Science & Branding: The importance of only saying one thing. / by Chris W. Hubbard


Brands usually have a lot they want to say. Because of this, they often approach communications with an assumption that whoever is tuning-in has unlimited attention span, genuine interest, and the ability to listen to six different voices at once.

The problem is, brains can't do this, even if they wanted to. The brain can do a million things at once, but it can't listen to more than one person at a time. The brain essentially forces you to listen to one voice at a time—and surprisingly— chooses a voice not based on the relevance of content being delivered, but on the physical characteristics of the message, such as clarity or tone of voice.

For example, imagine six people suddenly walk into the room you are sitting in right now, and start speaking to you—all at the same time. What do you suppose you would do? In reality, you might be tempted to get up and leave the room, but let's pretend that at least one of them has something to say that might be relevant to you, so you engage with them.

What your brain would attempt to do first—and as quickly as possible—is block out anyone saying anything irrelevant, allowing you to focus on a single voice. The brain does this simply because it can't listen to six different voices at the same time, and has to quickly make a decision on which voice has the right information to let in. 

This was first demonstrated by Donald Broadbent in an experiment now known as the dichotic listening experiment. Broadbent was able to show that when information flows into the brain through many different channels, the brain can't process it all, which causes a "bottleneck" of information to occur—information may be getting in the door, but not getting a table. In order for the brain to continue processing information, it turns off all but one one channel. The example Broadbent used was a Y-shaped tube, into which two flows of ping pong balls are channeled. At the junction of the two branches of the tube, there is a flap that acts to block one flow of balls or the other; this allows balls from the unblocked channel into the stem of the tube. The brain essentially works in the same way.

What this means for brand communications is important. Since consumers can only listen to one voice at a time, brands who attempt to say many things at once, are pretty much wasting their breath.

When I first started doing Art Direction for Gladiator GarageWorks, the brand managers would require almost every photo we took—of a garage with products— to include virtually every product available. The reasoning behind this is simple and easy to understand. Each shot is a big sales opportunity, which means they need to say as much as possible; these products are great for tools, they are great for organizing, they work well for gardeners, and for sporty or nonsporty needs. However, the reality of this type of effort is that none of the messages end up being processed by consumers at all. It wasn't till we started focusing on sending strong messages one at a time—by designing and presenting one type of  garage for gardeners, or a garage for auto enthusiasts—that the messages started getting through.

Since the brain won't let you listen to everything being said, choosing what to say as a brand—and only saying that— becomes more than just smart strategy, it becomes a matter of scientific necessity.

The other surprising thing that Broadbent discovered was that—seemingly contrary to common sense— the brain doesn't necessarily choose which information to let through based on the quality of the content, but by the characteristics of the message, such as clarity or tone of voice. 

This means that—back to our six people speaking to you at the same time—your brain would naturally, and immediately focus on whoever was speaking to you in a WAY which it found most appealing in the moment. This means you might suddenly find yourself tuned into the man who's voice sounds like Sean Connery—even though what he's saying has little or nothing to do with you—instead of another person who happens to be letting you know there's a fire in the building and needs to be evacuated.

Broadbent's research experiments with air traffic controllers showed that because of this, decisions could be made on possibly irrelevant or inaccurate information, rather than being prioritized according to meaning and importance.

not only is it scientifically impossible for brands to effectively deliver many messages at once, the way in which they are delivered could cause the least relevant message to be the one used to make final decisions—like whether to explore your website some more, or to move on and look for one with a single message worth processing.

Our minds are essentially like Facebook feeds, receiving a continual stream of information and messages, yet we can only read one status update at a time, or watch one video. If brands want to be successful with their communications then they should heed the science, and stick to saying one thing at a time.