AAP, Symbols, Subconscious Meaning and Somatic Markers

What best explains overwhelming response to AAP. How people respond is caused by many factors. Although providing the explanation to one’s behavior is generally the job of the conscious and the reason but it is not all. A lot of thing remain outside the realm of reason but have influence behavior profoundly. Long back Descartes made a proclamation, ‘I think, therefore I am’. Science for long pursued the path of reason to explain behaviors by concentrating on cognitive side brain and ignoring the emotions.

But neurologist Atonio Damasio challenged the old ideas about the connection between reason and emotion. He claimed that emotions are integral to rational thinking and normal to social behavior. They are the source of a person’s true being. The dichotomization between body and mind, and reason and emotion proposed by Descartes was an error. Emotions and body guide the human rationality and thinking. In many cases our reactions are almost automatic- these can be called gut level reactions. These gut level reactions are called ‘somatic markers’ by Damasio and these cause us to behave almost automatically in an instant. So quite contrary to our notion that thinking drives our preference, it is emotions and feelings that assume the charge. The somatic markers add bias and fasten our decision making in complex situations.

Cognitive/ rational/ economic school proposes that humans make decisions rationally uninfluenced by emotions by performing cost/benefit analysis. This model assumes that a person is capable in terms of time, knowledge, mathematics to arrive at optimal decision. But his is hardly possible. It is here, emotions assume driver’s role and help us in negotiating complex and uncertain situation. Imagine making choices between parties/candidates in political arena-these are complex and conflicting choices.    It may not be possible to make decisions based on only reason or cognition. It is here somatic markers come to our rescue and help in decision making.  The somatic markers are associations between reinforcing stimuli that induce an affective/emotional state and cause bias.

In response to a stimuli the body/ physiological (muscle tone, heart rate, facial expression, endocrine release) changes are conveyed to brain where they are converted into emotions. For instance, sight of a lion would create pounding of heart and that would create feeling of fear. With time, the emotions and corresponding bodily changes become linked with particular situation. Thus when a person is thrown into a situation of decision making in future, these connections between physiological signals or somatic markers and corresponding emotions gets activated which causes people to approach or avoid certain behaviors. So when in a certain situation somatic markers are associated with positive emotions, a positive bias is added. Consider what somatic markers are associated with when one happens to see a politician (prototypical politician is dressed in white kurta-payjama, surrounded by musclemen either hired or in khaki, car with red beacon, arrogant demeanor, rings on the fingers etc)- given the track record of political class in India the physiological response and corresponding emotions are anger, frustration, dislike and hate.

Now consider how the members of AAP by dissociating with the politician by profession (not statesmen) have managed to avoid negative emotions. The people from AAP are very ordinary, minus all the symbols that the political class in India has come to be associated with.   The outcome of this is that they activate emotions that subconsciously trigger people to approach not avoid AAP and its leaders.


Luxury, Brands and Top Luxury Brands

The 2013 survey of luxury brands by Brandz compiled by research firm MillwardBrown ranked the following brands as the top global luxury brands. The brands that sit at the top of the luxury heap are Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Gucci.Louis Vuitton











A term is best understood by opposition. The listed antonyms of luxury are austerity, essential and poverty. So the concept of luxury is linked with great expense/ cost, beyond essential functionality and rich class or affluence.  Can the notion of luxury be built into anything if these criteria are applied? Consider a trunk or box used to store things or a leather hand bag. Louis Vuitton transforms bags and boxes into word’s top most luxuries that one can lay hands on.  Consider a brand like Rolex which reigns at the top in the class of chronometers transforms a timekeeping device into luxury par excellence.

So the question is what goes into making of a luxury? A number of opposing dimensions can be used to analyze the construction of luxury- form or function; aesthetic (beauty) or crude; concrete or abstract; common or rare; contemporary or heritage; limited or mass; indulgence or forbearance; desires or needs; ordinary or extraordinary; reason or emotion, craft or factory, culture or nature.  By applying these dimensions one can decipher the code that luxury brands use in their process of first emptying a product of its meaning and filling it with mystique and mythology. Luxury is experiential and it is rarely about product and its functions.  


One of the most common features of luxury brands is their heritage. Consider brands like Louis Vuitton was founded in 1854 in France, Burberry came into existence in 1856 in England,  Hermes was born in 1837 and Rolex birth goes back to 1905. History is different from heritage. History is only chronology of past events but heritage is about past events that hold value today. Luxury brands’ history is marked by innovations and improvements in their way to achieving excellence. It is worth noting that how Louis Vuitton took ordinariness out of trunks and hand bags by perfecting locking mechanism, use of the finest leather and crafting them with superlative finesse. Hermes’s route to extra ordinariness began with crafting saddles for czar of Russia which later went on to include leather garments with its unique fermeture Hermes or fastener to nobility including Prince of Wales.


Product excellence is usually is the founding stone for on which luxury edifice is built. The pursuit of extraordinariness in quality (bordering beyond need) renders the product so exclusive that it is accessible only a select group of customers. This is where a brand begins to get socialized and acquires symbolic properties. The process by and large is that of exclusion or social power hierarchy. Luxury is in way about transcendence beyond product or functionality or reason. Brands in their path to luxury first transform themselves from being something physical to abstract by enveloping layers of symbolic properties and then become symbolic resource to be used by people in construction of their psycho-social identities.      


Brand, Emotions and Affective Blindness

Marketers wish that their customers were blind and deaf to appeals made by competition. None of the tools in marketer’s arsenal can physically ‘switch off’ two of the most important gateways of perception. The problem is further compounded by ‘pro competition’ polices which seek to neutralize attempts of firms to monopolize the market. The challenge is not to find solution through structural alteration but work it out through consumer mind space.  This is precisely great brands seek to create. Branding in this sense is about developing ‘competition proof’ and ‘competition immune’ brands.

Consider some of the brand in identity building space like Rolex, Mont Blanc, Louis Vuitton and Burberry. The fierce fanatic like desire or pull that they create simply cannot be explained by the application of rationality. Then the essential question is what lies at their heart and what defines their soul. The emotional outburst and consequent surge of the urge suspends reason in animation making people behave in trance like manner. Otherwise how could a time keeping device or a trunk command such mind boggling prices?

The cognitive school explains consumer behavior through a hierarchy comprising of cognition leads to affect which mediate behavior. This was challenged affect based choice model which proposed that emotion affect behavior directly and is a different processing system.  Emotions can mediate preference without involving cognition (separate pathway). While the most decisions are based on cognitive processing some may be mediated by emotions unconsciously.

The affect based choice model seeks to explain the role of emotions in choice for self expressive or symbolic products. It is defined by self focus, holistic, non-verbal:

  1. Emotional choices are more about self rather than what is evaluated. The user (trier) is at the center not what is used (tried). Consider trying a Chanel shade. The choice is base on the imagination of how the person appears. Emotional judgments are self involving the focus in on the person.
  2. Emotional choices are marked by an ‘overall’ impression rather than analysis of individual attributes. The overall preference for a Rolex cannot be traced back to its attributes. Feelings cannot be adequately expressed and communicated. You cannot explain what you like a Rolex.
  3. How are emotions communicated? Verbal language cannot capture the essence of emotions therefore non-verbal communication is used. Images are soaked in meaning and their interpretation tends be subconscious and private. Imagine emotions evoked by J&J baby.

The beauty of emotion based choice is that once it is formed it repels reason based evaluations. Emotions can overwhelm reason. One of the critical decisions in branding strategy is to decide brand’s intended perception. By emotionalizing the brand it may be possible to take a jump over cognition and achieve its insulation from the challenges that stems from consumer ‘thinking mind’.

Reason as a part of emotion or emotion as a part of reason

Rene Descartes, a French philosopher observed, ‘I think, therefore I am’.

This statement became the foundation western philosophy. It gives supremacy to our cognitive capacity or thinking. It implies that I am able to think, therefore I exist. Thinking precedes existence. It is thought or consciousness we exist that we exist.

This statement is purely rationalistic. It suggests that I am rational (thinking) therefore I am. Accordingly in marketing and consumer behavior we have a very firmly established school of thought which assumes the consumer as a ‘cognitive man’. The consumer is seen as someone who uses his or her thinking (application of mind) to solve buying problems. Therefore rational thinking precedes buying which can vary in degree of cognitive involvement.

But Damasio’s work in the area of area of neuromarketing has put the conventional belief upside down. In his book Descarte’s Error a complete reversal of earlier thinking is proposed which proposes, ‘I have emotions, therefore I am rational’. This statement has far reaching implications for disciplines like psychology, sociology and consumer behavior. Martin Lindstorm’s investigations that used complex electroencephalography or EEG also reached similar conclusion as his book is sub titled as ‘how everything we believe about why we buy is wrong’.

What do emotions do for us? Emotions happen very fast and they prepare us for action and buying is an act. Buying involves decision making and its understanding is essential for effective brand building. Our thinking about consumer often is based on dichotomization reason and emotion. Therefore some decisions are classified as thinking and some as feeling. But Damasio proposes that thinking is not to be positioned against or opposite of emotions rather emotions are part of rationality and both are inextricably linked. Emotions do not exclude reason. And this is how brain is built (when we are emotional it does not mean exclusion of the reason).

It is often believed that emotions interfere with reason. On the contrary absence of emotions can break down rationality and thereby rendering the wise decision making impossible. The new paradigm proposes that emotions cause rationality. According to Damasio, somatic markers (how the body feels when we see something as a result of memories activation, consider seeing a snake) increase the accuracy and efficiency of the decision process (fear leading to running away).  The feelings become input to thinking process and thereby help us in acting wisely to a given situation. Feelings play an important part in interpretation of things (e.g. brands or retail outlets) and form basis of decision making.

The view that feelings are part of the interpretation (of anything including brands) which is the key to decision process it is important to understand how they play out. How we interpret something is based on our experiences (memories) which spill out like things falling off from a stuffed cupboard (recruitment).  

The new research suggests that emotions should not be viewed as diagrammatically opposite of reason or emotions are harmful to rationality (sometimes we believe we should approach totally with reason because emotions would compromise the decision effectiveness). Emotions are not independent rather they are intertwined with reason. They provide background against which a thing is interpreted.

Think of a purchase which you think you made totally rationally and now think again. Was it actually only reason playing out there then?


A brand is a perceived reality. It stands for ‘meaning extracted’ from the symbols disseminated by the sender. Critical to the success of a brand is the clarity and relevance. Brand is a symbol created out of exercise of symbols and symbolism. At the heart of brand building lays ‘meaning transference’. Typically brand strategists employ a variety of messages and media to build a brand but what is crucial to successful brand building is convergence. All signals create a clear brand engram (associative network in the mind). Divergence of associations in the mind is brand killer. Brand name is a sign the meaning of which is created in prospects’ minds. Symbols are instruments in the creation of this sign.
Confusion fails a brand. Anna brand has managed to evoke a phenomenal response. It is a case in the use of symbols. Express verbal communication plays a part in brand building but the dialogue at the subliminal level is more powerful (‘Aankhon Hi Aankhon Mein Ishara ho gaya’;’ Isharon Isharon Mein Dil Lene Wale’). Words convey meaning but symbols do those more powerfully and the beauty is that here communication escapes the scrutiny of cognition. Consider the following symbols and their symbolism which went into building Anna Brand:

  • Anna as person: his frail body, cap, simplicity, earthiness, spectacles and his presence against the backdrop of a huge Gandhi banner draws ‘conditioned’ response.
  • Anna’s dress: he sports ‘white’ (spotless) as against ‘black’ (blemished). It is ‘clean’ against ‘unclean’. It is ‘day’ against ‘night’.
  • Fasting: the term ‘fast’ is positioned against ‘feasting’; ‘self harm’ against ‘harming others’; ‘sacrifice’ against ‘self aggrandizement’; eating is ‘common’ fasting is ‘uncommon’; clearly it positions the powerful in a different lowly light. Fast is the common thread that creates a subtle mental link between Gandhi and Anna.
  • Ramlila Ground: ‘ground’ is against ‘high rise’. ‘earthy’ against ‘heavenly’, ‘discomfort’ against ‘comfort’; ‘humble’ against ‘arrogance’.
  • Anna Bands: these are tied to biceps indicative of ‘power’, ‘muscle’, ‘courage’ against the aggressor
  • Waist Bands: ‘fasten seat belts’ it is difficult time ahead, symbolizes ‘readiness’ ‘preparedness’.
  • Tricolor: In Mahabharata the discourse is about under which flag ‘you want to stand’: the right or the wrong. People assembled for the ‘nation’ not for ‘any party or group’, signals ‘unity’ against ‘division’; ‘transcending boundaries’ against ‘created boundaries’; ‘one identity’ against ‘multiple identities’. The flag: ‘higher ideal’ ‘ambition and aspiration’. Flag  held by hands in protests indicates importance and closeness and importance of the ‘goal and ambition’ as against ‘not holding’ or ‘giving up’ or ‘detachment’ (flag erected on ground).
  • Anna Cap: cap is headgear; head is house of mind. It symbolizes ‘particular philosophy or thinking’. The cap signifies subscription to ‘Anna thinking’ as against ‘Non Anna thinking’. Why wear cap: because now is the time to clearly show whether one is ‘with Anna’ because government is ‘not with Anna’.
  • Candle March: is ‘light’ as against ‘darkness’; ‘day’ versus ‘night’; light is used to ‘scare the creatures of the night’; creatures of night in mythology are demons and evil. Why march- to scare these off. March is movement; it is ‘progression’ as against ‘stagnation’; ‘it is movement towards the goal’.
  • Voluntary contribution: to contribute means ‘to be a part of’; ‘efforts made’ ‘share’ as against ‘not be a part of’, ‘no efforts made’. Contribution is required when the task ahead is ‘difficult’ or the opponent is ‘strong and mighty’. It is symbolic of a fight between two unequal: ‘government or establishment’ powerful and mighty. It is an opportunity to be a part of something not within the realm of ‘individual achievement’.
  • Raised hands and closed fists: fist symbolizes ‘grit’ ‘determination’ ‘strength’ ‘readiness to fight’ against ‘hands down’, ‘lose’ and ‘open palms’. When the hands are raised in unison upon a chant ‘it is willingness to rise up to a challenge’; ‘team spirit and togetherness’. This raises adrenalin. Fist is to ‘muscle up’ , ‘to collect’. It is ‘to scare birds or crow’ from the field.
  • Songs: the music connects to ‘heart’ as against ‘mind’. You don’t ‘think’ music you ‘feel’ music’. Songs and slogans trigger emotions and create bonding. Emotions elicit better commitment than cognitions. Rhythm and rhyme is ‘flow’ ‘movement’.

Collectively these symbols negotiate meaning at a deeper level and create a brand engram to which people seem to be connecting.