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Systems 1 Thinking: What marketeers should know

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At 1HQ, Systems 1 Thinking is critical to how we approach brand positioning and innovation projects. It makes our work connect to consumers more intuitively and creates results that are more effective on the shelf.

What is Systems 1 Thinking?

In essence, our brains have 2 modes of thinking. It’s what Daniel Kahneman summed up in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Systems 1 is the fast, intuitive and unconscious mode but it is prone to bias. It’s our real ‘gut instinct’, and Malcom Gladwell’s theory Blink! is all about the concept and power of “thin-slicing”. Gladwell argues that all human beings are innately good at finding patterns and reading situations subconsciously in the blink of an eye and so we should listen to it more. Systems 2 thinking is the slower, more logical and conscious style of thinking.

How does Systems 1 Thinking affect brand choice?

What all marketeers need to know is that 95% of our purchase decision making takes place in the subconscious mind, so it uses systems 1 thinking. It’s therefore key that we tap into the fast intuitive systems 1 thinking to create innovations and brand positionings that win in the market.

This 95% figure comes from research by Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman. He showed that while consumers may tell us lots of rational ways they choose a brand (price, benefits etc) in a focus group or survey, when you see how the neuroscience works and measure physiological or response latency measures, it’s the subconscious that’s really driving the decision at shelf.

How to control Systems 1 Thinking

The importance of tapping into systems 1 is especially key within FMCG where we have very saturated competitive categories with very similar products and benefits.

Here, the way to differentiate is through a more relevant and emotionally connected brand positioning. 2D and 3D structural design is also relied upon to tap into positive associations at a deeper level. A traditional brand can be rejuvenated by simply shifting subconscious dated and residual codes to more emergent codes. This helps to build a new positive story on the foundations of the brand’s core proposition.

Traditional market research offers invaluable insight into the part of the consumer’s relationship with the brand that they can consciously articulate. However, it doesn’t indicate the deeper cultural factors that drive the consumer’s interaction with the brand or how they really feel.

At 1HQ, we use projective techniques like metaphors and the social anthropology skills of semioticians who factor in a cultural lens, plus a host of other techniques to keep our analysis both wide and deep.

We use two approaches to identify winning brand opportunities:

Bottom-up: This approach gives you a cultural situation report in the form of a semiotic map. It’s a form of trend forecasting that is more rooted in deeper cultural shifts that short term fads. By mapping residual (past), dominant (present) and emergent (future) codes, you can identify opportunity spaces that modernise and future-proof your brand.

  • Top-down: This approach overlays the relevant hidden meanings of the broader role of your category (and its neighbours), that exist in our minds, thanks to deep rooted cultural understanding. Overlapping a number of different coded meanings can create opportunity gold, and this is where we can build unique positionings that truly resonate with your brand and connect with consumers’ subconscious. It’s all about identifying the opportunities that will drive equity now and into the future.
  • The bottom line is that by embracing systems 1 thinking, you get to influence the part of the brain that makes 95% of the decision at the point of purchase. You also end up with a more unique positioning that is more ownable and helps future proof your brand.


    Content includes:

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    ISSUE 14

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