Brand attraction: Does your brand have an awesome but?

Could an awesome ‘but’ be the secret to creating brand attraction? Let’s find out.

Consumers don’t care about your brand’s terrific features. Most of them wouldn’t notice if you evaporated into the ether.

There’s more than sensory overload at work here. It has to do with the way our brains are wired.

As Oren Klaff writes in Pitch Anything, our lizard brain – the primitive one we started with – is our most trusted gatekeeper. And it’s programmed to respond to every stimulus in one of three ways:

  1. Should I run from it?
  2. Should I kill and eat it?
  3. Should I try to mate with it?

If the first glance of your brand doesn’t frighten consumers off, make them hungry or turn them on, the lizard brain instructs them to simply ignore you and move on.

So how do you get the lizard brain’s attention, and potentially even get your message passed along to the more sophisticated neocortex, where your scintillating persuasion can have its day in court?

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You need to create tension, and attraction.

Brand attraction and tension

If you’re in advertising, you were schooled in creating brand attraction. Bright colours, chiselled abs, catchy jingles and clever turns of a phrase are your stock in trade.

But brand attraction alone isn’t enough. We’ve all seen enough beautiful people in ads. The attraction wears thin after a few seconds.

What’s needed to hold the lizard brain is something novel that just doesn’t seem right, a source of tension and discord.

(Oh, and while we’re talking about the essentials of brand communication, you might want to check out this post for more)

A fine balance

Tension is tricky. Too much, and it triggers fear in the lizard brain. Too little, and the lizard brain tells the consumer to move along, nothing to see here.

In simple english, you need to create a ‘it’s this…but it’s also that.’

Here’s how it works, when it’s working perfectly. The consumer is attracted to your brand, because it somehow stands out from the crowd in a non-threatening way. She zooms in to take a closer look. At that point, she notices that something isn’t quite right. Not in a ‘bear-trap-under-the-leaves’ way, but in a ‘I’ve never seen these two attributes combined before’ way. Not threatening, but intriguing.

Her lizard brain then does something miraculous. Having vetted your message as safe but worth investigating, it passes you along to the neocortex, where your copy gets read, your offer gets considered, and perhaps you even get pulled off the shelf for a closer look.

So how do you get to that kind of tension? Truth is, most brands worth buying already have it. You just need to look a bit.

High octane and better for the environment?

One of the first projects I worked on where we explicitly triggered tension in every ad was for Sunoco Ultra 94. This fuel combined high octane (for better engine performance) with ethanol (for less pollution). Those two attributes simply didn’t belong together.

Combined with a highly attractive bright yellow license plate ad format, the messages resonated extremely well with consumers. Sales went up on a shoestring ad budget. There was a bonus for the teams working on Sunoco messages – it was easy to find ways to express tension. We had no problem coming up with hundreds of ads that reiterated the juxtaposition between high octane and low emissions.

The tension doesn’t need to be in the product to work, either. I just completed a project where our brand united engineers with managers – two groups who see eye-to-eye on very little. This is the classic ‘You got peanut butter on my chocolate / You got chocolate in my peanut butter’ tension – one that creates harmony between conflicting worldviews.

(Of course, none of this is effective if you don’t start with solid insights into your consumer and competitors. Here’s how you tick that box)

Take a look at your brand. Chances are, it was the result of two products blended together in a new way (conditioning shampoo), two benefits that didn’t previously co-exist (luxurious, yet affordable clothing), two worlds combined (mixed martial arts). It’s worth digging for.

It’s gotta pay

I mentioned before that the lizard brain doesn’t have much patience. It also doesn’t handle nuance terribly well.

That means your tension has to be real. Your Miller Lite actually does have to taste great and be less filling.

If it isn’t, the neocortex will instruct the lizard brain to simply ignore any further entreaties by your brand. You’ll be thrown out of the kingdom forever. Or until your brand creates a new device for brand attraction / tension that overrides the lizard brain’s wariness. Not an easy task.

Did you learn a lot about brand attraction in this post?

Here are three more posts to read next:

This post was first published in 2017, but it was updated in 2021 just for you.

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