My son just turned four. Like many little boys, he has an insatiable fascination with cars. He has enough Hotwheels and Matchbox cars to reenact the morning gridlock from my house to San Francisco, and he can recite the type and model names for many of them. One of his first prize cars was a scale model BMW sedan his grandmother picked up in a garage sale when he was two. He loved the tires and wheels off that car, and still scraped it passionately along the hardwood floors. As a result, by the time he was two and a half, my son could pick out any BMW from 50 yards.
At first, he just noticed BMWs of the same model as his toy car. But then he started identifying other models of BMWs. He even called out excitedly when he discovered his first BMW motorcycle. It was, of course, the distinctive logo he recognized, and flawlessly attached to the BMW name. After BMW, he latched on to the Lexus brand–a simple oval with an "L" that was easy to pick out from a distance. After a while, he would sit in his car seat as we drove through town, happily calling out every brand he recognized.
Now I’m no Piaget, but I’m fascinated at how my my son has utilized different shape recognition strategies to distinguish different brands, and what it says about the power of corporate identity. For example, while my son latched on easily to brands like BMW and Lexus, which have simple, distinctive symbols that are easy to recognize, he resorts to the shape of the car to identify models that lack such apparently powerful symbols. And guess what? He often gets those wrong. He often mistakes Ford, Chevy and Jeep SUVs–but he never mixes up Toyota and Lexus SUVs, which both use very similar bodies.
Close your eyes for a minute and try to envision the Chevy logo. Not very memorable is it? Ford and Jeep are simpler, but they are wordmarks rather than simple symbols, and my son isn’t quite at the point of reading. The only American car my son can consistently recognize across all body styles is the Mustang, which features a running horse as the model’s logo.
What does this all say about corporate identity? Well, I bought my son a bicycle for his fourth birthday. A Schwinn. The weekend after I set up his bike and took him for his first ride, I took him to Target to buy a pair of little riding gloves to go with his helmet–if he’s anything like me, he’ll be hitting the deck a lot. As we were looking through the bike accessories on the rack, my son pointed excitedly to a pair of gloves on display, and said those were the ones we had to get. I had a different set in my hand already, but he was adamant. When I asked why, he pointed to the Schwinn logo and said they "went" with the bike. The Schwinn logo is another simple symbol–a cross in the middle of a circle.
So here’s my pop-psychology hypothesis. Clearly, even at an incredibly early age, we attach symbols and experiences. If there’s a strong symbol to go with a strong experience, it seems to dramatically simplify the process of identifying and attending to objects in an environment of overwhelming stimulus. If there isn’t a strong symbol available, we fall back on other pattern recognition strategies, but they’re not as effective. When you attach this to buying behavior, an underlying process of decision-making seems to be pattern familiarity and matching, which, in the absence of some kind of rational basis for discerning between options would lead you toward selecting the familiar by default.
I have no idea how this gets tempered as you grow older and have to parse all kinds of marketing messages, peer pressure, and socio-economic data, but it’s fascinating to me that underneath it all, at the simplest level of mental operation, we’re certainly cataloging symbols and attaching them to experiences, and in some way those processes influence our behavior.