Barack? Or, not Barack? That is the question.

Take a look at these caricatures and see which ones you feel are Barack Obama and which aren’t?


So was it easy to decide? Did you really have to think about it, or did you instantly know? Recognition is a System 1, subconscious process. It is rapid and instant. Often it is or it isn’t. There may have been times when you consciously questioned if it could be him? But no doubt you went with your instincts. Equally, I will bet you will agree with other people which ones are Barack and which aren’t.

So what’s the point of this? Well, the point is that none of these are a picture of Barack Obama. They are all images of him that have been changed in some way. For some this has affected their ability to be recognised as Barack Obama and for others it has not. If I asked you what makes a caricature Barack or not, you may have said his ears, eyebrows and hair (possibly his teeth). But all these caricatures accentuate some of these features; even the ones that aren’t him. The truth is you do not know!

Beyond your awareness

The reason you do not know is that this information is stored in the System1, subconscious memory. The System 1 memory stores the minimum elements of stimuli it needs to recognise something or someone. Despite us having no conscious awareness of what these elements are, if enough of them are present, or they are close enough to what is stored in the brain, the brain fills in the blanks. With these caricatures, some artists have been successful in capturing enough of those elements to trigger recognition, whilst others have not.

Furthermore, each of the changes have different implicit meaning. If I were to ask which caricatures represent pride and resolve, deflation and defeat, or happiness, I would guess that you know which ones I am talking about instantly.

Winning the moment that matters

We recognise brands in exactly the same way as we recognise people. Visually-based brand assets, like logos, work for brands on the same basis. The System 1 brain does not have a picture stored; just the minimum elements of stimuli it needs to recognise the brand. Like a caricature, there is scope for change before recognition is lost and that change can be made to enhance or alter meaning at an implicit level.

Consequently, brand assets can be strategically improved for competitive advantage. Having better recognition and signalling relevance at an implicit level increases the chances of your brand being chosen at ‘the moment’ that truly matters for a brand - the moment when the shopper decides to pick a brand off the shelf and put it in their trolley, or clicks on it to put it in the virtual basket of the online shop.

De-risking change

Change for brands often presents risk. Most design changes are done based on intuition and guesswork. This tends to have its flaws and occasionally leads to disaster. No one, no matter their experience, can definitively tell you which elements of your brand assets drive recognition based on their System 2, conscious judgement. System 2 rational evaluation of marketing stimuli almost never reveals true understanding of its role and value. It is a post-rationalised guess. That also goes for the responses you solicit in research; your consumers do not explicitly know either.

There are ways to know what brand assets are stored within the System 1 brain and to explore their scope for change and flex. Understanding how brand assets work requires different techniques to traditional research and a better understanding of how the brain makes decisions about brands. At Walton Barker we use our experience of working in branding and design, and our knowledge of behavioural science, to identify the elements of a brand’s stimuli that are truly valuable in the decision-making and buying process. Simply put we can help you make knowledge-based decisions that help you win at the moment that matters and improve the broader performance of your marketing.  


Fran Walton has worked in brand insight and consultancy for over 25 years for both agencies and clients alike. Fran has always held a keen interest in the human decision-making sciences. He has applied this knowledge to help brands communicate more effectively in retail environments and across new media, and to drive diffusion of disruptive innovations.