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Rashi Goel

How Brands Can Leverage The Automation Bias of Our Brain

How brands can leverage the automation bias of our brain
Reading Time: 10 minutes

This is the third and final edition on unconscious biases. And we explore Automation.

Incase you wish to refresh your memory, check out the one on Simplicity here and Novelty here.

Fly on the urinal

Thaler, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor tackled the problem of urine streams that missed their mark in the men’s urinal in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

They share in an article. “In a busy airport restroom used by throngs of travelers each day, the unpleasant effects of bad aim can add up rather quickly.”

All they did was print a black silhouette of a fly inside the urinals’ bright white bowls.

There's A Fly In My Urinal : Krulwich Wonders... : NPR

Men, even without realizing, were compelled to aim at the fly.

Problem solved. “spillage” declined 80 percent.

This is a great example of how our primal responses are automated into our psyche.

Our brain is lazy and looks for shortcuts

We know that our subconscious brain processes 11million pieces of information per second, while our conscious brain processes only 40 pieces per second.

If our brain were to consume every single piece of information, it would self combust. So it creates mental shortcuts. These shortcuts are called heuristics. Simply explained, heuristics enable us to take decisions on the basis of just a small piece of information.

All faces have two eyes, one nose, one mouth and so on, but with the help of heuristics, we can identify our mother in a crowded room in an instant. While our conscious brain cannot describe our mother’s face step-by-step, our subconscious brain recognizes her instantly.

If I show you this small part of a painting,

there is a high likelihood that you will know in an instant, it is ‘The Creation of Man” by Michelangelo.


You may have come across this painting multiple times in various media sources. While you consciously did not memorize each section, your subconscious brain assimilated it, labeled, and stored it.

Another word to describe this is Thin Slicing. Thin Slicing means using just a tiny sliver of information to make decisions. It literally means that even if we are shown a very very thin slice of a cucumber, we know it is indeed a cucumber.

Thin slicing or heuristics cut short our decision making, and automate our responses.

Mental model: System 1 and System 2

It is important to underline that heuristic processing of information is subconscious. Even before our conscious brain realizes what is happening, the decision has been made.

This is the basis for the famous System 1 and System 2 thinking, popularized by Daniel Kahneman.

‘System 1’ uses heuristics and thin slicing to take in information and respond rapidly. It is the intuitive, effortless, and automated response part of our thinking, and sits within our subconscious.

‘System 2’ is the thoughtful, considered, more rational part of our thinking, that resides within our conscious brain.

System 2 consumes more brain energy and also takes time. It is harder to do. That is why, we are wired to push as many decisions as possible into System 1.

Again, important to remember that most of our decisions are taken up by System 1. We call upon System 2 thinking when we have to learn something new. Or when the choice is more deliberate, i.e. difficult and critical.

Now that we know that we makes decisions with two brains, what should brands do?

Successful brands cater to both systems

The best end state for all brands is to become a part of the intuitive System 1 response. For this, a brand needs to resonate emotionally and become a part of experiences and memories.

System 2 needs logical, rational answers. System 2 could overrule system 1 if a brand does not pass muster on rational considerations.

Rule of thumb is that all marketing collateral that caters to the shopper skews to System 2 . Shopper collateral contains more rational messages that address queries and concerns. Packaging, point of sale material, shopper advisors, tactical advertising, consumer offers etc. all fall into this bucket. This kind of marketing pushes the shopper to try the brand.

On the other hand, marketing assets like thematic advertising, are a combination of emotional and rational messaging. They create a pull for the brand. Over time, consistent and emotionally rich thematic advertising if done right, embeds the brand deeper and deeper into system 1 intuition.

Both shopper and consumer marketing are in synch, through a rational+emotional bridge – a common tone of voice, brand personality, visual identity. And most importantly, a meaningful role the brand and product play in a consumer’s life.

Crafting this ‘bridge’ and balancing system 1 vs system 2 part of marketing is the ‘SCIENCE and ART’ of brand building.

Time marinates brand relationships. The short term goal of advertising is to generate immediate action (problem solve for system 2). But the long term value of advertising is to build enough emotional goodwill (appeal to system 1), so that the consumer automatically picks the brand over others.

That is why most loved brands are heritage brands. They have the benefit of decades of consistent advertising and steady product delivery that has helped them deepen meaning in consumers’ brains. All heritage FMCG brands fall into this bucket.

Most FMCG brands have decades of speaking to consumers. Source: Google Images

But new brands don’t have the luxury of time. So how do they build deep system 1 connections fast? Through Salience and Real Value.

  1. Salience: a new brand often needs to shout the loudest to make up for decades of advertising by old brands. Rule of thumb for salience is to spend a share of advertising (share of voice – SOV), which is higher than share of market (SOM). (~SOV>SOM)
  2. Real Value: often, just shouting loudly is not enough. A new brand has to offer real value – new benefits, new way of doing things, or a deep insightful message.

Most of the consumer tech brands tick the box on both Salience and Real value. These technologies have changed the way we work, live and communicate. They enjoy organic word of mouth salience which is the dream of all marketers. That is why they have upended brand valuation status that FMCG brands took decades to build, in just a few years.

Brand building is an iterative process.

I analyze the messaging evolution for Tata Sampann spices over 6 years to bring out how different aspects may have catered to System 1 or System 2.

Apologies to my friends who don’t know hindi. I think you will get the gist through the analysis though.

Case Study: Tata Sampann (2015-20)

Time marinates brand relationships. This requires consistent messaging. The only thing that has remained constant is the use of a credible chef celebrity Sanjeev Kapoor.

2015: generic message, decent food beauty shots, and light weight use of celebrity chef

Real value: Just the way you put in love into your food, we put in love and care in the way we pick and process spices.

  • The message rings true, but it is generic. It does not change the way consumers think about food, cooking or spices.
  • Besides, this message is not unique. Other brands, in other categories have made similar claims before.
  • So the idea is intuitive, but not novel enough to be memorable.
  • Neither does the promise offer real value.

Brand message:The Taste of Love”, wrestles for attention with Sanjeev Kapoor’s 4sec cameo to say “The Start of Goodness”. Well which one is it?! There should be one summary of the idea that stays consistent and embeds into the brain.

2016: celebrity chef used well, unique product insight, but makes the home chef look naive, no food beauty shots

Real Value:A spice is just powder if it is missing its oils

  • This is a surprising truth about spices. It teaches us something new and so it gets noticed and approved by system 2 brain and also sticks in the system 1 brain.
  • ‘Spices that retain their oils’ is real value. A mom will hear this and she just might think, ‘hmmm, next time I should try those Tata spices that retain their oil”.
  • Delivery by the chef makes adds credibility – appeals to both system 1 and 2.

Brand Message:

  • Consumer benefit laddering is done well. Food gets its taste from spices —> spices get their taste from their oils —> we retain the oils in our spices. It is intuitive, delivers new news, and is simple. The logic nd newsness appeals to system 2 and the deliciousness appeals to system 1.
  • Moms are obediently taking notes and look naïve. Golden rule- never make the consumer look stupid – this might put off system 1 and 2. We love to learn from our heros, the moms could have been IN the kitchen, whipping up dishes along with the chef.
  • What would have really sealed the deal for me is a tip from the chef on how and when he adds spices to add that special chef’s touch. Infact, secret tips and hacks that chefs use could become a digital content platform for the brand. Again, this is novel and would appeal to system 2, which would make a mental note to notice all such messages, in order to learn more.
  • Not enough thought has been put into the casting of moms. They look like cookie cutter replicas of each other. Generic, no personality. System 1 would have instantly identified with one mom type had the casting been diverse – north, south or east of India; and maybe one of them slightly traditional looking too.
  • Food cooking shots are missing. Our system 1 brain is drawn to food. Building a consistent visual identity around food and cooking would help the brand in the long term.

2017 May: lost the plot and interrupted the tone and manner of the brand, a hackneyed attempt at a new human truth

Maybe a new marketing manager joined the team. A drastic break from tone and manner and visual identity of the brand. The look and feel is also not in line with the category or consumer belief about spices. There is no food appeal. This whole campaign looks like a mistake.

Although they have scratched the surface of a human and cultural truth that many cooking brands have identified: kitchens are changing, the way we cook and eat is changing.

There is no redeeming quality in this campaign. Enough said.

2017 Dec-2018: the prodigal marketer returns

The 2016 campaign was brought back. Whew.

2020: same unique product insight (our spices retain oils) laddered to health

I think the product insight is novel and differentiated. However, this time it is laddered to health benefit (pandemic effect). I don’t have a sense if this worked better, but I do think taste benefit is important. But mom is not shown as naïve and in fact she is the cook. The product window is very strong as it shows the oil in spices. Spice beauty shots take the place of food beauty shots, which also works.

Finally, packaging.

Tata Sampann worked withEntropik Tech, which describes itself as India’s first emotion AI company and got some interesting insights on pack design.

They initially had a picture of finished dishes, but when replaced with a picture of the spice, it connected better with consumers.

Now the range has pictures of spices for single spice packs and pictures of the dish for complex spices (dal spice mix, pao bhaji spice mix etc.).

Personal mastery: Unconscious Competence

When we learn how to drive a car, we have to concentrate very hard on each action. We find it impossible to change gears while steering the wheel and pressing the accelerator all at the same time!

This is Conscious Incompetence. Our conscious brain knows we don’t know.

But once we have enough practice under our belt, all these actions are filed away in the hard disk of our subconscious brain. We safely drive from point A to point B while listening to music and enjoying the scenery and go through all the motions of driving without having to think about them.

This is when our subconscious brain takes over and we enter a state of Unconscious Competence.


But there are various aspects of our personality and work, that are part of Unconscious Incompetence. Converting unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence is our entire life’s work and in this, we can learn from Atul Gawande.

He is a top global surgeon. At the height of his career, he sought the help of his professor to observe him and point out areas he could improve.

The professor noticed the little things – where Gawande’s elbows were positioned, or that the light was not falling in the right place. His “fresh eyes” saw things as they were, not as Gawande perceived them to be. Not only that, the professor chunked down Gawande’s surgical style and helped remind him of what he had forgotten.

“That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years,” says Gawande.

Worth checking out Atul Gawande’s Ted Talk on why even experts need a coach.

All of us. No matter how senior or seasoned, have parts of unconscious incompetence. If we can find someone we trust, who can watch us in action and throw light on our blind spots, we would be doing ourselves a huge favor.

Personal mastery

When we respond very fast via mental short cuts and turn out to be right, we call that pattern recognition, and are celebrated as wise and intuitive.

On the other hand, when we are wrong, we call that jumping to conclusions, and are called foolhardy and immature.

The road from foolhardy to wise is paved with mental models. Read more about mental models here.

Survey results

Thank you to those of you who filled in the survey. 11% of the audience who opened the newsletter answered the survey. I would say that is a decent conversion rate!

Apart from this, there were two main suggestions.

1) Lose the introduction: done! From now on we will dive into the topic right away.

2) Move to substack: done