We’re still buzzing about Daniel Kahneman’s talk this week in London.  Not about the Nobel prize winner psychologist’s book – Thinking, Fast and Slow – we’ve read that, and already use its key insight (successful innovation appeals to and creates memories).  What we’re buzzing about is Kahneman’s idea that ‘associative coherence‘ is also critical to achieve consumer appeal…

‘Associative coherence’ simply means that an idea or innovation makes intuitive sense when we’re in ‘fast-thinking’ mode because it fits with associations that we already make around a product category or activity.

(Quick recap – Kahneman suggests we have all have two thinking modes; a ‘Fast Thinking‘ mode based on automatic and largely unconscious intuition (and the product of the positive or negative associations we make about something (as well as a bunch of unconscious mental rules of thumb)), and a ‘Slow Thinking‘ mode based on controlled and conscious deliberation.  Kahneman suggests we – including consumers – spend most of our time in ‘Fast Thinking’ mode letting ourselves be guided by automatic, unconscious processes, with the implication that consumer innovations need to appeal to Fast Thinking consumers).

So to appeal to the Fast Thinker in every consumer – the mode we’re likely to be when out shopping – innovations need to build on and reinforce the positive associations consumers already make around a product category. And to do that we need to know what these associations are. And to identify these, we just need to get consumers onto the [metaphorical] psychologist’s couch and play the association game (the ‘WAT’ – word association test) using the product category and the activity as trigger words…

  • What [Word/Memory/Feeling] first come[s] to mind when I say [Product Category/Activity]?
    • e.g. What word first comes to mind when I say ‘Vodka’?
    • e.g. What memory first comes to mind when I say ‘Vodka’?
    • e.g. What feeling first comes to mind when I say ‘Vodka’?
    • e.g. What word first comes to mind when I say ‘doing Vodka shots’?
    • e.g. What memory first comes to mind when I say ‘doing Vodka shots’?
    • e.g. What feeling first comes to mind when I say ‘doing Vodka shots’?

Now the innovation sweet spot for brand extensions is in the overlap of these associations with the associations made around the brand. Why, because that means the innovation will have ‘associative coherence’ with the product, its use, and the brand.


Of course, the WAT is a qual technique, but since associations are often shared as part of shared popular culture, if consumers independently make similar associations, then we can have a degree of confidence over their validity and reliability  (and quant. minded researchers could use them as options in a ‘sentence completion’ validation survey question).

Bottom line, as Kahneman’s model is digested by innovation and advertising agencies – we think we’ll see a big resurgence in the use of associative techniques looking for the holy grail of associative coherence.




  1. Reg Manser Reply

    Great review of Kahneman’s thinking – he seems to be everywhere at the moment (TV, radio and lecture circuit), and ‘Thinking, Fast & Slow’ is gaining lots of traction with marketers and branding agencies.

    The puzzle for many is that Kahneman says the way to influence decision-making is to align your brand so it moulds to people’s current beliefs and reinforces them… But on the other hand, the STEPPS and SUCCES models (and meme theory) say you have to be loud, distinctive and unexpected to make your message memorable and infectious. And most agencies are pursuing a strategy of ‘disruption’ to differentiate their brands from the competition.

    So, should we be endorsing people’s beliefs or challenging them? Maybe it depends on the stage in the communication process (you need disruption to get their attention, but you need coherence to gain their trust)?

    Is anyone else in 2 minds about this?

    • Paul Marsden Reply

      Thanks Reg, think you’re right about the stage of communication mattering here, but also the purpose, subject and context of the communication. If it’s to trigger purchase at the supermarket shelf, then heuristic cues rule… But if it is to drive attitude change then you may need a full on assault of the senses…

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