welcomes international brand strategist, Stephen Byrne to the stable of guru bloggers on the site. Stephen will be posting weekly with a focus on brand strategy, brand agencies and cross media brand work. See Stephens author profile for more information. This weeks post looks at brand behaviour.

What makes wine in a Reidel glass taste better? Why does a Tiffany diamond engagement ring set the benchmark for all other rings? And why do people queue for the latest release of the Apple iPhone, when they wouldn’t for any other phone? Does brand exposure influence a wider range of behaviours than we previously thought?

That’s the inference from a Canadian study Automatic Effects of Brand Exposure on Motivated Behaviour: How Apple Makes You Think Different, which explored whether our unconscious can be so primed by exposure to brands that it creates predictable behaviours and performance.

Published early this year by the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada and Duke University in the US, the study looked at whether the generally accepted priming effects applied to social behaviours can be applied to consumer behaviour and how brands can influence this.

Priming occurs when mental constructs are created around or by a particular situation. For example, it’s well documented that exposure to the elderly can often cause behaviour in line with what is already hard wired around this stereotype: so people who have been primed elderly may walk more slowly and display poorer memory than those who haven’t been primed. Most behavioural priming research has traditionally focussed on activating these constructs but the new research examined these impacts from brands we encounter everyday.

In a series of experiments, research subjects looked at a screen displaying a series of flashing numbers and kept a running sum. Interspersed between the numbers were subliminal flashes of either the Apple or IBM logos. The same subject group of people were then asked to perform a creativity-measurement task, in which they were asked to come up with as many uses as they could for the common house brick. In replications of the experiment with control groups, the researchers found that people exposed to the Apple brand not only came up with more uses for the brick but that these uses were more creative than those exposed to the IBM logo or no logo at all. In effect, they concluded Apple made you behave and think more creatively.

Recent theory has it that brand primes initiated goal-directed behaviour only when those brands were associated with qualities desired by the individual i.e. I want to be more creative (Apple) or I want to be more active (Nike) but this new research demonstrates brands can also activate unconscious performance-based behaviours. Meaning a brand can affect your output – in the case of Apple’s brand, it may make you work more creatively.

While blind taste tests have concluded that even the best Reidel glasses, as well made as they are, don’t actually make your wine taste any better than a $10 glass from Target. Apple’s iPhone looks and performs well but it does no better on a benchmarked performance basis than a Blackberry Bold or a HTC. What these brands and a few others have been able to achieve is an example of what the researchers prove – regardless of product or service attributes, priming can directly influence our behaviour and decisions.

Brand priming might help to explain why brand promise is no longer enough; the point of difference is going to have to be buried deep in a brand’s DNA. The saliency of a brand can no longer be determined by more overt visual and operational attributes but by triggers that prime our unconscious.