Attention is huge. It’s embedded in everything from evolution to cultural and societal understanding. In marketing and communications, attention has been getting a lot of…well…attention. More recently, this has been focused on the ‘attention economy’ – how we measure effectiveness, how media planning and buying might develop with attention as a key currency. A great read, as an example, is Karen Nelson-Field’s The Attention Economy and How Media Works – Simple Truths for Marketers.
Here, I’ll concentrate more on different kinds of attention, and how different aspects of self and experience can affect how our brain pays attention.
Attention builds memory structures for brands
Why is attention important? For brands, it is fundamental for growth and effectiveness. Attention is important not just to get a brand talked about, or even to get noticed. It’s attention to get remembered – to build the all-important mental availability – often in the simplest encodings possible, built on distinctive assets.
“Coca-Cola = red” is a classic example.
Attention builds memories in two ways. First, by paying attention, the brain concentrates its awareness on fewer stimuli, while ignoring others (which then become distractions). This is what helps the brain choose what to memorize and what is either unnecessary or unimportant. When it comes to branding and advertising, our brain has to use attention to encode the memory for the brand, not just encode it generally. This is the difference between being memorable and being memorable for your brand.
Starting micro: how prior brand usage can affect attention
The 2020 study “Moderating Effects of prior brand usage on visual attention” (Simmonds et al., Journal Of Business Research, March 2020) examined what, if any, effect prior brand usage had on visual attention. The findings are crucial: Users and non-/light users of a brand paid similar levels of visual attention to its advertising, but the effect of that attention differed. Where light or non-users gave more visual attention, they had better recall than those more literally ‘used’ to the brand.
Brainy Design: How the Unconscious Mind Responds to Product Packaging
For light and non-users, this means visual attention plays a key role in effectiveness and must be linked to clear and consistent branding. It’s about building memories on fast-forward – almost fooling the brain into believing it already has a memory, when in fact it’s just paying attention.
The implications for regular and heavy users are even more interesting. Given that we know that a ‘heavy’ buyer or user can still be infrequent (see Sharp’s How Brands Grow) and that brand consideration – and so brand memories – decay at speed (Mediacom Business Science Modelling), how can we harness visual attention to refresh or top-up the user’s brand memory? This needs to be done in ways familiar enough that they will be encoded correctly for the brand, but different enough to let the brain know to ignore other stimuli. There’s also the challenge of how to give users news, and again, have that news encoded.
Using attention to encode experiences is also key
Behavioral science and, in particular, the work of Daniel Kahneman and his co-researchers, includes the study of the parts of an experience to which we pay particular attention. The ‘peak-end’ rule shows that our brains upweight the end of any experience and its emotive peak – whether the emotion was positive or negative (for a general intro, see What is Peak-End Theory).
The way our subconscious attention – antennae up, but without our knowledge – monitors experiences for this narrative arc means we can attribute strange things back to brands.
The Exploration of the Human Psyche: Jung’s Archetypes
A long time ago, my then agency ran a small experiment for an airline pitch. This involved monitoring pulse rate and feeling for ten people taking different domestic flights over a week. A by-product, yet fascinating, result was that the intense ‘peak’ was waiting in the cab line at the end of the journey. The brain then attributed this negative attention back to the airline brand each person had flown with, even though the airline had nothing to do with the cab line.
The ‘peak’ and the ‘end’ are the parts of the story our brain is designed to package. This shows we not only use visual and auditory attention but emotional and physiological attention too. Brands must concentrate not only on making every ‘end’ as good as it can possibly be, but must own that part of the story for the brand. If the peak was negative, which can be beyond a brand’s control, the end might be able to outweigh it.
Fractals: nature’s imprint on attention
“We are hard-wired to respond to particular fractals found in nature.” – Mandelbrot, 1975
The cover image is not CGI, it’s lava – fractals found in nature.
Attention is partly a survival mechanism as humans evolved. It’s how we find order in chaos, often at top speed. Nature has a particular design, called a fractal, that the human brain is biased to respond to. Fractals are endlessly repeating patterns found in clouds, leaves, and trees. These fractal patterns have been shown to calm us, and recent research shows that the way our eye takes an image in – our path around the page – is also fractal (for example, see Why Fractals Are So Soothing).
Even in fractals, attention is a very personal thing (Fractals in Art and Nature: Why do we like them?). The majority of people respond to a specific level of intensity in fractal patterns, again the range most often found in nature. However, there is a proportion of the population that always responds better either to greater contrast in the fractals (a sharpness) or a more gentle contrast, with rounded edges (softness). This inherent bias also affects visual attention and what the brain seeks out or stimuli it will upweight at the expense of other things.
Dissonance: Walking the Tightrope of Design Disruption
All this makes designing for a foundation of attention, with points of difference, even more key. Understanding pattern response, like fractals and peak-end rule, highlights the key role of dissonance – a more sudden, ‘look over here!’ breakage moment. Dissonance, if owned, can be a key tool in attention, especially if it is balanced with adherence to patterns our brains are more used to. It can also help account for different human brains and their different tastes in attention, whether that’s dependent on fractal response or prior brand usage. A great brand example is Guinness and their work turning the (inconvenient) time spent waiting for the perfect pint to pour, into a branded asset.
Harnessing the humanity in attention
We’re starting to understand how people are generally wired to pay attention, and the patterns and parts of experience they’ll pay attention to – and how these human traits can vary with personal experience or predisposition. This variance can be a difference in response to patterns, moments of dissonance, or even prior brand usage. Continuing to pay attention to ‘attention’, and the humanity in the science, is key to understanding brands and brand building.
Cover image source: Joel Filipe
Alison Tilling is the Chief Strategy Officer AUNZ for VMLY&R. She leads long-term strategy, creating a culture of effectiveness through work with deep human insight that achieves commercial or social marketing goals.
During her 17-year career, Ali worked across a range of categories from Government to retail, travel, financial services, and across brand, digital, and CX-based projects. An accredited qual researcher, she’s worked on the agency- and client-side in London, Europe, and AU-NZ.
Ali has been lucky enough to win a range of Effies and Jay Chiat awards for strategy. She is an industry mentor and occasional panelist on ABC’s Gruen.