Republicans Buy Nikes Too

It starts with understanding the neuroscience of branding and how it is evolving in consumers’ minds.

Editor’s Note:  Matt Johnson, PhD., and Prince Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses.  to go deeper on the topic of neuromarketing, check out TheCustomer’s recent interview with them here.

This was Michael Jordan’s response when asked about his views on socio-political issues. Compare that to Lebron James’ “More than an athlete” mentality towards socio-political issues.  MJ and Lebron’s perspectives mirror the binary choices facing brands today – take a social stand or stay quiet. While CEOs mull over the decision, it is worth investigating how we got here and what comes next.

By Matt Johnson, Phd., and Prince Ghuman

It starts with understanding the neuroscience of branding and how it is evolving in consumers’ minds.


Anthro what? What neuroscientists call anthropomorphism, laypeople call personification and CEOs call brand personality. We tend to attribute human traits to non-human things such as animals, rocks, and events. It is an old concept proven in labs via research such as the 1944 Heider and Simmel study. The study used a cartoon interaction of two triangles and a dot to bring some participants to tears. Here’s a preview of what some people see in the image below:

  • The little triangle could be the hero, or the accomplice, or the one who helps set people free.
  • Big triangle is Kylo Ren, Little triangle is Rey, Circle is Finn, Square is Starkiller Base
  • The big triangle is a selfish, aggressive bully. It is also a hostage taker, taking the ball against its will that obviously wanted to go to the small triangle. The small triangle is a peacemaker, trying its best to be friendly to the large triangle. It is also loving and loyal to the ball. The small triangle is also inclusive and showed that it would be willing to include the large triangle but the large triangle would have none of it.
Source: YouTube, screenshot from the original animation from study in 1944

Anthropomorphism starts at a young age when children attach personalities to dolls, trucks, and the like. The tendency to personify only gets stronger after graduating to pets. Adult life is packed with anthropomorphism too. In 2020 alone, COVID feels like an evil person, and California fires have a personality that keeps raging on relentlessly. Posts in social media and journalism personified the year itself – 2020 isn’t done with us yet.

Anthropomorphism in Business

What is a brand if not anthropomorphism in business? Marketers long ago converged upon creating a brand personality that builds upon our anthropomorphic nature. Whether it’s selling flights, phones, or fitness, Virgin is a rebel. Whether it’s movies, games, or theme parts, Lego is a magical creator. The brand personality archetypes are taught in business schools all over the world.

As companies matured and became more data-driven, brand personalities got sharper as a result. Tech brands like Skype, Snap, and Twitter have found ways to convey personality via fonts, colors, and user experience with products that only exist in code.  Touchable or not, consumers respond well to a sharp brand personality. They may not be conscious of it, but a brand is a person in the mind of a consumer.

Back to MJ vs. Lebron

Consumers and brands have evolved in parallel. In the 90s, it was enough for Nike to own the brand personality of a hero for consumers to buy into Nike as a person. Portraying Michael Jordan as a real-life hero further validated Nike as a heroic person.

Fast forward to today, consumers continue to personify brands but demand more. Personality alone was enough to earn trust in MJ’s era of branding. But in Lebron’s era of branding, consumers are demanding more than personality to earn their trust.  They are demanding socio-political stances. Consumers are evolving, and brands must too.

Edelman’s Brand Trust 2020 is one of many studies to show precisely this – nearly 2/3rds of consumers say trusting a brand is second to price. Sprout Social’s research found 66% of consumers surveyed want brands to take a stance on socio-political issues.

Brands were architected by marketers to be anthropomorphic persons. Brands must now go all the way by not just having a personality but opinions and stances if they want to be trusted by consumers.  If Lebron can be more than an athlete, brands can be more than a personality too.

Johnson and Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”.

This article originally appeared in PopNeuro.  Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash.

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