What Is ‘System 1’ Thinking—and Why Do You Need to Learn It?

Consistent visuals, audio cues, and brand characters can ingrain your brand into consumers’ System 1 thinking. Illia Cherednychenko/Unsplash

System 1 has become a big buzz-phrase in the marketing industry—and deservedly so.

The concept, developed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, posits that decision-making is not entirely based on conscious, rational thought. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman delineates two modes of thinking: “System 1” is instantaneous, driven by instinct and prior learning; “System 2” is slower, driven by deliberation and logic. Even when we believe we are making decisions based on rational considerations, our System 1 beliefs, biases, and intuition drive many of our choices.

System 1 thinking can drive which ads consumers pay attention to, as well as what brands they buy. So plenty of marketers are desperate to crack the System 1 code. Some of them even think they have, which means we’ve got a lot of myths, misconceptions, and missed opportunities on our hands. But here are five ways we know marketing can tap into System 1 thinking.

  1. To become the automatic, no-brainer purchase is the greatest success a brand can achieve—and it requires command of System 1 brain processing.

Advertising works, over time, to help shape brand beliefs and behaviors. To the extent that these beliefs are firmly seated in the brain, they require little conscious thought at the point of purchase.

You don’t want the consumer to really think about whether to buy your brand—you want it to become the obvious choice, the gut-level best decision. That automatic purchase (“Why wouldn’t I buy this brand?”) can’t happen unless your brand is lodged in consumers’ System 1 brain processing. That’s the only place in the brain where instantaneous, instinctual decisions can originate.

  1. All emotional responses are based in System 1, but not all System 1 thinking is emotional.

Any gut-level, rapid, effortless thought or behavior comes from System 1. While many advertisers are equating System 1 with emotion, this is a misconception that oversimplifies and distorts its true meaning and power.

For example, when you’re driving or walking to a friend’s house, you’re on auto-pilot. This is not an operation that demands strategic thinking; traveling this route is a previously learned behavior. Your System 1 thinking, which includes deeply embedded memories, is doing all the work. Same when you’re riding a bike; “muscle memory” is pure System 1 processing. But there’s nothing emotional about these actions.

In a consumer context, think of your mindset when you’re in a rush and grab your usual brand of milk at the store. You don’t give it much thought, do you? That’s System 1 in action. Do you love the brand? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it’s just easier not to undertake a critical evaluation of all the competitive options at that moment. Either way, your selection was driven by System 1, but it wasn’t necessarily an emotional decision.

  1. Emotional ads are not the key to nailing System 1 embedding.

Moving, memorable TV commercials are everywhere. Agencies pride themselves to creating “anthemic” ads that build a crescendo of emotional responses—first from their brand clients, who forget all the headaches of working for their company and embrace the elation such ads evoke. They then give the agency carte blanche to focus on generating excitement, inspiration, and unadulterated sentimentality. In an age where every brand wants to go viral, this trend is here to stay.

But we all know how rare it is for a consumer—or, for that matter, a marketing professional—to remember which brand that epic commercial was advertising. If consumers remember your ad but don’t link it to your brand, you just spent a lot of money failing to penetrate their System 1 processing. You’ve made it into their memory bank, but not into the part that’s connected to the brand. They’re not going to think of your product when it comes to making a choice.

  1. The key to embedding your brand in System 1 isn’t anything revolutionary.

Many brands are trying to win consumers over with radically new campaigns, striving to engage on every digital platform, and hoping to build brand equity by being “bold” and “fresh.” In the process, they’re often ditching whatever foothold they may have had in consumers’ System 1 thinking.

That’s because these advertising overhauls tend to include disposing of valuable, distinctive brand assets that have had countless millions of dollars and years of development invested in them. Brands would see more ROI—both short-term and in the future—by leveraging those distinctive brand assets to deepen their brand’s resonance in consumers’ System 1 thinking.

For example, the characters introduced by M&M’s decades ago are still popular today, and have even spawned M&M’s retail stores and multiple line extensions. M&M’s removed the characters from ads years ago, fearing the public was tired of them. Instead, consumers demanded to know where they went—and M&M’s resurrected them.

No, persistent use of specific colors isn’t going to get your CMO invited to keynote at SXSW. But that, along with other consistent visuals, audio cues, and brand characters can ingrain your brand into consumers’ System 1 thinking on a sustainable, mass scale. Smart advertisers and agencies might add a new and surprising twist to distinctive brand assets, but they maintain recognizable elements that have resonated successfully. Those distinctive brand assets continue to connect with consumers, whose System 1 processing is drawn to the familiar.

  1. System 2 can tag-team with System 1 to close the deal.

While you want your brand to be a no-brainer choice, many purchases—particularly for larger ticket or considered purchase items—are based on System 1 beliefs overlaid with more rational information. If you’ve fallen in love with a Porsche and are considering buying it, you might be led further down the path to purchase with information about resale value. This data can serve as a permission slip to buy the car you had your heart set on.

Consequently, many brands can close the sale by combining System 2 messages, which are more fact-based, with reinforcement of consumers’ System 1 beliefs about the brand. Those rational messages can provide powerful justification in the choice to buy. (They don’t call it rationalization for nothing.)

The kicker is that rational information about a brand can work both ways. If you just don’t like the Crocs brand of shoes, and decided long ago that they weren’t your style, you’re not going to buy Crocs just because they’re durable and affordable. You’ve long ago eliminated them from your consideration set.

Across almost every consumer category, brand equity is at an all-time low. Amid fierce competition, few brands can afford to rely on flawed assumptions about System 1. Those that can build informed, nuanced System 1 strategies might just save their brands from extinction. Those that don’t will fade from memory—and the marketplace.

Jeri Smith is the CEO of advertising research firm Communicus. Her clients include Fortune 100 companies and the top advertisers in the United States. She has contributed to Fox Business News, Wall Street Journal Live, Forbes, Ad Age, The Drum, and more.

What Is ‘System 1’ Thinking—and Why Do You Need to Learn It?