Unlocking System-1-friendly Marketing & Design

Identification of a familiar face in a crowd requires the types of emotional and subconscious faculties inherent in system 1 marketing.
Identification of a familiar face in a crowd requires the types of emotional and subconscious faculties inherent in system 1 marketing.

Have you ever recognized a face in a crowd and identified the one person you know, even if you haven’t seen them for years?

Without thinking too much, you will also instantly know whether this person is someone you want to greet or, indeed, avoid. In this instance, any decision you make will be an emotional response based on subconsciously stored experience and memories triggered by the sight of that face in the crowd.

This is an example of “system 1” decision-making and illustrates how, in an increasingly fractured world of on-screen and in-store communications, we are forced to process brands in a nanosecond in order to sort out the relevant from the irrelevant, so we can pay attention to those few items of communication that chime with inner motivations and desires.

What Are Fast and Slow Thinking?

When Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for behavioral economicsa, explained that we have two ways of thinking—system 1 and system 2—his insight made a big impact on how we market brands. However, it has taken a few years to get past the neuroscience babble hawked by many agencies and to come to understand how best to apply Kahneman’s thinking.

System 1 is the subconscious, rapid decision-making part of your brain’s operation. It allows you to make instinctive decisions without having to think too hard. It is intuitive, associative and enables you to undertake fast, habitual behaviors.

You use it every day, hour, minute and second of your waking day. System 1 thinking makes your life easier. You couldn’t drive a car, hit a baseball or do mental addition, subtraction or multiplication, or indeed shop, without system 1 thinking.

System 2 is the conscious, slower decision-making part of your brain’s processing; it enables rational thought but requires much more mental effort than system 1 and is inefficient if you need to make multiple decisions quickly. Therefore, we tend to use this sparingly, particularly on those occasions when we need to think things through carefully.

System 1 in Marketing and Retail

We utilize system 1 thinking, rather than effortful and slow system 2, to process brand communication in all retail environments, whether brick and mortar or digital, whether we are buying a $1 dollar product or a $100 product.

We use our system 1 brain to make instant purchasing decisions or to filter out irrelevant products and focus on the few we are interested in.

Smart marketers realize that, by making their brand communication and packaging system-1-friendly, they can gain a commercial advantage over their category competition and swing decisions their way.

How We Actually Shop

We think of shopping for products as a selection process, making a choice as to what we want to buy. But when we shop, whether digitally or in shops, we are actually deselecting all the products that, at that moment of time, we don’t want.

This an automatic, subconscious process—we only “see” those products that are relevant to our immediate needs and desires. There may be hundreds of products on display but somehow we filter out the irrelevant in order to focus on the one we want to buy, or the several we want to consider buying.

Want to read the full article? Check out the Global Cosmetic Industry's October 2019 digital magazine.


aDaniel Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2011)

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