. I mean, this is another thing is that brand is the associations that other people hold. The organization itself, you will try to nurture the relationship that somebody has with your brand, but fundamentally brands, you know, what the like real estate, the mental real estate that somebody has, as it relates to your organization or your cause. So things like your logo and your messaging, customer support, I just can I give a shout out here. I’ve used MG Tech for my email for like, years and years and years. And I remember and they were wonderful, like when I reach out to them, and they’re small, you know, relatively small company, one they get back to you like in a flash, they are so nice. And I remember talking to their CEO once and he said, I tell all of my customer support people to act as if it is their mom, or their grandma or grandpa or somebody who they love, right and may not be totally technologically hip, although some are I don’t want to generalize, but like pretend like that’s who you’re talking to and treat them accordingly. This is a great example, very concrete example, which I you know, have benefited from over the years of, I mean, now I have that association with MG Technology Group, that’s part of my mental real estate, and therefore for me part of their brand. Other examples, the magazines that you may have in your lobby, if you have a lobby, whether there’s free parking, you know, etc, etc, etc. And it’s the cumulative of all of these things taken together that live in mainland our subconscious minds. So when someone refers to a strong brand, what does that mean? What they’re saying is an organization that has clear and consistent mind share. So for instance, let’s just take a very common example, but I am from Seattle, or in Seattle, so somebody referred to Starbucks, we probably you and I would probably have some very common generic association around like coffee or lattes, or whatever your preference, your choice is. That’s really consistent, now, how I feel about Starbucks and how you feel about Starbucks and how other people feel about Starbucks, that’s where there’s divergence. And that’s because our lived experiences have been different. I’ve lived in Seattle for 20 ish years now, often I’m more than that, but most recently for 20 years. So for me, honestly, you know, locally, there’s, you know, there’s like higher quality coffee, that happens, I don’t even drink a lot of coffee. So and if I am, it’s gonna be a latte and I want it to be like, amazing. Plus, I want to support local businesses. So I’m going to go local, but I’m here to tell you when I’m traveling, especially like in a in an airport, when I see Starbucks, it’s like a beacon of light and hope. Right? So it’s, you know, not always utterly consistent. It is contextual. Right, so so there’s just there’s a lot of layers to brand. I’m hoping I’m bringing more clarity than confusion. But again, I promise to do a follow up episode on this. But that’s sort of the idea. If I said Girl Scouts, you’d probably say cookies. What I love about that example is you know, the cookies are a means to an end. They’re very delicious means to an end, but Girl Scouts is about empowering young girls and the way one of the ways that they do that is through the sale of cookies. So lots of layers. Okay, I want to talk also because I see I’m just just trying to think through like what are the pieces that you will benefit from understanding before you hear this conversation with Leslie? Another is this idea of brands affinity, which is and shout out to Wistia, for this definition, “the most enduring and valuable level of a relationship between a company and a consumer or a nonprofit” and a donor, my addition, “based on the mutual belief that you have shared values” based on the mutual belief that they have, or that you have shared values, okay? This is why it’s super important to articulate and share your values widely and live them. They shouldn’t be some like mamby pamby thing that a committee jots down at some point, I don’t know. And then they’re distributed and then forgotten. They are core to the success of your organization because of this idea of brand and brand affinity, right. So they truly should be the principles that guide your work. It makes it easier, I mean, there’s an efficiency play here as well, like, the clearer you are about this, the easier you make it for, you know, whether it’s clients, customers, donors, whatever it is, volunteers, the clearer that is, the more easily they can decide if they share those values, if they have an affinity for for the same things, you have an affinity for around values. Brands are associated mainly, you know, with an organizational structure. But the same associations we have with certain brands, the ones that live in our subconscious again, this whole conversation with Leslie is about subconscious marketing and instinctive marketing, which is totally counter to how marketing has been shaped and how most people talk and think of doing marketing. So very different. Those associations aren’t entirely unique to one organization, because our values apply to everything, right or, I mean, at least they should apply to everything if we’re living into them and living in integrity with them. So our values, stick with me here, are largely decided, in our subconscious mind. Yes, we use our conscious mind to articulate those to give them language, but they live in our shaped and our subconscious mind over time based on our lived experience. So we can dig deep to figure out what those are, but actually, and you can, and you can do this experiment on yourself, like think about what are your core values? And then say, Why do I hold that value? Where did that come from? Right? So you might just take a minute to think of one core value and then do that sequence of questioning, like, Where did that really truly come from? Why do I like this thing, or not? And then you’ll have a little bit of experience with what Leslie is recommending that marketers do, which is tap into the subconscious, rather than trying to tap into the conscious. So for context, you know, there’s a little bit of disparity, but for the most part, what you’ll read is that your your conscious mind is consist of 5% percent of your decision making, subconscious 95% of the decision making action happens there. Right. And again, there’s a little bit of a bandwidth, but let’s just leave it like the vast majority of decision making gonna happen in your subconscious mind. So how can we tap into that, and that’s what Leslie talks about. One last seed, I’m on a plan here, which is marketing for good isn’t just about individual organizations, or companies or businesses, right? It is bigger than that. And we can also use the techniques and strategies that Leslie talks about to shift societal norms, norms, some of which I talked about in Episode 30. So for sure, go back and listen to that if you haven’t already around like body image and beauty and consumerism. And I mean, the list is long, and I think you get the point. So I’m well aware that this intro has become a mini lesson in brand. And that makes this episode on the long side because the conversation with Leslie was juicy and far reaching. So we have a lot to cover. However, I felt I felt pretty strongly clearly that it was important to lay some foundation before diving in because I really want you to get the most out of this episode. And if you’re still feeling befuddled, pause right here and reach out to me all my contact information is in the show notes. And let’s like get your head screwed on straight around what brand and branding is it can be really confusing. It can also be incredibly powerful. So I want to put that out there and again one last time promise that I’m going to do soon I will do a full episode on this. And now finally at long last, let’s dive in. Shall we? I am ready. Are you ready to hear from Leslie Zane? Welcome listeners. I am super excited to have with me today Leslie Zane. So Leslie is known in the industry for her expertise in applying brain science to branding. Fortune 500 Chief Marketing Officers rely on Leslie to help them achieve what had previously been near impossible and still to my ear sounds a little impossible, which is to accelerate revenue and share growth at the same level of marketing spend. So of course this begs the question about how does she do this? So she figured out the secret to changing instinctive brand behavior by tapping into the brand choices that people make on autopilot, so we’re going to be talking about that. Leslie’s credentials are rather impressive and stellar. She is a Yale University and Harvard Business School graduate. And she began her career at top marketing and top companies being P&G and Johnson and Johnson. I was surprised I find this so interesting, because those are such big companies, you would think they would have this figured out, but she was surprised by the hit or miss nature of marketing initiatives. So Leslie maintained that what consumers say is unreliable, which for any listeners who are working for nonprofits, this is also true of donors, and that indirect cues were more effective than superlative claims in driving conversion. But like many unconventional thinkers, her ideas were often dismissed in the early days. So more than 16 years before Daniel Kahneman popularized behavioral economics, Leslie founded the company Triggers, on the premise that instinct rather than conscious thought guided brand decisions and our company has been delivering superior results ever since. Triggers was also the first brand consultancy founded by a woman. Amazing. Leslie is a TEDx speaker. She has been published in Harvard Business Review, Knowledge at Wharton, MIT Sloan Review, Forbes, cmo.com, Barron’s, Newsweek, Media Posts, Scientific American, and more. I am glad and grateful to have you here on the show today. Leslie, thank you so much for being here.

Leslie Zane  11:33

And thank you so much for having me, Erica, I love this podcast. And I think it’s so perfect for these times.

Erica Barnhart  11:41

Thank you. Thank you. So I think listeners just got like a little flavor of how interesting your path to where you are today has been. But in your own words, could you describe what you do? And how you got into that line of work? And was there like any epiphany moment that brought you to this work?

Leslie Zane  12:02

Sure, I’d love to tell you a little bit about me as a little girl. I was always and I have a feeling that a lot of the listeners probably can share this personality type, I had a little bit of a creative streak and I had a little bit of an analytical businessy streak. And I was always trying to find the harmony of those two things. When I was at Yale, I actually double majored in art history and economics. So a little bit of both. And I found that marketing was sort of the perfect career for me, because it really did bring together both of those, both of those disciplines, both of those parts of the brain, so to speak. And so early on, that was what I was trying to do. As time went on, I did work in brand management for those, you know, name companies that you mentioned. And I was kind of shocked, because I thought that, you know, here at P&G, I would learn marketing from the best and don’t get me wrong, I learned a ton. But I also learned the limits of what they didn’t know, what they didn’t know, back then. And actually, to some extent, what we still don’t know about marketing. And so I had a very specific goal, which was to find the keys to unlocking instinctive decision making. I don’t know if I called it that back then. But I just felt that there was something much more going on. And in terms of epiphany’s, I guess, one of the the, the moments that kind of stands out in my early career was that I did work for a top baby care company, which you just mentioned, and I was on a campaign to put the first father in a baby care commercial. And back then, this is the early 90s, that was considered revolutionary. I got lots of pushback. You know, it’s women who buy these products. It’s still women who mostly do the shopping. And still mainly women who do the baby care, but men were definitely getting more involved in child rearing and times really were changing. And I knew that and I was seeing that and I saw research about that. And I encountered a tremendous amount of resistance. But I guess the big moment early, early on was a performance review I had where I was told that Leslie it said this in black and white, you know, I swear it. Leslie is too passionate about putting fathers in advertising and this is an executional concern, not a strategic one. So this was like a knife in my heart because if anything, I thought of myself as being strategic, I had been told in earlier you know, performance reviews that I was highly strategic. I had worked at Bain, which was a strategy consulting firm. And I kind of defined my identity that way. So I was extremely insulted and very upset. But it didn’t stop me. I felt in my bones that there was something that went on, when a woman saw a father taking care of a baby and washing a baby’s hair, I could see that something special was going on that they couldn’t be put into words that didn’t show up in research that didn’t show up and brand trackers. And I was convinced that if we would leverage that, that it would make a difference. So to cut to the, to the end of the story, we did put the first father in a baby care commercial, baby shampoo commercial. And lo and behold, it was the highest scoring commercial in the company’s history and product started flying off the shelves. So stick to your guns, stick to your guns.

Erica Barnhart  15:57

Well, and this is gonna be a theme throughout our conversation, trust your gut. That’s been so like poopoo like, Well, I mean, it’s just my gut, that’s telling me this. And it’s like, well, your gut actually holds millennia of data points for you. So probably not a bad idea. But we’re but our, but culturally, I feel like that has become so unpopular. This idea of trusting your gut.

Leslie Zane  16:24

Well, I think what was going on for me in that moment, was that I had an epiphany based on good instincts. You know, I always had good consumer instincts. But it turned out that years later, the science proved me, right. So I don’t use the term gut anymore, I actually just show the science around what was actually going on in that moment, what was actually going on, was that we had found a cue, the cue being a father taking care of a baby, that particular cue was an image cue that was packed with positive associations that worked at a subconscious level, to add positive associations to the brand very, very rapidly. And those positive associations were, you know, modern, carrying an empathetic husband, he’s pretty cute, I wouldn’t mind having him as a husband and taking him home. You know, there were just a whole host of very positive associations that again, don’t show up in research, but were packed into that tiny little, you know, queue in in an ad or you know, whether it was a print ad, or a digital ad, or, or a TV ad, that what was his what was operating, it really was people’s instinctive connection to that image that made all the difference, and then drove sales. So there’s a direct connection between what happens in our subconscious, and sales and marketplace results and that’s really the big opportunity for marketers of all kinds, whether you’re a nonprofit marketer, or you’re a for profit marketer, you have to drive business of some kind, and this whole world is, is we know a lot more about it, but it’s really untapped. And it actually enables you to get a competitive advantage if you don’t have as much money to spend as big a budget to spend as the other guy.

Erica Barnhart  18:26

So let’s dive into some definitions. Because, you know, when when we use term marketing, I think now, thanks to you know, your work, and other people who are doing this work, really quickly get to a place where you’re like marketing, you know, if we just lump it all together, that’s very loosey goosey. And it actually behooves us to parse that out into many different ways. But at a minimum, for the sake of our conversation, to parse it out by what is subconscious marketing, and how does that differ from conscious marketing. And, and I think most of us have been trained, and we think about conscious marketing and have kind of been marketed the idea that conscious marketing is the way to go, what I hear you saying is actually the bigger opportunity and the higher ROI or return on investment is in subconscious marketing. So that was a whole bunch of questions. And I forgot. So let me go back to like, let’s just define that. Will, you define subconscious marketing, and juxtapose that to conscious marketing. And then we will deconstruct

Leslie Zane  19:27

Love it. So we have different parts of our brain and the old part of our brain, the reptilian complex, processes, tons and tons of data very, very rapidly. That is the instinctive part of our brain and it works, you know, again, automatically without your realizing it. The conscious part of the brain is the neocortex, and that’s the newer part of the brain and we are aware of it and it turns on and off it goes, we wake up, we go to sleep. It’s either on or off and it processes information much more slowly. So most of the efforts in marketing today are still aimed at the conscious brain. Because what we’re trying to do is marketers are trying to persuade, to incentivize, they’re trying to, I kind of think of it as they’re almost throttling the the buyer, the consumer, or you know, a contributor, whoever, whatever it is the business that you’re in, you’re trying to kind of force them to buy something that we’re selling. And that is a really tough way to go because the conscious brain sees you coming, it’s aware, it’s skeptical, it’s resistant to change, and it pushes you away, it says, I can see what’s going on here, you’re trying to sell me, don’t you try to sell me I’m smarter than you. And it pushes the seller, the marketer away. Now, let’s contrast that to the subconscious brain. The subconscious brain, or the instinctive brain is actually where brand decisions and purchase decisions get made. Because brands form in our subconscious, all they really are brands are cumulative memories that have gotten stuck and glued to the brand over time to form this gigantic ecosystem, which we can talk about later. But what is going on there is that that is where you are making decisions, and you’re really not making your decisions, you think you only think you’re making your decisions, what’s really happening is that there is a brand, and a whole bunch of brands that are living in your subconscious that are telling you what to do. They’re stored in your memory. And so if you influence that, you’re not, people are not awaret that those brand entities are being influenced. And more importantly, even by leveraging things that already exist in the brain in people’s memories, you can piggyback on those anchors, and your message gets in there more quickly, more easily and without the conscious brain being aware, they just kind of seep in. And it’s mainly done through cues. So I can tell people a lot of things, I can make superlative claims, I could say this brand is the best this, this brand beats this other brand ten to one, I can make all those kinds of typical marketing claims. But they typically encounter resistance. Whereas if I go through the subconscious brain, I piggyback on those familiar anchors, and the conscious brain doesn’t see it coming, and there’s an estimate. Scientists disagree on what the exact percentages are, but essentially, it is absolutely agreed to among, across the scientific community, that the vast majority of brand and purchase decisions are made by the subconscious by the instinctive brain, and that we just kind of rationalize those decisions afterwards with the with the rational brain.

Erica Barnhart  23:09

I mean, the number that you see that I’ve seen most consistently is 95%.

Leslie Zane  23:13

Yeah, sure, there’s some range.

Erica Barnhart  23:15

But that’s I mean, it let’s pause on that for a second. Because for listeners who are new to this idea of subconscious marketing, and just just how powerful our subconscious mind and by the way, this isn’t only doesn’t only relate to brand and marketing, like your subconscious mind is really making the decisions in life, which can, which is sort of tough to wrap your mind around, in some ways, because we’re so trained to think it’s our conscious mind and we’re very good rational decision makers.

Leslie Zane  23:42

Yeah. And just to bring that you know, to light for everybody in terms of an example that everybody will be familiar with when you go to the supermarket and let’s say you’re in the orange juice aisle, and you’re looking for your orange juice brand you just reach you don’t sit there and contemplate and look at all the different brands on the shelf. Let me see should I buy Minute Made or Florida Gold, or, chances are you don’t even know what the other brands are on the shelf, you just reach you are on autopilot. And the reason that you are on autopilot is because you have a network of associations with a particular brand, let’s say it’s Tropicana in this case, and you just reach, it’s almost like there’s a little halo a little highlight like a spotlight over the brand’s saying pick me, pick me, pick me, it doesn’t and you just block everything else out.

Erica Barnhart  24:37

This I think resolves the question about why some people are Coke drinkers and some are Pepsi drinkers. And there’s like a little bit of difference in taste, but you know, sharing with you before like if I’m going to have a soda, which is not super often, but if I’m craving one, it is gonna be a diet coke 100% like and to your point like I’m not gonna walk up to the aisle and be like, I don’t know, maybe and I’m definitely it’s just no offense to Pepsi into Pepsi drinkers. But for me, but that’s because I grew up and my mom drank Diet Coke. We were, you know, like that that identity connection piece to what goes on our subconscious is so interesting.

Leslie Zane  25:17

Yeah, it’s very, very powerful. It absolutely is dictating your choices.

Erica Barnhart  25:22

Yeah. So let’s get into because I’m sure people are like, well, if it’s so powerful, how do we unleash it? So you’ve written Knowledge at Wharton and Harvard Business Review and many other places, as we mentioned about this idea of the brand connectome. I love the word connectome. I like the way it looks. I like the way it sounds like the whole thing. And I know you were sort of taking that from another area. But I just have to say as a word nerd, like it’s just connectome. Okay, so what is, what is this this brand connectome idea? And why is it so important?

Leslie Zane  25:57

Okay. Oh, my God, that’s my favorite question.

Erica Barnhart  26:01

What’s so I mean, I’m trying really hard not to skip in my head. But we got it, we have to go step by step. I think on this because the power of the work that you do is profound, you know, it really is revolutionary. So I’m so grateful that you’re here and that listeners are gonna get in on the action.

Leslie Zane  26:19

Thank you. Well, I definitely want to share it so that everybody can be empowered to really, you know, reach their dreams, in terms of their business, work and their causes. So yeah, so the brand connectome is an ecosystem of associations positive and negative, that get formed cumulatively over time connected to your brand. So think about almost I almost think of it like the celestial world in our brain. And the brands actually have physicality. They’re not these wispy things rolling around in there, thoughts are not, you know, intangible. They actually have physicality. So over time, every brands kind of stakes out an ecosystem of these associations that glue to it, that get glue to it over time, and they’re fighting it out. These brand connectomes are fighting it out, you have one for Coke, and you have one for Pepsi, and you have one for whatever other sodas you’ve heard of, and you have one for Tropicana, and one for a Minute Made and the other orange juice is that you have you’ve heard of, and so competition actually doesn’t take place on the marketplace shelves, it takes place in people’s subconscious. And if marketers can wrap their heads around that, they’re going to be much more effective. Because you can’t win in marketing just by throwing money at something, you actually need to influence the health of that brand connectome. The brand connectome is the most important barometer of the health of a brand. Now, today, in marketing, most research is spent on what we call brand trackers, and equity studies. And these are based on conscious answers that people make to questionnaires and surveys. And they tend to get very superficial conscious responses, you know, it’s good quality, it gives good service, it’s a good tasting beverage, it doesn’t get to the to the true associations that actually influence brands, the drivers and the barriers, those are actually living in our subconscious. And you surface, when you look into the brand, connectome, all of these associations that you see just just are not coming up in any of the, you know, quantitative research that companies are doing, any of these trackers.

Erica Barnhart  28:57

Is it, is it true, Leslie, my understanding of those studies is that they that because they’re tapping into the conscious mind, like those are the those are ways that we rationalize a decision that’s already been made by the subconscious mind. So in fact, the information the researchers get through brand tracking and those types of questionnaires is the rationalization but to use your words, not the driver, not the decision making driver.

Leslie Zane  29:20

That’s exactly right. And look, I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t conduct that kind of research, because it’s a great way, it’s a great way to compare yourself to the competition and you can you can tend to see some not big movements, but tiny, you know, little movements do happen over time. But what they don’t tell you is what you’re really up against what the true mental barriers that are holding somebody back from buying your brand, and the true drivers that are required for them to come over and be part of your franchise. So you know, one of the best ways to think about the brand connectome is a metaphor. And that is the metaphor of a tree. So if you think about a brand as a seed, you plant the seed, and you have to feed it good nutrients. So what are the nutrients in this case, it’s positive associations, because the soil, the water and the sun, in this case, the positive associations, they make the the seedlings sprout new branches to hold those associations. And every time you add more associations, the seedling has to sprout more branches. And little by little by little by little, this tree grows up out of that seedling. And the moment your tree, your the canopy of your tree is larger and more positive and more robust, then the tree of your competitors brand, the consumer will jump over to your brand. And that is how you get you know, a switch, which is what we’re all after trying to gain market share or move somebody and maybe in the case of the nonprofit’s from contributing from one cause to one another.

Erica Barnhart  31:14

Mhmm. Can you give an example of like, ways to create positive association?

Leslie Zane  31:19

Yeah, so So through cues, so through imagery through language, the brain needs something to hold on to. So like a good example would be an ad in the Superbowl. This this past this past year, the last few months, there were there were a lot of ads that were very insight based, but they were just purely emotional and they didn’t have distinctive brand assets and they didn’t have very own-able cues, or distinctive visual approaches that set them apart. They talked about an emotion, they talked about empathy, they had empathy in them. But those kinds of ads kind of go in one ear and out the other because there’s nothing really to hold on to that’s connected to the brand. In contrast, an ad that dimensionalizes the benefit, or dramatizes the benefit that the product has or the service has, that is actually going to stick that’s going to have much more stickiness. An example of that would be the Doritos 3D crunch snack that featured Matthew McConaughey, he starts out as a flat piece of paper, he has a you know, a product, he talks about having a problem and he’s been not feeling right the last few weeks, he gets sucked up by a vacuum, he can’t be seen from the side when he’s in his place, getting his coffee shop getting a coffee, and he’s just he’s flat. And then suddenly he slips into a vending machine. He eats one of the Doritos crunch 3D crunches, and poof, his body, you know, you know, explodes into a three dimensional being. And of course, he gets trapped in the in the vending machine.

Erica Barnhart  33:13

Sure, as you would if you were one dimmensinal and then became 3D.

Leslie Zane  33:18

But the point is that what it was dimensionalizing what it was dramatizing was the three dimensionality of the taste, of the texture, of the flavor. You know, it’s this big, big, big, big taste.

Erica Barnhart  33:29

So very specific to that product?

Leslie Zane  33:33

Correct, correct. So it’s dramatizing the benefit.

Erica Barnhart  33:37

As opposed to like, a like a made up, I’m going to make up an ad, some other chip company that I felt like a lot of the ads recently, and you mentioned this in your most recent Harvard Business Review article about platitudes. A lot of it was like I feel you we’re on uncertain uncertain times. Like you could you could see like some people sitting on the couch and like sharing chips, like sort of commiserating over the chips in some way. And that that wouldn’t, that wouldn’t, you know, grow the tree, because there’s nothing specific to the chip, am I tracking?

Leslie Zane  34:11

you are 100% track and that’s exactly right. I talked about that a lot. I said, advertisers please skip the platitudes because consumers, they know, they can smell it. The idea of being empathetic is obviously wonderful. And we all need to have tremendous empathy for everybody in these times. But to go out and create an ad that is all about that we’re in this together. You know, don’t worry, we’ll be together soon. It is unrelated to the brand. And because it is unrelated specifically to the brand’s expertise, it tends to go in one ear and out the other. It does not stick.

Erica Barnhart  34:54

Can you combo meal it? Because there was some research about you know, people want to know that it brand gets them or company gets them, an organization gets them. But I feel like it’s this hovering on it like that’s the only message is that we’re in this together. And I think what I’m hearing you say is like, Sure you can acknowledge that and then move into growing these specific positive associations with your whatever, whatever your-

Leslie Zane  35:19

Yeah. Well, I’ll go even further. What we know from our research is that the brands that did do effective advertising during the, you know, the the worst of the COVID period in 2020 were companies that communicated deeds that they did. So you know, deeds, not discussions, where the deed was closely tied to the brand’s expertise. So a great example of this is Absolut making hand sanitizer during COVID with its formula. That, that stuck, that stuck-

Erica Barnhart  35:57

Absolut Vodka?

Leslie Zane  35:58

Yeah, Absolut Vodka, because the, the ethanol is used to create hand sanitizer. Yeah. So using your expertise, and converting that to something really needed and useful and valuable during COVID, that makes sense for the brand to talk about, it’s authentic to the brand, and the consumer, their perceptions of the brand are elevated, because they did something that doesn’t seem superfluous, that doesn’t seem extraneous, it actually is directly tied to the brand’s expertise. So the best way to be empathetic is to be empathetic with with real deeds, that that are tied to your your business tied to your core competency. Another great example is Federal Express has a wonderful ad that ran in the last few weeks. And I we can put it in your your show notes later. It shows the world moving backward, children running backward, not into school. But yeah, not out of school man into school. But you know what I mean, running backward. Birds, flying backward, people instead of going into the train going, you know, in the wrong direction. And then the next scene is Federal Express planes, bringing vaccines, delivering vaccines to where they’re needed, and then cut to those same scenes that we just saw on the first half of the ad, now everybody’s moving in the right direction, children are going into making progress with their work. And so the the message there is that Federal Express is actually doing something super useful to help people during the pandemic, they’re applying what they do, which is fly planes, and fly and get things to places fast that they’re using their core competency, and telling people how they’re helping the world, but but it fits with who they are.

Erica Barnhart  38:03

Right. I mean, it’s also explains a lot for, you know, there’s a fair amount around cause related marketing and it provides many examples of it working well, which I would say, you know, your FedEx example, actually, both of those were great examples of that. But when we, you know, when it’s coupled with another organization, it can be very powerful, and it can totally backfire. And if you’d like this is, I think, explaining why when it’s a mismatch, when there’s organization was like, and we donate it to this, you know, a company for profit company donates to an organization that has like, nothing to do with anything that people are like, okay, I mean, I guess so. But that didn’t make me feel better about you that made me feel like you were disingenuous.

Leslie Zane  38:46

That’s exactly right.

Erica Barnhart  38:47

You can’t just schmear some cause on it.

Leslie Zane  38:49

One of the terms I use is cause competency.

Erica Barnhart  38:53

Oh, yeah, I saw that. And one of your, yeah, yeah, talk about that a little bit.

Leslie Zane  38:57

Well, just connect the cause that you are going to advocate for or give money to, to your core competency. So let’s say you’re, you know, Miracle Gro, you know, a great brand. And you tell people that you’re going to help children’s literacy, you know, is that going to really stick? Is that going to really help your your business? Probably not, but if Miracle Gro starts creating, you know, healthy gardens, in urban centers where they don’t have a lot of healthy fruits and vegetables, suddenly that relates to what they do. So I’m a big advocate of doing that.

Erica Barnhart  39:42

Fantastic. Yeah. Well, the other thing is for those who are on the nonprofit side of that, I think it also gives insight into the if you were to proactively be seeking out corporate partnerships, which is a strategy that every organization nonprofit should use, but it does make sense for some and then you could also you know, go the other direction. And say we were proactively going to seek out, you know, so for an organization that’s, you know, growing food in a food desert, ah, you know, something like Miracle Gro or some other thing would be who we want to go after. And some organizations are great about that. But I think, you know, anyway, it’s a, it’s a, it’s territory, that quickly gets kind of muddied. I want to make sure that we talked about the COVID connectome, which you recently discovered, because this is like, very specific to the time that we’re living in and it could be that somebody will listen to this way down the road. But for right now, we are emerging, we are emerging out of the COVID cloud or cocoon. But you found something very interesting about what works and what the what the connectome is.

Leslie Zane  40:45

Yeah. So as we were talking before, we said that brands have connectomes. But what we didn’t touch on is that so does everything else. And COVID, has a giant connectome of branches and associations that live on those branches connected to COVID. And what we learned about the COVID connectome is that it is it’s like a tree, but the tree has two very large clusters. So it branches off into these, it’s like a trunk that branches off into two very large branches. One is an all around preservation and that’s what we all felt, you know, a lot of certainly at the very beginning, we wanted to have our families close our children, you know, very connected to us all at home, kind of running, going under the covers. And that was all driven by our self preservation and our survival instinct. So there was a giant web around that which included cooking at home and not getting dressed, wearing yoga pants and all and buying toilet paper, and, and a whole bunch of behaviors and a whole bunch of rituals and routines related to preservation. But then we also found that there was another cluster that was equally important, but not as well developed back then. And that was the perseverance part of the COVID connectome. And that’s driven by our desire for something that’s also very important, which is to make progress. And what we saw was that during the time of the worst of COVID, the the preservation part of the connectome was incredibly dominant over the perseverance. And in many ways, it is the underpinning of what’s going on with the Consumer Confidence Index, because the Consumer Confidence Index all during that period was really, you know, in the basement, and it’s in the basement because of those kinds of instincts that that we are having. And in order for us to have a full recovery, that the preservation part of the connectome must dominate. And so the more that companies can, can build associations, build positive associations, in their messaging, and in their customer experiences, to build out and give everybody confidence about moving forward, that’s going to be a tremendous service to to everybody and to the economy, for jobs, and and for all of us to make progress and move forward.

Erica Barnhart  43:29

Did you find anything? I mean, was the research US focused?

Leslie Zane  43:35

That was US focused, yes.

Erica Barnhart  43:36

And so I’m wondering if there would be some some sensitivity that organizations would need to have if they were regionally focused? Because I think so I’m in the northwest, you’re in the northeast, you know, there’s South there’s California, like each region went through I mean, we all experienced COVID, each region handled it kind of differently. I’m just curious, you got any insight on regional implications of the COVID connectome?

Leslie Zane  44:02

I mean, I think that’s a great question. There are always little nuances that differ from from place to place. And I think this COVID, you know, handling the management of COVID is, has been a little bit different, as you say, but we generally find that the universal drivers and the universal, the patterns of things that drive people are much more they have much more in common than they are different.

Erica Barnhart  44:31

That makes sense. Yeah, I suppose I mean, that those universal, the universal attributes and you know, that sort of big five personality traits and like there’s, there’s so much that makes us each unique and there’s so much that is consistent.

Leslie Zane  44:48

I think we human beings are far more similar than we are different. We have a lot that is convergent, we don’t spend enough time talking about that. But that’s what we found in our in our work. It’s certainly true in the world of brands.

Erica Barnhart  45:05

Yeah, yeah. I want to go back to one thing because it occurs to me so so humans do like to make progress. So it makes sense that perseverance would be bubbling up in this COVID connectome. But we kind of were wired to make progress to survive.

Leslie Zane  45:21

Yeah, that’s a great point. So what we learned is that people have to feel safe.

Erica Barnhart  45:27

Okay, so its a Maslow’s Hierarchy here.

Leslie Zane  45:32

Yeah, 100%. You have to make people feel safe. We’re recommending that companies hire a chief safety and health officer now, you have to really do the things that are going to make that preservation side feel comfortable. And then they’re going to start moving forward. But it’s, it’s it’s a two part, it’s a two part equation, you have to do both.

Erica Barnhart  45:55

And there is there’s somewhat newly emerging critiques of Maslow’s hierarchy, which I interpret is kind of a differently defining what safety means, because I am, what the critics are saying is, Maslow was like, you know, shelter, food, so like physical safety. And as things progress, we’re also talking about psychological safety. So like, all the types of safety, physical safety, psychological safety. So all of that kind of needs to be met, is what I hear you saying, and then we can we can look towards what’s next.

Leslie Zane  46:31


Erica Barnhart  46:32

Yeah. It’s so interesting. All of this is so interesting. Now, I understand that you have some new rules for marketers to follow. I mean, anybody who’s been listening in this conversation is like, I bet she does have some new rules. I feel like it’s I feel like there’s an overarching new rule, which is, like, we really have to start paying more attention to the subconscious. And I’m gonna guess that listeners would appreciate hearing like you’ve mentioned, sort of the positive association by way of images and words. How do you figure that out? I mean, without like, sharing your secret sauce, and I want to get to the five new rules, and maybe there were later but I don’t want to leave the connectome space, the brand connectome space without offering some like concrete examples of like, how do you figure that out?

Leslie Zane  47:20

It’s really about what we call memory elicitation. Because I said earlier, that all a brand is is a compilation of cumulative memories that have formed over time. And so you kind of go fishing, you go on a fishing expedition. And we what we do is we inventory people’s memories related to a brand, and to the competitive brands. And we’re able to get very, very deep, but you know, all the way back to their very first memory and all the positive and negative associations over time.

Erica Barnhart  47:52

How do you know what’s a first memory? Like, I feel like we’re quite daft in terms of being able to tap into the subconscious. So is it like, do people know that it’s earliest? Or again, this is their conscious mind being like, I think it was my earliest, it feels like I was.

Leslie Zane  48:06

Yeah, I mean, we we do a lot of projective exercises. So we really don’t rely, we certainly don’t rely exclusively on what people say, because that’s literally the opposite of what we believe, we believe that what people say really can’t be trusted. And that the key is really to, to dig into what is attached to the brand in people’s subconscious. And we just kind of go keep going through the layers till we sort of get them to get back to those very, very first ones.

Erica Barnhart  48:40

 And you were saying, which I found fascinating, because of course, I you know, I live both, so I have my consulting firm and then I also have an academic, you know, I’m in that world as faculty at the University of Washington. And so you know, in the academic world is sort of the traditional capital, our research world, what you’re looking for is, breadth, like, you want to be able to replicate a study again and again and again. And that’s what you know, what makes it knowledge. But if I’m reading correctly, what you shared is like he actually for for the approach that you take, you can get to the information you need, with a kind of a small number of people because the stuff becomes so obvious that you don’t need like a gajillion people. So you’re not interviewing hundreds and hundreds of people on behalf of a client. It’s like much more targeted and deep.

Leslie Zane  49:29

So we do both. We both go very, very deep and then we also quantify with much larger numbers, but to go to really what you’re asking, which is how much convergence is there. I can tell you that by like the sixth or seventh person we have 65-70% overlap on the same themes, same metaphors, same imagery, the same symbols, it is really uncanny. And I don’t know if that’s true in other areas, I can only say that in the world of brands are incredibly convergent among the people who use the brand as one universe and then the people who don’t use that brand, the people who are using a competitive brand, those two those two groups, those two targets are incredibly convergent within themselves. And that’s, it’s, it’s really, it’s really quite fascinating.

Erica Barnhart  50:37

It’s very, very fascinating. Okay, thank you being willing to just go a little deeper on that, that this may also come up. But I also want to go back to for folks who are still stuck back on the idea that thoughts of physicality. I do want to go back to that, because for some listeners, they may be like, I’m sorry, what I thought the thoughts were, I think you said ephemeral. And I think what you’re saying is, thoughts take on shape by way of neural pathways and other things in our brain and the more that those are reinforced, the bigger like the pathway becomes like a little line and then like a trough. But the good news is, so that’s our thoughts take on physicality.

Leslie Zane  51:15

That’s exactly right. You explained it perfectly. I couldn’t do it better.

Erica Barnhart  51:19

Oh, that’s great. I just, you know, I think that that’s such a powerful thought. And I guess the reason I want to mention it, because I think there could be folks who are like, Oh, my gosh, like, what if we, what if we’re not okay, I want to do this, but what if we’re not Oh, what if, like, what if our associations aren’t where they need to be. And so I guess I just want to offer a little bit of hope that our brains are very malleable. I mean, plasticity is like a thing.

Leslie Zane  51:46

Oh, my God. So I can’t even tell you, I can’t I feel so strongly about this. Because I really do find that a lot of marketers play into what their brand is today, thinking that they can escape some of those negative associations or baggage. And what we find is that in a matter of weeks, you can change those associations, I mean, my favorite thing to talk about, and it also happens to be a rule, an old rule and a new rule. So we can jump into that here. The old rule was that brands have life cycles, where they have, they kind of start off young and full of energy, and they are growing fast. And eventually, they kind of as they get more and more and more and more consumers and they reach a mass state, then they kind of flatten out and eventually they need to kind of stagnate and decline and eventually go to you know, the funeral home. So what we know is that that is not true at all. Brands do not have built in life cycles, a brand could last for hundreds of years. And actually many of the brands in you know in the world have been around over 100 years. And you can create a new wave of growth. What is holding back the brands during those, quote, mature stages, is that they’re just accumulating negative association.

Erica Barnhart  53:11

Oh, so they get a little lazy?

Leslie Zane  53:14

Yeah, you have to constantly prune the negative associations, they weigh the brand down. And so it only looks like the growth is declining, the growth really is declining, but it’s not declining because it’s old, declining because it’s got negative associations that have to be removed.

Erica Barnhart  53:32

So erroneous correlation to life cycle.

Leslie Zane  53:38

It’s completely erroneous correlation pruning lifecycle. It is a question of pruning the negative associations and constantly adding new associations that evolve the brand, and keep it fresh and keep it young. And we’ve been incredibly successful at taking a brand that was already going down on that other part of the lifecycle, and helping it achieve a whole new wave of growth simply by removing positive or negative associations and adding new positive ones.

Erica Barnhart  54:09

That’s super inspiring and interesting, because there I mean, there’s so much to that organizational development lifecycle the storming, forming norming dying, I don’t know what the last one is. So that’s very inspiring. Okay, so that’s, that’s number one.

Leslie Zane  54:25

Another, I mean, I have 20 of them, which we don’t know we have time for 5.

Erica Barnhart  54:30

But if you people interested, where is the best way to get all 20?

Leslie Zane  54:34

Well, I work with them.

Erica Barnhart  54:36

I though there were 5 new rules for brain based marketing, where’s the 20 coming from Leslie?

Leslie Zane  54:40

I’ll give you I’ll give you I can give you five I’ll give you one more right now though. We have been taught as marketers that uniqueness is everything, differentiate or die, be the purple cow, stand out, you know, create your next you know, new product and make it look like it came from Mars. But that actually doesn’t work. Because in the era of brain science and behavioral science, we know that people connect with the familiar, not with the unique. And so we’ve been working killing ourselves to be so unique and stand out. But it’s the opposite of how the brain works. And now the next thing can say as well, but the familiar than is going to be generic because everybody’s going to look the same. And that’s a fair criticism. So what we say is, familiarity is better than uniqueness. But distinctiveness is best of all, with distinctiveness, you get to sort of put a creative twist on the familiar and make it your own make it distinctive to your brand. And a great example of this is, you know, if you think about the snow cap mountain, in the bottled water category, you know, it is one of the most important cues because it stands for purity and a whole bunch of positive associations. But Aquafina has this very beautiful, abstract, distinctive snow capped mountain with a little sunset near it. And so it’s done its distinctive version of a snow capped mountain. So as long as you pursue distinctiveness over uniqueness, you’ll be leveraging the familiar cue that people already know. But you’re serving it up in your own distinctive way.

Erica Barnhart  56:24

Yeah, and we talked a little bit about, so my research on language is sort of an extension or builds on the idea that our brains like novelty, because it releases chemicals that, you know, make us pay attention to something. And again, this goes back to survival, so much this goes back to survival instinct, we want to think we’re so evolved, and yet, pretty fundamentally, we’re just kinda out to survive and thrive periodically. So, you know, these two things can sound at odds, but what I’m hearing you saying we’ve chatted about is like, actually, it’s the combo meal that is the most powerful, so understanding what purpose each serves. So understanding that we really like familiarity, because that makes us feel safe. And our race also, like on occasion, novelty. Because it activates, you know, our brains in ways that are probably towards that progression volition, so that that combination, which is where the art I think comes together with the science.

Leslie Zane  57:20

I think that’s, that’s exactly right. It is it is most definitely the combination, the familiarity is so important, because it’s what drives engagement. I already have a snow capped mountain in my memory, I know what that is. And there’s a lot of meaning attached to that snowcap mountain. So I want to leverage that. I don’t want to throw that away. But I need a little twist, a little creative twist to make it my own for my brand. And also to make it stand out from the other snowcapped mountains that are all over the bottled water category. And so I think the combination of what we’re saying is exactly right.

Erica Barnhart  57:56

Yeah. Okay, what are the rules do you have for us? I feel like we’re it’s like combination of marketing for good meets Mythbusters right in this moment.

Leslie Zane  58:06

Alright, just one more, one more. Um, so the last one I’ll do is that we have been taught as marketers, and you’re taught this, when you become an assistant brand manager at P&G and it was you’re taught this at Harvard Business School also. And I know because I went I was at both places, they teach you that you can only stand for one thing as a brand. Stakeout your territory and stand for one thing. So if your Volvo equals safety, if you’re Tropicana equal, you know stand for freshness. But I just told you that the way the brand connectome works is that you need to have a tree, you can’t just have one branch, if you have one branch, you are literally going to be invisible in the brain, you’re going to have no salience at all. And so the the new rule is, the more associations your brand has, the better. And that fly’s completely in the face of what we have been taught as marketers.

Erica Barnhart  59:09

So I wonder if there is a because that does find, and of course, Volvo and safety is such a great example. You know, when I’m working with clients and teaching, I think about mental file folders, and we talk a lot about mental file folders, right? Because our brains are, there’s a reason that we have file folders, and there’s a big file folder, and then there’s sub file folders, right? And so I really encourage folks to think about like, what’s your big file folder? And then what are all the small file folders? So to continue with the tree metaphor, so like, what type of tree is it? And then what makes sense to go with the tree. So I think that’s what you’re saying that like, it’s not totally random. Like you’re not throwing, you know, Legos at your, at your tree and hoping it’ll grow. You’re actually very mindfully pruning and adding in a way that grows the same, like it’s still a tree, it’s not like all of a sudden you’re going something different.

Leslie Zane  1:00:04

100%, they still need to be related. There’s an overarching brand narrative, there’s an overarching brand purpose, there’s an overarching brand benefit, brand promise. But there needs to be multiple themes that are drivers. You know, even even in the case of Volvo, you know, great, the Volvo stands for safety. But if it isn’t also advanced, and also innovative, and also comfortable, and also nice looking, you know, and attractive, it is not going to do very well, you can survive on one driver, most often, we’ve found that there’s multiple drivers that need to be used to build any business.

Erica Barnhart  1:00:47

Yeah, I mean, I feel like right now, in particular, as we again emerge from our COVID, cocoon, it, that’s a really important point to make. I mean, I guess I’m mindful of how overwhelmed our brains are, how overwhelmed all of our circuitry is we’re just super tired and depleted, our brains are. So now is really such a great time and opportunity to be having these conversations, we talk a lot on the show about, you know, for me, when I work with organizations, like I’m all about internal alignment first. So that you can have excellent external execution, like, if your internal alignment isn’t there, it will show like, you just you can’t, you can only hide that for so long. Also, also, if you don’t take advantage of I mean, your biggest marketing force is your staff. Right? And then, and then from there, from there, and from there. So I think this conversation is so I mean, it’s evergreen, but also so timely, for people who, who think about these and I know, a lot of folks who listen to this might not necessarily think of themselves as marketers, and yet, you know, marketing is a team sport. So regardless of your title, you’re probably doing some marketing by virtue of caring about, you know, the organization you’re working for, and with, we’ve covered a lot of territory, but your work covers a lot of territory. Anything else that you want to share with listeners that we haven’t, we haven’t talked about yet?

Leslie Zane  1:02:11

I would just say that, um, you know, my overall message to anybody who has a brand or a cause that they’re trying to build is that, you know, think about it as a brand. And every brand has untapped potential. Really, the sky’s the limit. And I will also say that people are forming new relationships at this time, during COVID. More than in any other time, probably in the recent past. 70% of people tried a new brand in 2020.

Erica Barnhart  1:02:42

Oh, wow, that is interesting.

Leslie Zane  1:02:42

That’s a lot.

Erica Barnhart  1:02:44

That’s a lot a lot.

Leslie Zane  1:02:45

That’s a lot. And it’s really times of major disruption that people create and look for new relationships. So this is a great time for the number eight brand to the come, the number six, or the number four to move up to number two, but watch out if you’re number one, because you can also move down. So I just want everybody to know that that really every brand really does have tremendous untapped potential. And you just need to build those positive associations and grow your tree.

Erica Barnhart  1:03:15

Well, and also, I feel like some of this is is internal work first, right is really letting go of this idea that we have a lot of control over our decision making, and our own lives and kind of like there’s this piece of kind of making peace with that, because it’s it that also flies in the face of how we’re trained to think about ourselves, our very rational selves. And of course, there’s a whole bunch of fun research or reading out there about the fact that we are we are predictably irrational. For sure. Yeah. So just an offering to listeners that are like, I don’t know that I can get there. You know, just think about it first internally, and then and then see how you might externalize it. Alright, I end every conversation with guests by asking the first question, which is about inspiration and motivation. When we look at the root of the word inspiration, it means to breathe in. And motivation means to take action. So we need both. So again, your work is so full, it is so rich. But I mentioned the experiment of both inspiration and motivation. What keeps you inspired to the work you do and what keeps you motivated?

Leslie Zane  1:04:20

Look, I think certainly during these times, what keeps me inspired is seeing all the amazing people that have put their work first, the essential workers have just been amazing. They they inspire me every single day. From a business standpoint, I think I probably get most both inspired and motivated by people who don’t allow anybody to say no to them. They just keep fighting and pushing and particularly, I guess I identify with people who are pushing a particular approach or cause that is maybe counterintuitive or, or different, or you know, not the conventional wisdom. And when those people make strides, it’s very, you know, it’s that’s very exciting to me. And that’s what keeps me motivated because I really do feel like I am championing a new way of thinking to make things better for people and easier, and make even, you know, small companies that don’t have large resources, be able to make great strides. So that’s that’s what motivates me, seeing people who have been able to make those strides in spite of all the odds.

Erica Barnhart  1:05:36

Love it. Thank you, Leslie, for your work and for taking time to share all of your insights today with the Marketing for Good community. And thank you listeners for continuing to find ways to make marketing a force for good in the world. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I hope that you got some practical tips and deep inspiration from what’s possible if we’re willing to allow ourselves to understand the degree to which our subconscious minds are really in charge and that that’s okay. That’s actually okay. Do good, be well, and I look very forward to catching up with you next time.


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?