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What do you mean by 'minimize cognitive calories'?

Lindsay Says

The purpose of brand positioning is to make it easy for our audience to engage with our business.

Successful positioning removes friction between a customer not knowing our business and knowing our business, between not caring and caring.

The trick to removing that friction is enabling cognitive ease for the audience. The fewer cognitive calories we require of our audience, the more successful our business can be.

Brand strategy is a tool for creating this cognitive ease.

Engaging businesses work in concert with – rather than in opposition to – their audience’s cognitive machinery. They do this by making their brand specific and vivid.

Provide a cognitive handle via specificity

Behavioral economists find that we human beings more readily grasp, bond with, and remember specific things than we do general things. Specific things provide a cognitive handle.

When we hear a statistic about the frequency of death by drowning, we are likely appalled, but because it is non-specific, we are not spurred into action. In contrast, when we see a drowning victim and hear her cries as she struggles in the cold water, we feel an immediate need to act.

Our lack of engagement at the general level does not stem from our being bad, heartless people. Rather, it stems from our neural wiring needing a specific handle to grab. When your business’s promise is vague and general, your audience just does not have the machinery to grab hold. They lack a handle.

Vagueness is the enemy of cognitive engagement

In order to make your business resonate with your audience, get brave enough to eschew vagueness. Make your positioning specific.

Here’s a fun game. Think of brands you admire and synthesize their meaning into a word or phrase. Now ask a friend or colleague what word comes to mind with each of those brands.

Because these are strong brands, I bet you both thought of the same or similar words.

We can even try it here. If I say Patagonia, what words come to mind? Earth-minded, ethical, high-performance. If I say Trader Joe’s, there’s fun, tasty, and quirky. Those brands draw a sharp line around what they promise to their customers. They do not hedge. They are not hidden by being vague. They are vivid.

When your brand is vivid, it is easier for the customer to see you and bond with you, which makes it more likely they will grasp you, remember you, buy from you, and love you. Vividness enables the necessary cognitive handle for them to engage. This allows your business to feel salient and resonant.

Two ways to sharpen your brand’s cognitive handle:

1) Use contrast

A way to combat vagueness is to utilize contrast when painting a picture of your business. Just like one’s eye can see objects better when there is high contrast around that object, customers can see your business more clearly when there is high contrast between yours and others.

In choosing to be fun and quirky, Trader Joe’s trades off reliability, ubiquity, and convenience. Their parking lots are a bit of a pain. There is no home delivery. And I am no longer surprised when they are out of Joe’s O's.

But Trader Joe’s provides contrast, making it vivid and therefore cognitively easy for me to consider them and choose them. While I cannot distinguish Safeway from Kroger, Trader Joe’s is crystal clear to me. They did the hard and brave work of enabling a sharp cognitive handle, so I love Trader Joe’s and am a loyal customer.

Not coincidentally, Trader Joe’s is the most profitable supermarket chain in the industry. Whose P&L would you rather own? Vague Safeway or Vivid Trader Joe’s?

2) Remove things

Sometimes the best route to cognitive ease is to remove things, to simplify. John Maeda said in The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” Removing unremarkable things concentrates the remarkable thing about your business, allowing you to pop.

Think of some car brands whose position you instantly could articulate.

When I think of Prius, I think “eco-friendly.” In owning the position of eco-friendly, Prius is not a sexy sports car, or the safest car, or a big car for transporting large families. Prius removed everything but eco-friendly.

Volvo owns “safety.” Volvo does not have an eco-friendly car, or a sexy sports car, or a utility truck. Volvo removed all but safety.

Of course, Prius and Volvo still need to be good, high-functioning cars – this is table stakes for the Prius and Volvo prospective customer. But Prius and Volvo bring sharp emphasis to their most ownable promise. This offers a ready cognitive handle for their audiences.

Build trust

Being clear about who you are (and who you are not) breeds trust. Blurriness breeds mistrust. It weakens conviction among customers and employees, muddying your position and eroding your brand.

Explicitly choose what falls inside and what falls outside your brand. Do not make the audience infer the contrast. Do that cognitive work for them so that they do not have to. Minimize the cognitive calories you ask them to spend on you.

When your brand offers a crystal-clear cognitive handle, you are not only easier to engage with, but also easier to trust and love. Being brave allows your audience a cognitive handle, and it also makes your business more lovable.

Internal cognitive handle

Not only does brand vividness provide a cognitive handle for your customer audience, it also provides one for internal audiences. The more vivid your brand, the brighter the North Star for employees to reference as they grow your business.

When your North Star is vivid, then as you make decisions big and small, your decisions are clear and energizing, rather than fuzzy and draining. A vivid brand positioning makes it more easeful and more rewarding for those growing the business.

Your brand is a tool for creating cognitive ease. Brand can offer a cognitive handle for customers, and a North Star for employees.

When you define your brand, eschew vague language, as vagueness is the enemy of cognitive engagement. Be vivid. Be specific. To resonate, your business must be vivid.

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