Brain Theory

Pathways and Holloways

There’s a pathway opposite my house that starts constrained on either side by two rather unruly hawthorn hedges and low cropped horse chestnut trees, before passing through a dilapidated five bar gate worn smooth by the daily administering of hands of walkers and horse riders over passing years. From there the pathway cuts across open fields for a good half mile towards a distant stand of trees along a low ridge. The field is quite open, no hedges, no obstructions. Yet the footpath meanders this way and that, suddenly curving through 45° and then heading back; at one point cutting up a half-bank when the natural lie of the land is straight on. The remarkable fact is that the walkers, me included, stick to the path. It is worn low, trampled and yellowed; either side, the spiky grass is tussocky and verdant.

At the top of the low ridge, the path heads through the trees, the presence of which confines it, narrows it. The energy of boot clad feet, dogs’ paws and horses’ hooves has turned the path into more of an old holloway, making the path cut down and deeper, the trees rising up high above, their roots exposed, holding back the banks. This path must have developed over hundreds of years; generations of feet tramping slowly exposing the bedrock. If you wished to deviate off this, it would be hard to do so.

Pathways and holloways are a good way of thinking about the impact of your brand building efforts. Brain ‘theory’ for want of a better expression, developing over the last 30 to 50 years, has added scientific uumph to the intuition many experienced marketeers have felt about the impact (or otherwise) of their brand activities on successfully changing consumer behaviour.

Our brains, metaphorically, are the landscape. Billions of neurons, connected to one another by synaptic nerves fire up and make connections as they receive ‘stimulus’; a process that starts from our first moments on the planet.   The stimulus is everything we encounter – everything. So within this maelstrom of over communication the brand must cut through and compete. The good news is that in many respects brains are on our side. Over communication too, plays into the brand builder’s hands. Why? Because we need to make sense of things to run our lives. The brain does this by creating ‘pathways in the landscape’. Think about your journey to work; most of us have hundreds of possibilities: the mode of transport; the route; the time we are happy to dedicate to it; whether we need to stop for breakfast / snack en route; whether we need fuel… yet we tend to stick to the same route; because it’s easy and frankly, we’ve got enough other things to worry about. So our brains effectively create a pathway, which as we use it again and again, gets deeper and deeper, becomes engrained, becomes a holloway.

The holloway, from a brand perspective is the desired goal: just like my real life Holloway through the trees, deviation becomes difficult. In fact, research shows that once a deep path like this is created, the brain wants to use it. It was, if you like, the creator of the holloway and it wants to see it continue to thrive. A real life brand example: moons ago, I worked in beer competing with the mighty Stella Artois. Our brand was the first to launch a full scale branded glassware programme, the objective to heighten the drinking experience of the brand. Stella cottoned on quickly and responded with enormous scale; but it also responded with a glass, which at the time, we thought was horrendous. Made from jam jar glass, it was blow moulded and had indistinct, partially embossed branding. Shabby, we thought compared with our lovely screen printed vessel.   But here’s the thing: Stella Artois had a holloway of purchase behaviour established. Their consumers didn’t see jam jar glass, they saw a thing of beauty. ‘Why! It must be incredible, it’s from Stella, and that’s my brand.’    If you want to break the habit created by the holloway, you need to do something pretty bold and stupendous (think Gerald Ratner describing his products as ‘crap’. That should do it).

Which is all very well, the question is how to create a pathway and a holloway in the mind of your consumer’s brain? The answer is both beguiling simple and deviously tricky: focus and sacrifice.   You need to find your distinctive positioning and stick to it. You need to execute one, perhaps two, activities each year. You need to put your full weight against them. You need to repeat and repeat and repeat with unyielding consistency, patience and resistance to personal or corporate boredom.

Beguilingly simple; deviously tricky. But worth it to create those holloways in the brain.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2014

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A brand lesson from the Referendum

It’s instructive to consider last week’s momentous political event in the UK, the Scottish Referendum, without getting all political because therein lies a valuable lesson for anyone building their business or building their brand.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to make the proclamation that a ‘no’ vote was on the cards all along. Yet actually, albeit for different reasons, a ‘no’ vote was on the cards all along.

Why? Because we are all inherently conservative.

And to reiterate, that’s conservative in a sense without the baggage of that particular Party. No, we become deeply conservative from the moment we are born, even the most radical of us, even those of us most ardent for the cause of change.

A contradication? No.

The roots of our conservatism lie in the way our brains shape and respond to the billions of stimuli we receive each moment from the time we are born. Practically, we have to deal with thousands of pieces of data each day: most, so insignificant that we deal with them on ‘autopilot’; others requiring consideration, concentration, greater thought, our ‘rational’ minds. Yet, the data we deem insignificant today was once significant in our lives. ‘How do I get from here to there?’ ‘I need to learn to lift myself up and move forward, one foot in front of the other’. Walking? No thought today. Not the same when you were 1 year old.

We spend our lives dealing with the data, learning ways of thinking and doing, making decisions. Think of these actions like hundreds of thousands of algorithms or macros designed to help us operate efficiently. Macros that whirr in the background, letting us concentrate on the ‘big stuff’.

These macros become pathways in our brains: well trodden paths that make navigating through life easier. As we re-tread the paths, so they become deeper and more ingrained; so we become more likely to take that path that we have created: why use someone else’s route when I have my own (and it’s better!)? We become, in the brain theory parlance, anchored to beliefs and behaviours.   We become inherently conservative around the beliefs and behaviours that we create and learn.

Which is why the apparent contradiction isn’t really so. If you are brought up or become a radical thinker, then you will become anchored to being radical. It will become your modus operandi. You will, perversely, become conservatively attached to the idea of being radical. The pathways in your brain will support the very notion.

Indeed, these ways of operating and thinking seem ordered and perfectly rational to us, but to someone else may look bonkers (so many examples are beautifully brought to life in Dan Ariely’s ‘Predictably Irrational’ –it’s worth looking up). These little ticks or biases become part of us: some will be highly individual; others become common across groups or people, even across societies. Ways of believing; ways of thinking; opinions, perceptions, culture.  This is what the Prime Minister’s ‘Nudge Unit’ was designed to understand and influence: the belief (which in many cases was proven) was that if you can understand the way people have learnt how to behave then you can nudge it.   Look out for example for the life size cut out Policemen in petrol stations. There is evidence of Mr Cardboard Policeman reducing shoplifting by 75%*

So with the referendum, the Yes Campaign had to overcome the trillions of billions of mental pathways that have got used to living their lives in the Scotland they knew. It’s not to say it wasn’t insurmountable but you would have to ‘Drop a Bomb in the Water’ as a famous Scottish ad agency Creative Director once said to me. They nearly did, just not big enough.

And so too with brands: it’s no good bandying around grand promises of ‘re positioning’ a brand without understanding the depth and strength of the mental pathways around it. Millions of Pounds of advertising revenue have gone into building Beanz Meanz Heinz or Work Rest and Play. If you walk away from associations like that you need a big wallet and a long term perspective. Successful repositioning? My money would be on a ‘No’.















*In Asda, Leigh, Lancs, 2010.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.


© The Crow Flies, 2014