OPINION1 December 2021

Branding lessons from James Bond

Behavioural science Leisure & Arts Media Opinion

We can all learn something of interest about how brand decisions are made from the way the world’s most famous secret agent operates. Nick Saxby uses neuroscience techniques to elaborate.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to Die

Emotions are like a gateway to our non-conscious mind. Our work-averse brains do not like to rely on consciously processing all the information presented to us, and so we have evolved to use past and present emotions to help guide our decision-making and feed our hungry, “predictive machine” brains. Understanding the importance of emotions, therefore, is a powerful tool in comms.

Neuroscience has shown us that most brand decisions are made intuitively and emotionally rather than rationally, and that most advertising is processed at very low levels of engagement. Simply put, emotional ads are more effective.

But what does 007 have to do with all this? The James Bond brand has become an international phenomenon, growing over decades. Evaluating the recent trailer for No Time To Die with implicit testing sheds light on how these coveted emotional connections are formed and showcases what brands can learn from the model of Bond. We’ll also see how implicit testing is crucial to uncovering this deeper layer of emotional insight.

Everyone loves the thrilling sequences of stunts and explosions, and of course the fact that Bond is so cool. However, these are not necessarily the only themes that drive strong emotional reactions.

Be authentic, be real, speak human
Explosions are great, but when Bond shows us a glimpse of vulnerability and an authentic human side, we observed an emotional reaction that is greater in comparison to any action scene. We see a brief exchange where Bond says, “Hello Q, I’ve missed you” which has a humanising effect, allowing for the audience to relate to him. This remark brings a large peak in EEG, shown with a red peak (signifying positive approach tendencies) and a peak in GSR (showing excitement).

From a communications and advertising perspective, this highlights the necessity of authentic, human behaviour. We know authenticity drives engagement, and brands showing their true and human side can work to great effect to build positive associations. Do not be afraid to convey a human side.

Emotional patterns
Later in the trailer, we see James Bond taking heavy fire in his car in a scene rife with action. This evokes avoidance behaviour from the audience, demonstrated in slightly negative EEG results combined with a peak in GSR, signifying a motivation of not wanting to be associated with the distressing scene. However, following this, we cut to a shot of Bond with a calm expression in the bullet-ridden car – this causes the strongest positive reaction in the whole trailer.

The term “emotional rollercoaster” is apt in communications. Taking the audience on an emotional journey is necessary to achieve the highest highs of emotion, which sometimes means gathering momentum through peaks and troughs.

We can see this in effect where, in the form of a story, adverts present us with a relatable problem and then provide a meaningful solution. By eliciting a negative emotional reaction through the problem (albeit small, anything too severe can cause issues), the positive emotional reaction to the solution is higher because we have a negative reference point. When this positive spin is bound to the brand, it can work strongly to drive positive affiliations, as demonstrated in this James Bond trailer.

Brand assets
Looking down the gun barrel, we see Bond dramatically pivot, raising his gun and shooting. An iconic scene that most will expect in the title sequence of any Bond film: a Bond brand asset. An asset is anything from shapes, colours and auditory cues to imagery, straplines and icons that represent the brand and its network of mental associations in the brain.

The asset mentioned here piques our engagement and excitement, shown with strong EEG and GSR results. Showing a rendition of this scene at the end of the trailer is a clever way to drive a strong reaction before concluding the video. This strong reaction of excitement was combined with the call-to-action of the release date, creating a lasting association that will remain salient in the viewer’s memory, setting up expectations and feeding anticipation. Had there been no association, this excitement may have been too fleeting. 

The first thing this shows is the importance of consistent and congruent assets. From a basic sense, consistent assets help drive familiarity and relevance. However, as mentioned before, decisions are often driven by emotions and our non-conscious brain. Therefore, brands need to be mentally available in order to be accessed by this non-conscious brain. Being consistent and congruent with brand assets helps this.

While we know not every brand has the assets of Bond, what brands can do is take learnings in how Bond uses its assets to stay mentally available. The consistency of assets such as distinctive shapes, colours or scenes like shooting down the barrel of a gun, or the tone and auditory cues constantly used by Bond, means the brand’s mental availability in consumers’ mind improves.

Moreover, this Bond scene highlights how binding an asset, which the audience recognises and knows, to a call-to-action can be very effective. Brands can learn from these techniques when driving such engagement.

Brands can learn a lot from these implicit findings – be authentic, think about the emotional pattern of your ad and use brand assets effectively. But it is the research community who are charged with steering creative development and making sure all comms land the right messages and strike a chord with audiences. And it’s clear that relying solely on explicit or traditional methods will only scratch the surface for those looking to make comms that are emotionally resonant. Go deeper with your creative testing and be rewarded with impactful comms that stand the test of time.

Nick Saxby is research manager at Walnut Unlimited.