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Communication Strategies for Brands Competing for Attention

Communication Strategies for Brands Competing for Attention

Ben Jura

streaks of red and green digital lights

How to plant your brand message in consumers’ rapidly shifting attention span with memorable, honest and insightful communication.

Wait. What was I doing? Oh, that’s right.

Dennis Potter in Cold Lazarus wrote, “I’m a writer. I put words in other people’s mouths.” Well, as branding professionals, we have a similar apparent power—influence over the ideas that go into people’s heads and over which heads they reach. We move things around (literally and figuratively). We consider new combinations; new possibilities; new physical, psychological and metaphorical relationships. We order, organize, interpret, shape and communicate ideas, information and space—hopefully in a way that will add value to the people whose attention we are taking as well as those whose money is being spent.

Today, our attention span is spread so thin, and the competition for that attention is fierce. Marketers are trying to get people to process incredible amounts of information as quickly as possible, as to not risk losing their attention before the message is fully communicated. Layering of semiotic and semantic cues in addition to the combination of stimuli that engage all of the senses is the ideal, as well as to create a unique brand experience. But the more layers of information we include in our communications, the more careful we must be about how that content is aligned – and in considering the ways in which that content is processed. If not, our efforts to communicate may result in ‘Stroop effects,’ which greatly reduce a human’s ability to process content with speed, accuracy and retention—all vital factors in our efforts to put ideas into customers’ heads. After all, if we give customers the wrong idea or they don’t remember it, we have failed in our objective.


Simply put, a Stroop effect is the cognitive interference resulting in our inability to inhibit automatic processing of an attribute when there is an incongruous second stimulus. The famous example used to test this is a list of color words (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, etc.) written out in colors that do not match the word. When people are then asked to name the colors they see, the difference in their speed and accuracy between a control list where the colors and words match and this misaligned list, measures the extent to which they are unable to suppress the more automatic task of reading while trying to assess color content. This is a binding problem. We are simultaneously processing two sensory modalities related to concepts we understand—the color “green” and the word “red”—we can’t make them fit together, so our brains give the word more weight because if we are reading in our first language, we automate it without needing to think about what we are doing. The result is that we have a higher likelihood of saying the color is red because that is what the word communicated even when we are asked what the color communicates.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we might fall into the trap of setting a headline “This is Green” in a bright red color unless that dissonance was some part of the goal, but what about all of the visual semiotic cues that serve as much as direct stand-ins for concepts as words do? If we drew the iconic Coca-Cola bottle in green, would Coke still be linked to red in that instance? That’s probably a stretch, but when the concepts are more flexible than something like color (modernity vs. simplicity, for example) it might be easier to process cues incorrectly if there are conflicting stimuli.

This is potentially a significant problem, because our goal is to communicate a lot of information about a brand’s differentiating attributes quickly and if there is any misalignment between tone, words, the look, the feel, the associated smells or tastes or textures, we might not only be communicating more slowly, our customers might be walking away with the wrong impression entirely. For instance, most people process visual cues with more weight than tactile cues. This becomes an important point when developing new products where structure and graphics are both linked. If you develop a bottle that feels soft, flowing and supple, but is adorned with graphic language that communicates bold and sharp icy refreshment, the stronger take-away is likely going to be icy freshness (whether that is the correct manifestation of the brand strategy or not).

In brand development work, the more that these layers are in alignment, the more easily the concepts bind together perceptually as a singular thought or idea, and the more quickly and intuitively the stack of concepts can be understood. Considering the cultural significance of certain colors in different parts of the world will help develop relevant packaging for that group so that you won’t be saying green when they are reading red, for example. If you understand how a target segment thinks about masculinity and what the evolution of that concept means to them, you can make choices evolving the visual identity system for their body wash brand that will mesh with their sense of self. If you misread an emerging trend around clean looking design as no-frills utilitarian instead of as premium luxury, this could cause confusion resulting in a lack of understanding how to prioritize what is being said vs. what is being shown. All of the tools branding professionals bring to bear to communicate a complex idea (why this is a better choice than that for you at this time and place in such and such context) need to be mutually supporting, as creating shorthand expressions of these ideas that will find the correct home in a person’s head is an endeavor that is rife with opportunities for miscommunication, as well as amazing outcomes.

In the end, the way that brands manifest themselves is a subject of immense complexity. The totality of the means we use to reflect brand personality should be intuitive, memorable, honest and insightful, while building affection and being economical with how much attention it requires from participants.

Photo by Jerin J on Unsplash.

As creative director of Marks, part of SGS & Co., a brand design and experience agency, Ben Jura identifies challenges facing businesses and offers thoughtful solutions that yield quantifiable results for consistent brand enhancement at key consumer touchpoints.