Why neuroscience marketing is at the heart of clever strategy
Let’s talk marketing strategy. What drives consumers to opt in to your products or services? What keeps them there and retains their loyalty? What are their tipping points, and how does your business make them feel?
These questions, although lofty seeming, tie back to neuroscience and its role in marketing and without considering the importance of understanding consumer psychology, any marketing strategy is flying blind.
Too often, businesses that approach us for guidance come to us from a place of marketing plans failing to achieve the desired results and when we drill down and analyse why, the problem often starts with psychology being ignored – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s talk about the three brains. If anyone in your business has taken a short psychology course, you’ll likely have heard of the three brains – a theory referring to the structure of the brain in relation to its evolutionary history. The concept was popularised in the 1940s as part of MacLean’s Turine Brain Theory wherein the brain was categorised into three components:
The reptilian brain controls your body’s core functions (such as balance and heart rate). Including the brain stem and cerebellum, the main structures found in the brain of reptiles, the reptilian brain evolved first.
The limbic brain evolved second and is the part of your brain responsible for recording memories and experiences (including behaviours that produced pleasant/unpleasant feelings). Including the hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdala, it controls your value judgements and emotions.
Neocortex (new/logical & rational)
The neocortex was the last to evolve and is responsible for developing abstract thought, imagination, consciousness and expression (such as language and creativity).
If you follow classic economic theory, consumers are positioned as rational players in a game who, after considering all relevant facts and information, make decisions using the neocortex or ‘new’ brain. Let’s explore this.
Our subconscious plays into our decisions through a hierarchy of needs and emotion. There are six fundamental human emotional needs – love, growth, connection, variety, security and significance – and whilst we are all unique, we share these common needs. To which degree these needs are met will determine our self-esteem, how we relate to others and how we experience life. And trickling down from this, every human behaviour that we exhibit at any given moment is an attempt to meet one or more of our needs, including our consumer behaviour.
Buying an expensive car can feed our need to feel significant.
Giving gifts to others can nurture our need for love and connection.
Signing up for a business course can fuel our sense of growth.
Purchasing a plane ticket on the spur of the moment can help us feel variety.
Expensive insurance, although we might never need it, helps us feel secure.
Now let’s talk living within our means… because most people will pay disproportionately to feel significant. In fact, any purchase/signup that helps an individual associate further with what they deem to be their identity is automatically justified by the individual based on the emotional pull… even if the rational mind alone would never agree to the purchase.
Let’s say you take out a significant loan to help you purchase a large, extravagant house. Perhaps the loan is, realistically, far more than you can truly afford and maybe the house is more than you need. But a flashy house, to you, represents someone who is secure, successful and in charge. You want to feel all of those things and beyond that, you see yourself as possessing all of those attributes. Despite the home’s large price tag and the mini cardiac arrest you experience every time you look at your bank statement, these rational/conscious thoughts are easily overpowered by the sense of meeting your emotional needs. And here we see how the art of ‘justification’ starts to get murky.
Because we can never truly separate conscious and subconscious minds. Smart marketers know this, and smart marketers use emotional pull as a powerful tool for alignment and market positioning, all of which benefit their sales/signups in the long term (and as we know, the long term is where the sustainable success – far outweighing fleeting ‘dollar today’ short term sales – occurs).
To illustrate this, let’s look at one of the most successful video campaigns in recent years – Proctor & Gamble’s 2014 “Pick Them Back Up” campaign, which was part of a greater brand positioning strategy. The campaign tells the story of mothers who supported their children (that then went on to become Olympians) throughout every step in their life journeys. The storyline cleverly highlights P&G products that helped them along the way and, whilst not a direct sales tool, the campaign bolsters sales by first bolstering brand confidence.
By holistically connecting to the emotions of parents who support their children’s dreams (appealing to new parents and parents of adult children, looking back, alike), the campaign tells a memorable story and creates a strong brand association (that P&G’s products contribute to parents that raise successful children). We can see here where the fundamental human needs come in… love, connection, security and significance are all primal and powerful drawcards.
Consumers, upon exposure to the campaign, won’t immediately go out and fill their trolleys with P&G products… but they will think of P&G thanks to the brand associations and emotional pull. And the next time they need a product that P&G happens to manufacture, you can guarantee that their subconscious decision making, fuelled by P&G’s identity reinforcement, will guide them to align with the brand.
Because people don’t buy things, they buy emotion. They sign up for connection. They join for security. They engage for validation. And that is immensely powerful.
Here’s the crucial component that marketing blind (a.k.a. marketing without an overarching strategy) fails to consider:
Although product/service quality and company reputation undoubtedly matter… the reason consumers will buy, engage, signup or otherwise interact with your business goes far beyond the fundamentals; far beyond logical justification, even. It may sound counterintuitive, but these decisions are subconscious.
Up to 90% of our purchasing/signup decisions, in fact, are made subconsciously according to Nielsen research.Whilst our conscious, rational minds can handle just short of 100 pieces of sensory information every second, our subconscious mind can process up to 11 million pieces of sensory information per second. 11 million.
If purchasing and signup decisions were left to the logical conscious mind alone – and considering that the subconscious mind deals with emotional triggers and sentiment – to expect consumers to make purely logical decisions and thus, attempt to appeal to them purely with facts and reasoning, would be foolish.
And yet that’s what so many businesses do.
Abstracting further from this, though… purchase and signup behaviour isn’t purely emotionally driven. Just as we cannot be myopic about reason/logic, we must not act hypocritically when it comes to using emotion in marketing and branding strategy.
Just as marketing without an overarching strategy often excludes subconscious reasoning, so too does it discount the power of our reptilian brains in everyday purchases. This is an important distinction point, too – not all purchases/signups are equal and nor will they be treated to identical decision making processes in consumers. We can’t ignore this (or rather, we shouldn’t) but many marketers do.
2013 research on ‘The New Science of Pleasure’ theorises that the wiring of our brains in this modern day and age means that connections from our emotional structures to our cognitive structures are significantly stronger than vice versa. In short, this means that our decision making processes are significantly less rational that we’d like to believe and feelings occur not only before thought, but at a faster rate.
The ’gut reactions’ that many of us rely on occur within three seconds or less.
Why is this important?
Because in marketing to people, we can better understand decision making processes and how to effectively influence those decisions if we leverage neuroscience. Read Montagne, Prof. of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, popularised ‘neuromarketing’ in 2004 when he studied the effects on the brain in relation to the Coca Cola brand. He studied a group as they drank either a Coke or a Pepsi, scanning their brains with fMRI while they consumed their beverages. The results suggested that, through emotional pull, brands could “own” part of consumers frontal cortex with brand association and core value/identity drivers and that the reptilian brain was similarly activated by these emotional pulls with physical responses to the stimuli – such as quickened breathing and heart rate.
The reptilian brain loves the familiar… perceived security.
It loves emotional persuasion… perceived growth.
It loves anything self-focused… perceived survival.
It all comes back to emotion, and that emotional pull certainly can’t be viewed only at a micro level.
With great power comes great responsibility, though, and the very same emotional pull used to leverage consumers’ purchase and signup decisions can easily backfire on businesses who choose to misuse their power of influence. As always, marketing knowledge must be used to benefit the consumer first – the heart of all great marketing strategy. And, similarly, timing is everything. A well timed campaign can cue long term positive sentiment and brand alignment and, as a result, commercial boost. The same campaign with slightly altered timing, occurring in the context of events that were outside of a company’s control (for example, political upheaval or terrorism) may flop. This highlights the importance of not only an effective marketing and brand strategy, but an effective business strategy and operations strategy. All of this operates in parallel.
Because marketing does not occur in a vacuum. Smart businesses are realising this.
The question is, what’s your marketing plan for this year – and importantly, what overarching strategy drives it?