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How Cognitive Dissonance can affect your brand

Recently Alex Walker of Sitepoint discussed the issue of how design can be so subtly out of sync with our expectations that we become uncomfortable, often without even understanding why.

He gave the example of a milk brand that rebranded under the name “Green Pastures.” The brand now uses a funky casual handwritten font style that looks friendly and approachable, with a white liquid droplet shape around the text that is quite charming.

But the color choices make no sense. Instead of applying colors that make you think of green pastures, the colors used are desert shades of brown and beige that have no relationship to grass in any way, unless you’re thinking of dead or dying pastures. As a result, when you see the branding, there is a strong negative impact. You feel uncomfortable. Many people would likely never understand why they feel that way, but it’s directly related to those unexpected color choices that don’t sync with your expectations.

Experts call this “Cognitive Dissonance.” The term was coined by American psychologist Leon Festinger, who theorized that when people encounter it they will generally try to remove or resolve the discomfort they’re feeling and/or avoid whatever caused that discomfort in future. This effect can undo all the work you’ve put into your branding!

This is something I run across quite frequently, especially when branding work is produced by inexperienced or untrained designers. Companies will attempt to save money or, unaware of the dangers of poor branding decisions, will even give the project to a “friend of the family” because that person has a creative skill of some kind. These inexperienced designers will make errors that create cognitive dissonance, completely unaware of the negative connotations of their decision.

Other examples

But Cognitive Dissonance isn’t only caused by inexperience. Even large, professional branding firms can make big mistakes, missing some critical element of the target audience’s expectation and thus making them uncomfortable.

A number of years ago the Vancouver Canucks hired a large branding firm in California to redesign the logo. The agency came up with the Canucks’ former red and orange skate logo. During their presentation, they spun a tale of sophisticated scientific mumbo jumbo to Canucks leadership about how red and orange create elevated heart rates and would empower the team’s audience support.

The problem was that red and orange have nothing to do with Vancouver. The agency, located far from Vancouver, didn’t understand the city’s relationship to green and blue, the colors associated with Vancouver’s spectacular natural setting. While the logo was an awesome design, the color choices generated Cognitive Dissonance that rubbed people the wrong way. This was further elevated with a terrible jersey design. Eventually it became necessary to ditch the logo and start over. The current Orca logo is perfectly suited to Vancouver. But imagine the same logo if it used red and orange colors! The problem is not the logo design itself, but what happens when you use the wrong colors.

Recently I worked with a brand that used a beautifully designed abstract tree symbol as their logo. The logo itself was quite beautiful and well suited to the brand. The designer, trying to work with a three-pronged mission statement, thought it would be cool to put the symbol inside a triangle shape because the triangle has three sides. Unfortunately, the result was cognitive dissonance, because a tree being confined within such a shape has nowhere to grow. It became constrained and restricted — hemmed in on all sides. The result is a distinct feeling of discomfort when viewing the logo.

Studies on visual design have shown that when people see an object like a logo confined too strongly within a restricting shape they may become physically uncomfortable to the point of wanting to get away from the source of that discomfort. If asked, they would have no idea why they were uncomfortable. Yet the mind produces these feelings and we in turn respond by avoiding that company. I simply freed the tree from its confining shape and the brand became beautifully expressive.

More than colors and shapes

Cognitive Dissonance isn’t limited to colors or constraining boundaries. One of the examples I like to share when I give branding presentations is a fictional illustration of how a well-known brand could create Cognitive Dissonance with a simple use of the wrong font. Think of a company known for bold, masculine construction equipment. These companies typically use bold, masculine font choices. Imagine if their logo used a feminine or script-like font. Looking at their branding would then be very uncomfortable. This may seem obvious but this kind of mistake happens a lot!

Rolls Royce uses a font that is filled with elegance and history. Consider the impact if the font used were something too playful or that didn’t properly reflect the history or character of the brand. The brand would never achieve the kind of respect it deserves, simply because of the wrong font choice. Again, this seems so obvious it may appear to be a silly example, but it underscores how important these things are in brand development.

Dissonance can happen as a result of poor font choices, bad color choices, or other visual elements that conflict with the expectation people might have for that brand.

When thinking of branding, make sure you hire someone with extensive experience who understands the dangers of Cognitive Dissonance.

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George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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