Tapping the unconscious

There are two basic processes that define and dictate human behaviour – conscious thinking and unconscious thoughts.

95% of our thoughts occur in the unconscious mind; even the rest 5% of conscious thoughts originate from unconscious processes. Several cognitive studies conducted during the 1970s and 1980s have confirmed it. So, we’re not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. Our unconscious mind is therefore the suppler of the two – offering a more intimate understanding of the human drives and the manifestation of these drives into behaviour.

Unconscious thoughts exist everywhere in our lives – for instance, a baby’s cry is moulded by the mothers’ intonations heard whilst still in the womb; touching, gazing, smelling and imitating help mothers know everything about their children even before exchanging a word; it’s the underlying sense of security that lets teenagers explore and take risks; while conversing, friends begin to replicate each other’s vocal patterns and body language; people take less than a tenth of a second to make judgements on trustworthiness, aggressiveness and likeability. Unconscious thoughts not only influence conscious thoughts but also determine human behaviour and character – they can be powerful predictors of how we think and react. If the conscious mind chooses what we buy, it’s the unconscious mind that decides what we like. Considering the importance of unconscious thoughts, how can brands tap this space?

The essential nature of thought involves processes of representation and is hence metaphorical in nature. Metaphors are representations that use one thing to describe another thing – we don’t see a house as bricks and cement, instead, as shelter, status, wealth, investment, safety or protection and so on. Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard Business School professor, and Lindsay Zaltman, director of research firm Olson Zaltman Associates, explain that people use metaphors as a viewing lens to shape how they see the world. In other words, our unconscious thoughts use metaphors to structure conscious thoughts.

People think from needs to products. Although these needs are plural within the unconscious space, they can be mapped by common metaphors that people use – such as the need to transform from one state to another, get on with life, or feel connected etc. While brands use such common representations to sell their products, often, they are unable to deeply impact whilst a need is still largely unconscious.

Each metaphor may involve themes such as social, psychological, physical and aesthetic, according to Zaltman & Zaltman. For instance, transformation as a metaphor can be dissected further into social transformation, psychological transformation, physical transformation and aesthetic transformation. Brands must understand how their chosen metaphors take shape in such themes; and then deliver relevant communication to individually address needs according to each theme. By doing so, they can achieve a deeper and more absolute consistency from the unconscious space, leading to the creation of brand-favourable conscious thoughts.

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