Create a lizardproof brand

For most marketers, cutting through the noise with their brand message is a big concern. But even if your message gets to your audience, there’s no guarantee they’ll absorb it.

This speech, delivered to a group of financial professionals, describes how our ‘lizard brain’ blocks seemingly valuable messages. More important, it illustrates how to create messaging that is ‘lizardproof’.

If you’d like to listen in on the speech, click on the link below. If the transcript is more to your liking, you’ll find it below. Either way, enjoy!

The lizardproof brand speech transcript

Meet the lizard brain

Over the millennia, our brains, like our bodies, evolved. We started with a little nugget in our head – the so-called lizard brain. This little nugget had three simple priorities –  fight, flight, or mate – which made it the perfect tool for ensuring we survived, thrived, and propagated the species.  But the lizard brain wasn’t terribly interested in anything else. Complex concepts just put it to sleep.

Over the millennia, as our thought processes became more complex, our brain grew. But the lizard brain didn’t just get bigger. Like a sapling becoming a tree by adding rings of bark, our brain added sections.

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As this happened, you might think the original lizard brain would shrink and die.  In actual fact, the lizard brain is alive and well today, playing an extremely important role in our everyday life.

As our brains grew more complex, the primordial lizard brain didn’t die. It’s alive and well, and (among other things) driving our incessant smartphone compulsion.

The lizard brain has become the gatekeeper to all the other parts of the brain. No matter how complex a thought you as a professional want to convey to your clients, it has to pass through the keyhole of their lizard brain. Fight, flight or mate?

But the lizard brain is not just a gatekeeper. Since about 2009, it has found its happy place. Why? Because we, as a society, are living more blink-reaction lives than ever.

You want proof. Check your phone.

Our cellphone compulsion is 100% lizard brain. When your happiness, sadness, frustration, anxiety, and fear are dictated in 140 characters, a thumbs up / thumbs down or poop emoji, that is your lizard brain in a happy place. South of the border, they have a president who runs the country with a lizard brain.

Concepts like FOMO (fear of missing out), JOMO (joy of missing out), MOMO (mystery of missing out), the whole concept of missing out, that is the lizard brain. “Uh-oh, there’s food over there. I’m missing out. I have to get some. Uh-oh, my boss is gonna fire me. Uh oh, that person is attractive and they’re sending me a message – maybe they love me.” That is the lizard brain in a happy place.

South of the border, they have a president who runs the country with his lizard brain. Scary, but true.

The midbrain

Other parts of the brain evolved around the lizard brain. If an idea makes it past the gatekeeper, it gets shuffled along.

That does not mean, however, that complex ideas automatically get sent to the part of the brain most adept at dealing with them.  No, the next stop is the midbrain, which is in charge of social context.

The midbrain decides if the source of the information is to be trusted. Which, come to think of it, is also a very ancient concept. Before trusting the information someone was giving us, we first needed to determine if that person belonged to our tribe. That’s the midbrain in action. And the midbrain, like a lizard brain, is very active today.

The midbrain decides if the person giving us information belongs to our tribe and can be trusted. Think of the Apple tribe and our blind acceptance that everything from Cupertino is indeed good.

Case in point, Apple. Apple computers have roughly the same parts as any other computer. They do what other computers do. And yet, we will stand in line the night before in the rain for the latest Apple computer, and pay double. Is it because we’re idiots? Of course not. We’re part of the Apple tribe. And we trust and believe in Apple.

The neocortex

Finally, we come to the neocortex, the most evolved part of our brain. The neocortex is where abstract concepts get bounced around: religion, philosophy, politics and the most abstract concept of all – money.

The neocortex is where the most complex, abstract concept of all is bounced around – money.

It’s useful to bear in mind, especially as financial professionals, that just because people have a neocortex, that doesn’t mean you get to deal with the neocortex. Remember, you need to get your pitch past the lizard and midbrain first.

And the lizard is scared. Because math scares a great number of us.

The Hoover Institute did a study and found that 7% of U.S. students have above proficiency skills in mathematics. In Canada, it’s about 15%; somewhat higher, but still no great shakes. Students performing at proficiency in mathematics, meanwhile, stand at 32% in the U.S., and 42% in Canada. Still not great.

Just because everyone has a neocortex, doesn’t mean you get to deal with the neocortex with your complex proposition. Remember, you need to get past the lizard brain first.

What that means is, if you leap into a conversation about abstract concepts, chances are good your listener’s lizard is going to get upset. And you know what happens when the lizard gets upset? It shuts down.

And no, the lizard is not looking at you, saying, “Oh, thank goodness, here’s the financial services professional who’s going to make this complex concept easy.”  No, what the lizard does is look at you and go, “This guy is Bernie Madoff.  He’s going to use some sort of fancy words to swindle me out of money.”

Creating a lizardproof brand

How does this all apply to brands and marketers?

First off, I believe many of you are thinking you don’t need to talk about brands. You aren’t Procter & Gamble, Ford or McDonald’s.

Wrong. You are a brand. Kim Kardashian and Madonna discovered this long ago, but how you walk into a room, how you wear your hair, how you speak, what drink you drink says everything about you. And all those cues dictate whether your audience’s lizard brain is going to let you in or not.

You are a brand. Everything you wear, say or do speaks volumes about you to your audience. And remember, they’re judging you with their lizard brain.

Brands, like our brains, have evolved.

Information and expert brands

Back in the bad old days – the primordial 1940s and ’50s – marketers and brands predominantly played an informational and expert role in our society. Consider this famous ad for Rolls Royce from the 1950s. The ad says that at 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in the Rolls Royce comes from the ticking of the electric clock. A nice little nugget of information, followed by 13 other entertaining facts.

Or look at this ad for life insurance. The headline reads “How to get enough life insurance on a do-it-yourself budget.” This was the golden age of How To ads. How to wash that grey out of your hair, how to build a better shed, how to pick a BB gun. All full of helpful, albeit a bit biased, information.

The result? If marketers did an ad like this, somebody would read it and think, “My, what helpful people. I think I’m going to buy life insurance from State Farm.”

But all good things must pass. Technology intervened, in the form of commoditization. So if this ad worked particularly well and New York Life did a bang-up business in life insurance, somebody would rip them off in a heartbeat. Smart brands had to move beyond information and expertise in their communication.

Once sources of information and expertise, brands evolved into builders of emotional, sometimes irrational relationships. Case in point: Apple.

Relationship brands

They moved onto relationship marketing. Case in point? Apple computers, again. Apple marketers, over the course of 20 years, mastered the art of relationship marketing. They were masters of the midbrain, you might say. I’m a think different person. You’re a think different person. Apple is think different people. Bet we’re all going to get along just swell.

That’s the brand Apple built. And Apple cultivated relationships so strong that it could weather storms like sweatshops, the passing of Steve Jobs, and U2’s free download scandal.

Other brands built the same sort of relationships. Harley Davidson, the outlaw motorcycle.  Virgin with Richard Branson cultivated the fun mischievous brand. Patagonia and Yvon Chouinard did a great job. But you have to understand that these relationships were built over years, like a strong human relationship.

But once again, technology got in the way.

How? It’s extremely hard to build a deep relationship with a person in 140 characters. One of the fundamental complaints about social media is it leads to relationships that are broad and far-reaching, but not deep. They’re superficial. I may like you on Facebook but I’m not going to carry your sofa on moving day.

It’s difficult to build deep relationships on social media. I may like you on Facebook, but on moving day I won’t carry your sofa.

Trying to build relationships, especially using social media, often comes off as superficial and insincere. And the lizard can smell insincerity.

Brands of understanding

Of course, where technology creates a pitfall, it also opens up another path. That’s what I want to talk about now.

But a quick side note. How many of you have read The Trusted Advisor?  Yes, it’s all about becoming a trusted advisor, but you could easily talk about building a trusted brand the same way.

The author mentions four types of advisors. They correlate perfectly with the evolution of brands I’ve just described.

First, there are advisors who provide information. Customer asks advisor a utilitarian question, advisor provides utilitarian answer. If advisor sells a product, it’s a commodity, not a customized, offering.

Then, there’s the expert advisor. Same idea, harder question.

Move further up the ladder, and you have the relationship advisor. The advisor sells commodity products (or perhaps cosmetically different) but has cultivated a relationship with the customer, and has built trust.  Enter Apple, Harley Davidson, Virgin, Toyota, Patagonia.

The highest level of trust goes to brands that seek to understand consumers better than they understand themselves.

At the very highest level is the advisor who, above all, strives to understand the client better than the client understands themselves. This is where long relationships are built, and it’s where the money is.

How does that translate into brands? Let me give you some examples.

Care/Of Vitamins first came onto my radar about a year ago. Vitamins and supplements are a very messy category. You can’t tell the one vitamin from the other, prices are all over the map, and if they work at all, they work very slowly – there are no ‘miracle’ vitamins distinguishing themselves from the pack. What’s worse, the advice you get in vitamin stores is often confusing or contradictory.

Who do you trust?

Care/Of innovated a way around this. If you go to their website, the first thing you see is two red menu bars. Personalize and Get Started. Click on Get Started, and Care/Of leads you through an expertly designed, but disarmingly friendly questionnaire.

At the end of the questionnaire, you’ve given Care/Of data on your biology, your psychology, your goals, a real deep dive. And Care/of gives you insight into what sort of vitamins you need. Without asking anything in return – no strings attached.

By this time, you’ve developed trust in Care/of. Enough trust to pull out your credit card. You buy the vitamins. And what you receive are hyper-customized packs of vitamins that work for you and you alone. Every little pack has your name on it. Every day, you open a little pack and take your vitamins, knowing they were actually designed specifically for you.

It goes further than that. Care/Of keeps checking in with you, asking for more information to develop a deeper and deeper and deeper understanding of what you need. That’s the beauty of an understanding brand.

The understanding brand keeps checking back with you, developing a deeper and deeper understanding of who you are.

I like the understanding brand model. So much so that I borrowed the Care/Of model for one of my clients.

Proven is a skin care client that I work with. What’s interesting here is that the ladies who developed this brand were not skin care experts. They came out of Silicon Valley. They’re big data experts. Their specialty is gathering your data and crunching it in such a way that it provides value and insights.

Now let’s shift gears. Nortis Biotech grows human organ samples on chips about the size of a credit card.  Today, they grow tissue samples of human kidneys, livers, brains, lungs, enabling pharma companies to shrink the testing timeline involved in bringing new drugs to market.

But where this is going is hyper-customized personal healthcare. If you have a problem with your liver, they’ll be able to take a sample, a couple of cells, grow a little bit of your liver on the chip, then try different medications on it. After all, each of us is unique. Wouldn’t it be nice if our medications understood that?

So I’ve shown you a few examples. And yes, I’ll admit, they involve fairly complex math and science to pull off.

You don’t need complex math and science to create brands of understanding.

But you don’t need that to create a brand of understanding. Consider SmartSweets.

In their first year, SmartSweets got their naturally low sugar gummy bears into Whole Foods Canada, Bed Bath & Beyond, Popeyes. Now, they’re poised to get into Starbucks, and before long,  Whole Foods USA.

Tara Bosch, the company founder, is 22. And her talent is building tribes.

Tara’s chosen tool is Instagram. She has 80,000 people in her tribe and counting. When she says, “SmartSweets are now at this particular drugstore.” the shelves will be cleared within hours.” Vendors across North America are gobsmacked by this.

The magic in her social media efforts is, however, that she listens.  She logs on and writes  “Hey, what do you think we should do?” And people tell her, “We want vegan gummy bears. We want protein-only gummy bears. We don’t even want gummy bears. We want suckers and lollipops. We want gummy bears here, here, and here. We wanna buy online. We want etc etc.”

Tara’s relationship with her tribe is built on absorbing information and trying to understand her fans better than they understand themselves.

She’s a heartfelt listener. She’s is a trusted advisor to her tribe long before they become customers.

So there you go. That is how you build a brand of understanding. I believe it’s going to be the key if you hope to separate yourself in a market where information isn’t working, expertise isn’t working, relationships are having a harder and harder time working.

The key is trying to understand, deeply understand in a unique way what people are thinking, wanting, hoping for.

Do it properly, and you’ll sell. Why? Because you’ll be making your audience’s lizards happy. Thank you.

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