Brain power

Interview with Vicky Bullen, CEO of Coley Porter Bell, looking at how her brand agency leverages neuroscience in the design process.

Appeared in New Design 113

Firstly some theory. Daniel Kahneman posited in his Nobel Prize winning book Thinking, Fast and Slow that we have two modes of thought: System One and System Two. System One is the ‘rapid response’ element of our brains that makes intuitive, instinctive decisions. System Two, meanwhile, is the more reflective, more logical part of the brain that rationalizes decisions.

Designers at strategic brand consultancy Coley Porter Bell (CPB) wondered how such an understanding of neuroscience might be applied in the brand arena. How might designers ensure they are appealing as much to System One as System Two? Or, as the agency’s snappy mantra puts it, create brand propositions that ‘convince the conscious and seduce the subconscious’.

Vicky Bullen 2

Vicky Bullen

Vicky Bullen, CPB CEO, explains that the agency has been using ‘visual planning’ as part of its process for a number of years. This technique involves moving beyond the words of a brief to think, instead, in images. A brief, for example, might contain the word ‘security’ – this might bring to mind an image of a baby in a mother’s arms or a padlocked safe; two rather different ideas. Visual thinking can thus help to translate briefs with more clarity and direction. To build on this extensive visual experience, Bullen and her team at CPB were interested in whether neuroscience might provide a formal framework for the agency’s thinking in this area.

“When you start to understand the System One and System Two brain you are able to put the science behind what many agencies and marketeers have known for a long time,” says Bullen. “We know that purely rational advertising is not enough – it needs to work both rationally and emotionally.”

There are a number of scenarios (a mixture of the anecdotal and scientific) that demonstrate the power of the System One (the instinctive brain). If, for example, you give a consumer a vanilla pudding with brown colouring they will likely tell you, before tasting, that it is chocolate. Interestingly, the System One response is so strong that even after testing many consumers will remain adamant that it is a chocolate pudding: System One is effectively overriding System Two.

Bullen shares another example from a consumer trial of face cream in the USA: “The organisers could not understand why the results in one state were so much better than in all the other states,” she says. “They looked into what they had actually given people and in one state they had run out of tall tubes so had given people a small pot. Because people associate a small pot with high-end cream they felt that the cream worked better.”

According to Bullen, creative agencies are inherently biased towards System Two as, by its nature, strategy is associated with clever thinking. It is almost left to chance that the designer is able to encode System One cues successfully into the finished product.

The fundamental question is whether agencies like Coley Porter Bell might leverage neuroscience to more deliberately design for different modes of thinking. “There are some rules of thumb for creating brand design that will seduce the subconscious and convince the conscious,” continues Bullen. “You can think about those rules as you evaluate and create brand design in order to be sure that you end up with something that will appeal to System One and System Two.”

Rule: Brands have to work as a signpost and an invitation

Case study: Morrisons own brand


Morrisons before

CPB worked with Morrisons to overhaul the supermarket’s own brand offering – a huge design task over thousands of individual touchpoints.

Whilst the existing Morrisons ‘Value’ range was working well as a signpost with its bright yellow packaging presenting a strong identity, it was not so successful in inviting customers in. Indeed, in some cases it was doing the opposite as consumers were somewhat embarrassed to have the range in their shopping basket.

“Value grocery shopping is the most rational category in the world,” explains Bullen. “Nevertheless, it is not enough to just appeal rationally, packaging has to invite people in and has to connect with System One.”


Morrisons after

The CPB redesign saw the bright yellow packaging replaced with colourful hand-drawn illustrations (unique to each product) against a white background. The name of the range was changed from ‘Value’ to ‘M-Savers’. “We helped consumers to understand that every single item in this range had been carefully thought about,” adds Bullen. “The range still works as a signpost, it is still incredibly clear that this is the value range, but we are inviting consumers in too.”

Rule: What fires together wires together

Case study: Nestle Azera

 Neuroscience research tells us that we learn by association. When we are growing up a parent will hold our hand to keep us safe as we cross the road. Now, if we see an image of two hands holding we know that the image is saying something about safety and security. To connect with both System One and System Two brands need to play to those associations.

CPB helped Nestle to launch its Azera range of ‘micro-ground’ instant coffee. Second-to-market in this space, Azera offers a premium instant coffee for in-home brewing.

Nescafe Azera Tin Carton & Sachet

Azera packaging

“We felt the product should target young coffee drinkers who are primarily out-of-home coffee drinkers and get them to drink coffee in-home,” says Bullen. “This was about the Starbucks generation. We very deliberately played to the associations that we felt would appeal to that generation. The pack design is reminiscent of the coffee machines you see in out-of-home coffee experiences: it’s got the silver background and badge detail. The product is still giving reassurance that this is a good quality in-home coffee through the brown colour, coffee bean image, the brand name and so forth. The brand works on both Systems to help people understand what it is all about.”

Rule: Use visual codes to connect to your consumer’s goals

Case study: Loyd Grossman cooking sauces

Loyd before

Loyd Grossman sauces before


Consumer goals can be broken down into six areas (see consumer wheel). Brands will tend to have an explicit goal at a category level, and an implicit goal at a brand level – matching design to these goals is important. CPB’s recent redesign of the labelling of Premier Food’s range of Loyd Grossman cooking sauces was informed by the need to get this connection right.


Loyd Grossman sauces after

“The brand positioning was all about vibrant flavours, which is really all about excitement,” argues Bullen. “However, the design as it stood was much more about codes of security. The label featured Loyd Grossman’s face and was set out like a recipe book: all about control and managing the cookery experience. Consequently it was talking in visual language to one goal when actually its target audience is looking for something entirely different.”

Following visual planning, the CPB team created a new identity that is intended to communicate ‘enjoyment’ and ‘excitement’ more strongly than the previous identity.


CPB is using System One System Two thinking to inform its design and strategy process. There was a concern that people were not engaging the System One brain in devising strategy even though it was accepted that the output would need to both appeal to System One and be rationalized by System Two.

“Our view was that strategy was being developed and then people were crossing their fingers and hoping that the creative team would put the right codes in,” says Bullen. “By forcing ourselves and our clients to use visuals to create strategy we were ensuring that we were involving our System One brain in the creation of that strategy.”


Canoe detergent


In effect, the concept is not only to design with System One in mind but to incorporate a System One approach in the design process itself.

CPB worked on Canoe, a Nigerian detergent brand which its owners PZ Cussons wanted to compete more effectively with international brands in its native market. The brand’s existing identity was based around it being caring to clothes.

“We worked with them to define the brand,” continues Bullen. “We did all the things you would normally do but also got them to express their brand visually. As we started to explore we found a few things we felt were really interesting.”

The team noticed that Nigerian consumers enjoying showing off their clothes, particularly colourful Sunday best outfits made from a traditional material called ankara. Whilst the standard test for detergents is how well they wash whites, in Nigeria, because ankara is so culturally significant, protecting colours in the fabric is a more resonant test.

“We got the client to articulate what they felt the brand was about,” adds Bullen. “They said it was not so much about being a gentle laundry expert but having colours alive with pride and that colours should last for life. This changed the whole strategy of talking about the brand – scientists were replaced by fashion designers. The result was a strategy that was more differentiated, richer, more emotive, and more able to deliver fantastic creative work. If you’re going to really build a brand, you need to build in System One cues from outset.”

“Design needs to make intellectual sense as well as intuitive sense and have System One and System Two working in harmony,” concludes Bullen. “We spend an awful lot of time understanding our brands intellectually. We need to put as much effort into understanding a brand’s visual DNA.”