In 2008, the Journal of Consumer Research published the results of a study involving a few big, well-known brands. In the study’s experiment, researchers subliminally exposed participants to the Apple logo—a brand that, thanks to decades of effective marketing, is a synonym for creativity. Researchers exposed others to the IBM logo—a more reasoned, intellectual brand. When asked to perform a series of exercises (such as thinking up as many possible uses for a brick) participants exposed to the Apple brand behaved more creatively. 

The researchers repeated the experiment, this time pitting the Disney Channel against the E! Channel. In subsequent tasks, participants exposed to Disney—that principled, family-friendly brand—behaved more honestly. (For example, they admitted to more tiny transgressions, like malingering.) It appeared that priming people with these brands elicited “automatic effects on behavior.”

This vein of research—fascinating, but not altogether surprising—gives marketers better ammunition to argue what we’ve observed for a very long time: that brands are powerful instruments of influence. We modify our behaviors according to the mostly unnoticed but indelible imprint of brands. As the marketing professor Jonathan Schroeder commented, they “constantly develop prescriptive models for the way we talk, the way we think, and the way we behave.”

Acknowledging that brands so profoundly influence our behaviors is a bit like admitting you enjoy staring at your own reflection—an evident truth, but something you might not say out loud. (In surveys, most people—probably you included—claim that they are “mostly unaffected” by brands.) So it’s unsurprising that we tend to diminish their perceived importance—or, in some cases, dismiss them as altogether frivolous.

This seems especially true in the social sector. “The term ‘brand’ is a bit dirty in this space,” explained a colleague of mine who runs a social enterprise. “Folks get nervous that we’re spending money superficially.” Insofar as it’s true, that outlook is unfortunate. With the swelling number of social impact organizations bringing vital products and services to market, brands are tools to drive impact. Trying to increase adoption of solar lanterns? Decrease open defecation? Broaden immunization coverage? Sell more disinfectant soap? Brands should be in the social sector—as they have long been in the private sector—a strategic asset to achieve preferred outcomes.

That’s because brands do a good job of guiding behavior. They emerged as behavioral devices to make decision-making and action-taking less cognitively strenuous for consumers. We make most decisions in contexts where time is scarce and information is incomplete. Making a truly informed choice every time we buy cereal would be paralyzing; relying on certain heuristics instead (“this brand seems popular”) is much easier. In short, brands are shortcuts, and our brains love shortcuts. 

My team at Populist, a nonprofit marketing group, recently worked with a hygienic toilet franchise in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The franchise, branded “Fresh Life,” boasts unexpectedly clean facilities (especially when compared to the alternatives). The toilet operators are friendly. The structure is private and secure. Some of them smell of Pine Sol. The colors—bright blue and yellow—are easily recognizable. These elements, wrapped up together, become the brand: a set of stored associations in the brain. 

Thanks to advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, we have a much better sense now of what’s really going on. We find brands nestled in the bilateral hippocampus, where we archive affective memories, and activated in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, where memories work to moderate behavior. Strong brands are easily retrievable, or “mentally available,” especially in distracting environments. So when a Nairobi resident is walking to work through a bustling slum, her brain pulls on this information to make a quick, painless decision: Choose “Fresh Life” instead of the pit latrine. The brand aids easy cognition.

And so marketers obsess over brands for good reason: Because we can manipulate this information. We can tweak important experiences; create ingrained impressions with advertising; imbue associative sensory and semantic cues; and design distinctive assets with color, language and shapes. We can pull a lot of levers to build and refresh the memory structures that ensure brands are mentally available and easily retrieved. In a Nairobi slum, a strong, salient brand can translate to more people using hygienic facilities and fewer falling ill from poor sanitation.

Brands also influence how we much we pay for a product, the ways in which we talk about it—even how we actually experience it. Let’s say I give you two identical servings of soda. One is in a plain cup, and the other in a Coke bottle. Which do you like better? (You don’t know they’re identical.) You might tell me they’re about the same. But neuroimaging would tell a different story: If you’re like most of us, your brain derived more pleasure from the soda in the Coke bottle, simply because you knew it was Coke. The brand biased how you experienced the drink. Researchers at Princeton ran a comparable experiment using Coke and found that sensory information like taste “plays only a part in determining people’s behavior.” The meaning imbued in the Coke brand itself, when used to prime participants, was far more influential in firing up neural pathways that biased people’s preferences. 

Companies often use these biases to exploit and manipulate, like giving us permission to pay exorbitantly for a cup of coffee. Our brains ask us to pay for a brand, not just a product. That power—like commanding a price premium—can be a good thing. For example, when the price of Protector Plus, a condom brand from Population Services International (PSI), increased by 100 percent after Zimbabwe dollarized its economy, some users were willing to pay even more than the increased price. The same wasn’t true for other, “weaker” brands. That meant, despite a collapsing economy, PSI could still instigate condom use thanks to a resilient brand. As one study found, brand equity in Zimbabwe appeared to be a far greater determinant of condom use than price.

Evidence like this is common (and not new). Still, it makes some uncomfortable. The observation that brands so acutely shape our experiences and guide our behaviors sits uneasily. This is probably because it appears out of our control. (Am I, too, being manipulated by Coke?) But brands are not so mysterious, and they can be put to very good use. So what if—as many are already demonstrating—we could leverage a brand to change outcomes positively? To prime positive decision-making? To more effectively impact the people we’ve set out to serve?

This is an old idea but a still-underexplored one. Social sector brands are more than logos on annual reports; they are mechanisms to influence end-users. We turn to brands for behavioral guidance. As the social sector innovates, increasingly transforming itself into a manufacturer, distributor, and marketer of critical goods and services, leaving the brand discussion on the sidelines only disserves its missions of impact.

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