The battle for business growth does not take place on the internet or on store shelves. Rather, it takes place in the subconscious mind of prospective customers, whose purchasing decisions are more malleable than many brand leaders realize, write Michael Platt and Leslie Zane in this opinion piece. Zane is the founder of Triggers, a growth strategy company that has helped Fortune 500 firms with brand-building initiatives for 24 years. Platt is a professor of marketing, psychology and neuroscience at Wharton. He leads the school’s Neuroscience Initiative.

When Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin launched his now famous YouTube video in 2012, no one imagined that it would cause earth-shaking tremors under razor behemoth Gillette. But it did. The tongue-in-cheek style video explaining the Club’s many virtues had a seismic effect. The day it was released, the brand’s website crashed from huge traffic. Within 48 hours, 12,000 orders were received. A few years later, Unilever bought the Club for $1 billion.

Most analyses of the Dollar Shave Club’s success conclude that it accomplished this feat because of millennials’ obsession with direct delivery, the founder’s comedic flair, or its bargain basement prices. We say it was something much deeper. In fact, Dollar Shave Club rose to prominence because it employed the formula we have discovered to be the key to changing subconscious brand preference: the expansion of a brand’s positive associations in customers’ memories to the point that it becomes an automatic, involuntary choice.

While some marketers have called this startup’s success an anomaly, we have found that the opposite is true. Every brand, whether a startup or an established household name, has untapped growth potential and the ability to become the automatic choice of more consumers.

The implications are vast, unseating many sacred cows that marketers have relied on for decades. First and foremost, it means that the battle for business growth does not take place on the internet or on store shelves. Rather, it takes place in the subconscious mind of prospective customers. And their purchasing decisions are much more malleable and easily influenced than many brand leaders realize.

Ecosystem of Associations

In their groundbreaking book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout argue that brands are monolithic in the mind, with each standing for only one immovable concept. “It’s difficult enough to link one concept with each product. It’s almost impossible with two or three or more concepts,” they write. “The most difficult part of positioning is selecting that one specific concept to hang your hat on. Yet you must, if you want to cut through the prospect’s wall of indifference.”

Trout and Ries were correct that brands exist in consumers’ memories. But they were wrong about the limitation. In fact, every brand has a host of interconnected associations — an ecosystem of multi-dimensional, accumulated memories that dictate which brand you instinctively favor and buy most often. The more positive associations your brand has, the healthier it is and the greater its growth. So, a dogmatic pursuit of a single brand concept may be detrimental to success.

“Every brand … has untapped growth potential and the ability to become the automatic choice of more consumers.”

The biggest key to the Dollar Shave Club’s success was not that it communicated a single-minded idea, but rather that it rapidly stood for many, including good value, high quality, practicality, direct delivery, job creation, and an understanding of what you need (and what you don’t).

The Brand ‘Connectome’

Brands that dominate and are growing in their categories are bursting with a myriad of positive associations. To envision what this constellation of brand associations looks like, it’s helpful to learn about the human connectome, or a “complete map of the neural connections in a brain,” according to the Brain Preservation Foundation.

The Human Connectome Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is giving scientists a new way to “navigate” the brain and explore how decisions are made. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine have introduced a new brain mapping model based on the project.

We have discovered that within the complete human connectome, every brand has its own mini-network of associations composed of every memory a customer has of the brand. These accumulated memories, both positive and negative, form what we call the Brand Connectome.  Think of the brand as a tree planting its roots in customers’ subconscious. As the brand grows, it adds more associations and more branches to hold them. And as the branches take root in our memories, the tree spans more of the brain’s terrain.

Back in 2002, psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking theory that the human mind has shortcuts, or heuristics, that overtake the rational decision-making process. Now, we have found that what lies within this shortcut is a dynamic network of associations and memories. Every brand has one. The brand with the more robust sphere and more positive associations is your “go-to” brand — the one you buy instinctively.

This network of associations is remarkably consistent among consumers. Brain imaging studies show that convergence of positive thoughts among subjects is a strong predictor of business growth.

For example, among users of Secret antiperspirant, the Secret Brand Connectome is practically identical. It is filled with mostly positive associations such as being hard-working, clinically effective, an integral part of my life, something I used as a teenage girl, for powerful women and a marker of achievement. There is a convergence of very particular, positive themes, imagery and symbols in virtually every Secret user’s memories.

In contrast, among users of competitive antiperspirants, the Secret Brand Connectome is weighed down by several negative associations: harsh, made with chemicals, leaves white marks on clothing, makes the underarm skin burn after shaving. That means the Brand Connectome for Secret among users of competing products is also convergent, albeit in a more negative way.

The more similar and positive a Brand Connectome is among customers, the more likely they are to recall it — a key component of brand equity and major driver of purchases. In fact, a robust Brand Connectome filled with positive memories is actually the source of what is often referred to as the “emotional connection” to a brand.

“Businesses must create universal brand messages that will build positive associations in the minds of non-users.”

Michael Platt’s brain imaging research shows that brands that create strong, positive emotional connections with their customers generate feelings of empathy and personal identity in the brain. This difference predicts stronger loyalty and less churn. Businesses that fail to build these connections face a higher likelihood of brand switching. Stronger personal identity with a brand also leads customers to share more information about the brand, making it go viral.

To capitalize on this information, businesses must create universal brand messages that will build positive associations in the minds of non-users. This is much more productive — and much more economical — than trying to create a different story for every customer. If each individual receives a different message, each will ultimately have different associations with the brand. What gives Facebook, IBM, Instagram and Apple their value is the set of similar associations that billions of people have with these companies.

In fact, we would go so far as to assert that current efforts by AI and automated marketing software companies to customize brand messages down to the individual level could be counterproductive. Taken too far, they risk damaging brands and preventing them from prospering. After all, a brand is a collection of similar associations in the minds of prospective customers. If a brand starts to mean something completely different to each customer, it stops being a brand.

To be clear, we fully believe that obtaining individualized information about where and when consumers shop is useful.  And giving consumers tactical messages tailored to particular interests (e.g., lunchbox ideas for moms, doggie treats for pet lovers, etc.) is good business practice. But, those consumers must still be sent the same core messages about the brand itself.

Share Of Mind

No matter where they fall in any demographic, customers choose the brand with the more robust, developed connectome in their minds over and over, without knowing why. Elevated by their abundance of positive accumulated associations, these brands rise to dominance and salience in our minds. We reach for them instinctively, whether on the shelf or on Amazon.

This finding gives all new meaning to the term “share of mind.” What was once a figurative term describing the amount of influence a brand had on its customers is now a scientific imperative indicating that leaders must continually nurture and grow their ecosystem of associations. If they fail to do so, new companies will take root and displace their brands. To become the brand a prospective customer favors, your Brand Connectome must be larger and more positive than that of your competitors.

“If a brand starts to mean something completely different to each customer, it stops being a brand.”

How does this growth in the Brand Connectome happen? Brain imaging studies show that, as customers learn new positive information about a brand, the brain’s memory structure expands. We call this brain branching.” Like a tree receiving nourishment, the brain sprouts new memories about the brand and pathways to hold those memories. But watch out, because this is true for both positive and negative information. In fact, negative information is often more powerful, damaging the ecosystem and reducing brand value.

One could say that business leaders have been looking for growth in the wrong places.  If you want to grow in the market, you must first grow your brand in positive ways in prospects’ subconscious minds. The strategic call to arms for brands is clear: Grow your network of positive associations — or wither and die.

We can now examine Dollar Shave Club’s rapid success in a different light. Its launch video created scores of positive associations practically overnight. Its Brand Connectome took root in consumers’ memories and “branched out” with a multitude of new pathways, overtaking traditional razor companies. Hyper growth of the Club’s Brand Connectome in turn created accelerated revenue growth.

You don’t have to be Dollar Shave Club to obtain disruptive growth. Every brand, at any stage of the life cycle (e.g., launch, maturity or decline) has untapped growth potential. That’s because, just like the human brain, all Brand Connectomes are remarkably dynamic, constantly learning and changing. As long as the human brain has the ability to learn, any brand network can branch out to become a prospect’s go-to choice, changing the trajectory of a business.

Three Imperatives of Business Growth

Three principles can help you manage your brand’s network of associations and accelerate top-line sales growth for any business:

  • Replace negative associations with positive ones. To grow your Brand Connectome in the mind of your growth target, eliminate your brand’s negative associations. Do this by building your message around positive associations, rather than trying to explain away the negative ones. The key is to replace the negatives — supplant them — with positives.
  • Develop marketing communication that create multiple rich associations, not single ideas. Contrary to popular belief, the best communications have an overarching umbrella message comprised of multiple themes underneath. If your advertising boils down to just one thing, you might end up with a fairly barren brand network.
  • Segment Your Media, Not Your Message. Target segmentation is useful for learning how to reach prospects, but it should not be used to slice and dice your brand’s messaging. Keep your communications consistent and universal. This will help bring in new users and build a brand community that shares emotional and cognitive connections with your company.

Every story of exceptional business growth, every company that seems to get on the map overnight, and every switch in brand preference can be traced back to the ascendance of the Brand Connectome in buyers’ minds. In fact, many business concepts popularized in the past 30 years can be linked back to growth of this network of associations.

For example, we can now look at Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point” through a new lens. The moment a business “tips” is the moment at which its connectome branches out sufficiently in people’s minds to overtake competitors. Or take Fred Reichheld’s Net Promoter Score. While NPS is an interesting metric of customer loyalty, the Brand Connectome that lies beneath it reveals the true root of that loyalty.

No business is stuck with the revenue level it is at today. Every brand has hidden growth potential because its network of associations and memories has endless ability to keep growing. This means that virtually any new prospect can be won over and turned into a die-hard customer.

In short, the key to accelerating penetration and top-line growth doesn’t lie in your marketing plan or your budget. It lies in the subconscious mind of your prospects. And you have much more power over that growth than you think.