The Physics of Brand: The Science Behind Memorable Brands

Editor’s Note: The following story is excerpted from Chapter 1 of The Physics of Brand by Aaron Keller, Renée Marino and Dan WallaceIn this new book, the authors use concepts of physics to describe how brands and people move through time and space, helping readers understand the forces behind the brands that matter.

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It’s Alive! Oh My, What Have I Done?

A Brand Is Born

The curious question, “When is a brand alive?” has been batted around by our triad for a while and was even sent out into the social media universe to the “marketing crowd.” Sadly, the report back is grim. Most people who have marketing, design, or creative in their title say a brand is only a brand when it reaches a certain size. Which leaves us with a dilemma: When is a brand a brand? When 10,000, 100,000, or 1,000,000 people have heard of it? Or is birth defined by revenue? And then how much revenue do you need to be a brand?

These empirical thresholds are without merit, as you can find small brands with 10,000-person audiences that are highly successful ventures. An example is contemporary artwork by Damien Hirst, who sells diamond-encrusted skulls and embalmed sharks for $10–90 million. If your
margins are high enough, a small brand can do just fine.

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The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst | Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

For revenue, consider when Facebook agreed to buy Instagram for $1 billion even though they had no revenue. What Instagram did have was a large, fast-growing community. What you discover if you’ve debated the birth of a brand is this fundamental fact: Moms know best.

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Ask Your Mom

She Knows Branding Best

Yeah, that’s right. You start a new venture in your garage—pardon the Silicon Valley stereotype here—and somewhere in the discussions you’ve come up with a name, registered a domain, and told your mom. She approved of the name and you’re off to the races.

As your first (slightly biased) audience member, your mom gives your brand life when you say, “Mom, our new business is called blopityboop and our Facebook page goes live tomorrow.” And she responds with a typical, “Okay sweetie, that’s nice, have fun.” Or maybe she asks what on earth you are thinking. Either way, when mom knows your brand exists, you have a brand.

Your government sees it a bit differently depending on the country where you’re starting. In the United States you’ll need to register the business with the state where you’ll have annual meetings and pay taxes—though don’t mistake this as a U.S. trademark. You’ll also want to register with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. When it comes to trademark, laws differ by country, but the idea is the same. Be sure to tell the federal government that you’d like to treat this as something you own and you’d like to set some reasonable intellectual property fences. If you’re not setting up an intellectual cattle ranch overlapping someone else’s ranch (naming your new brand after another brand in the same category), you should be good.

And for those of you who name brands, this is a gross simplification of the hardest creative task. No disrespect intended, just shortened for convenience.

The important piece is knowing your brand is alive much sooner than most think. And similar to raising a child, those early years are critical. You are a parent, and with this birth comes responsibility and opportunity.

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To Know Life, You Must Also Know Death

Is a Brand Dead?

Here’s where modern brand management gets creepy and interesting all at once. When does a brand actually die? For example, Enron is alive and well as a brand, but it is dead as a living corporation. Try purchasing the domain Enron.com, and it will come at a price far beyond free.

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For those who thought, “You have to have revenue to have a brand,” but saw that isn’t so, you might have guessed that it’s also not the case with the death of one. If we define a brand as something living in our collective memory, then brands die slowly. In our digital future a brand may never leave our collective consciousness, therefore never die.

This, of course, doesn’t stop the sideline commentators from making lists of brands that will die in the coming one, three, or five years. Don’t worry if you work for a brand on the list because, if the brand has enough international awareness to appear on the list, then death is a long way off. Currently some of the brands making the list include LivingSocial, the Tribune Media Company, JCPenney, BlackBerry, Sears, Quiznos, the WNBA, Red Lobster, Sony, and Volvo.

If you authentically understand a common definition of a brand, none of these brands will expire for at least a century. When it comes to a brand, life comes early and death may never happen. Brands and corporations are theoretically immortal.

This Is Your Brain on Brands

Brain Science

What do we know about the brain relative to brands and marketing? More importantly, what don’t we know? These are also two important boundaries for this discussion, because when we think we know everything, branding starts to seem as simple as flipping on a light switch.

Other times, the complexity is overwhelming and therefore impossible for an organization to learn and understand.

One of the most powerful computers in the world today, the Titan at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, consumes 8.2 megawatts of power. That’s 8.2 million watts of power filling over 4,300 square feet of physical space. The human brain occupies 1,130 cubic centimeters and uses 12 watts of power, about one-third of your refrigerator light bulb. Yes, the computers may win in the end, but today’s computers are only about as smart as a mouse.

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The Titan | Image from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and NVIDIA Corporation

How does the brain do so much more with so little? Shortcuts. One of the ways our brain works so efficiently is through what we call heuristics, which come from thousands of years of evolution and learning. Brands rely upon heuristic shortcuts in order to be valuable. We don’t need to use more of our 12 watts to process each decision if we know and trust the brand. Brands make our lives easier,
until they don’t.

If you’re the brand of choice, you own a majority share of the patterns in the brains of the most people and your mission is to keep the patterns in your favor. If you’re the up-and-coming brand, then breaking patterns or creating dissonance is your mission. You need to block off, reroute, or change the heuristics customers are using and then reroute them in your favor.

Attaching a $10 bill to the end of a stick to lead the customer to another shortcut is one way, but then you’re giving up margin and doing antibranding work. Finding a retail partner who will give preference (ideal shelf space) to your brand and perhaps drop it onto the cover of its weekly circular may cost less and deliver more pattern breakage. We can see our brains light up to images of puppies and babies. Of course, we don’t need an fMRI to know these images have emotional appeal. More important, we are learning about which parts of the brain control certain aspects of human behavior, memory, and sensory input. And this is where we need to resist the urge to take the leap toward predictive thoughts. Just because we can see inside our noggins doesn’t mean we can predict what dad will do when walking down the grocery aisle looking for the right bottle of laundry detergent. He is still an unpredictable beast and we need to respect that fact.


We are at a new frontier of rapid discoveries about the brain, on the scale of the human genome discoveries in the 1990s. fMRI brain scans and new bi g-data tools are allowing scientists to understand what parts of our brains work in response to what stimuli.


As we gain a greater grasp of our own brains, we will deepen our understanding of brands. Without memory, a brand does not exist, so it is important for the owner of a brand to develop an understanding of the history of how and when memories were created and in how many brains.

For example, Lance has five memorable moments of Miller Lite and Sam has ten. Lance’s memories include bike riding across Iowa and involve the color of the can and the taste and the feel of the cold brew after a long day on a bike. Sam’s memories are of his uncle fishing, which was not a pretty sight and is the primary reason why he now only consumes craft beer. These numbers would be a part of an archaeological dig into the formation of this brand’s memories, but we also need to understand sentiment and motivations that were a part of the memories.

If we can uncover sentiment, we can better understand Sam’s motivations for leaving the brand and perhaps bring him back. Brand owners are capturing data on memory, sentiment, and motivations at an exponential rate today. Combined with greater understanding of the inner workings of our brain, we may just yet put a blue can back in Sam’s beer koozie.

“Human Being” Into a “Consumer Doing”

Transfiguring People

As mentioned earlier, the U.S. government and industry cooperated to thwart economic recessions and compete with communism by moving from a producer society to consumer society after the Second World War. The United States started as a novice, but quickly became an expert at buying and consuming, and as a result, brands have become a religion of sorts. In the process, people have come to see themselves more as human doings than human beings. One thing is for sure: It’s been great for the storage industry.

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William McDonough’s “Treescraper,” the supposed office building of tomorrow

Countermovements push in new directions. Today, many activist groups are pushing to adjust our collective perspective on consumption. The environmental and minimalism movements are standing side by side with the design movement. When more time is spent on design, the solutions are likely to be more sustainable and elegant. Investing in systems design can reduce cost and waste while increasing customer utility and profits to the brand owner. Modern environmentalists like William McDonough come from the design world and offer a new model of a responsible consumer paired up nicely with responsible brands. While this is a mere garden hose feeding the ocean, the volume of awareness and interest is growing and likely to continue growing.

Read more in The Physics of Brand by Aaron Keller, Renée Marino and Dan Wallace, now available in MyDesignShop.

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