What is in a Brand Name which Appeals to the Brain?

Psychiatry and Psychology CategoryWhy do we shop? Most often, it is because we need something. Sometimes, it is simply because we see something we like and can’t resist buying it. Why do we select one product or service over another that is similar? Depending on the product, it may be because our brain likes the color or smell, the size or shape, the taste or feel. In some instances, price is a factor. But more often than not, our brain makes selections based on recognition of familiar brand names. The Nuancing Group says,”Branding is what transforms the ubiquitous into the coveted, the familiar to the specialized, the mundane to the magical.”

AquafinaBrands matter to the human brain far more than we realize — even when it comes to something as mundane as water. Water is the most freely available commodity. Somebody came up with the bright idea of bottling it, pasting a label on it, creating an image around it and charging premium prices. Tap water in Johannesburg, for instance, is safe beyond question. But the market for branded water in bottles in Johannesburg is buoyant. And consumers go for their favorite brands. In fact, Aquafina, Pepsi’s main water brand, grew by 56%, while Desanim, Coca-Cola’s main water brand, grew by 189% last year. The attraction is not that the water is “safe to drink,” but that it is “branded.”

A brand is not just a name; it is an emotional promise — a promise of prospective or potential benefits for the customer, which appeals instantly to amygdala of the human brain. For example, over the years, Coca Cola has often used these tag lines: “Refreshing” and “Get a Coke and a smile.” What is Coke’s brand? It’s their emotional promise which appeals to the human brain that you will enjoy a great soft drink each and every time.

When people go out to make a purchase, they are influenced by a myriad of complex factors, which include psychological, emotional, socio-economic, cultural and personal perspectives. These factors never operate in isolation. Let us analyze here from a psychological perspective, the reasons why branded products appeal to the human brain.

In 1951, US advertising educator Dr. Charles Sandage wrote, “We live in an economy which is dependent upon the psychological needs and wants of the consumer.” This still holds true today. What motivates the human brain to purchase a product at a given time? Such motivation is most likely to arise out of a need or desire of some kind. In this context, I would like to discuss briefly a theory which provides a valuable insight to understand the driving forces behind the human brain.

In his research published in the journal Psychological Review, Abraham Maslow explains in detail his theory on hierarchy of needs according to which the human brain seeks to fulfill a set of needs, which occur in a predetermined hierarchy of importance.  Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs based on two groupings: deficiency needs and growth needs. Within the deficiency needs, each lower need must be met before moving to the next higher level. Once each of these needs has been satisfied, if at some future time a deficiency is detected, the individual will act to remove the deficiency. The first four deficiency needs are:

  • Physiological needs — the need for satisfaction of hunger, thirst, and basic bodily functions.
  • Safety needs — the need to provide shelter and protection for the body and to maintain a comfortable existence.
  • Love and belonging needs — the need for affiliation and affection, be accepted.
  • Esteem needs — the need for recognition, status and prestige, desire for self-respect.

Next come the growth needs. An individual is ready to act upon the growth needs if and only if the deficiency needs are met. These growth needs in the hierarchical order of importance are:

  • Cognitive needs — desire for knowledge and understanding.
  • Aesthetic needs — desire for symmetry, order, and beauty.
  • Self-actualization — the need to find self-fulfillment, self-growth and realize one’s potential.
  • Transcendence — the need to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

This theory suggests that the human brain turns to products or services to satisfy many of their needs. Companies are using advertising appeals or slogans that activate these needs, to influence and persuade the human brain to go for their brand names. Let us understand this further with an example of E-Mom First-Aid Kits. If we analyze the E-Mom’s advertisements carefully, we will be amazed to see how deftly they have been crafted for maximum appeal to the human brain. The ad says,

Improve yourself and your safety with E-Mom. Get advice specialized just for you and nobody else. Mothers who love their children provide them with the very best safety. Because you never know what may happen next and when it does happen, will you be prepared? You can’t place a price on your health and well being.

Now applying the Maslow’s theory, it is easy to see that the tag line “You can’t place a price on your health and well being” confirms to the basic physiological needs of the targeted human brain. The line “Because you never know what may happen next and when it does happen, will you be prepared?” addresses the security need. The sentence “Mothers who love their children provide them with the very best safety” appeals to Love and Belonging needs. “Get advice specialized just for you and nobody else” confirms to the need for recognition and self-esteem. And, lastly “Improve yourself and your safety with E-Mom” relates to the need for self-actualization as it speaks about the need for self-growth and improvement. After hearing these advertisement lines, the human brain would prefer to go for E-Mom’s First-Aid Kit rather than a generic or local-labeled kit. Such lines make a powerful appeal to the human brain.


Maslow AH. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Maslow AH (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation Psychological Review, 50, 370-396

Simi Agarwal, DDS

Simi Agarwal, DDS, is a dental surgeon and published medical writer from the University of Pune, Medical & Dental College and Hospital. She is certified by the General Dental Council, London and is a member of the Indian Medical (Dental) Association. She has been a regular contributor to several medical websites and blogs.
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