Marketing to Your Mind

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


Remember that slew of Herbie movies from the ’70s and ’80s in which a talking car goes on many an adventure? That this talking car would be a Volkswagen Beetle was no accident. In fact, it was specifically chosen because the Beetle’s front looks like a face. And a cute, cuddly, happy one at that.

Most of the world’s most popular cars have smiley faces that you instinctively pick up on, even though you don’t actually associate the front of your car with a human face. Car designers spend months trying to get the front of a car to make that association with your brain and convey to you a feeling of contentment. That’s because they know that smiling is a signal that has been recognized by our brains for centuries. Our brains are hardwired to identify smiles, even when they’re upside down. It’s a preservation instinct that tells us when someone is friendly or aggressive, and designers and marketers not only know that, they use it to reach us on a basic human level. And they’re not the only ones doing it.

“It’s surprisingly easy to take human psychology into account [in marketing],” says John Sharp, M.D., author of “The Emotional Calendar” and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “When targeting a narrow age group or demographic,” says Sharp, “there actually is a lot of data out there about what people like us typically relate to.” We like thrilling, adventure-type images and experiences, he explains, and we like cute, cuddly, warm, and fuzzy images as well. “This corresponds to long-held human motivations. Products that tap into these primal interests gain access to what is appealing.”

What if our brains could tell marketers our deepest preferences and our biases even if we weren’t consciously aware of them, leading them to design products that would appeal to us even when we insisted they wouldn’t? That’s not science fiction. In fact, marketing to us using our brains is an industry that’s just beginning to grow.

How They Do It

Martin Lindstrom, New York Times bestselling author of ““Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,” says that the key for marketers is to first understand the audience and thus the symbolics — the study of ancient symbols — they care about. “Needless to say that dog or bird owners are captivated by other symbolics than mothers with a newborn baby or pensioners,” says Lindstrom. Once this is understood, it is essential to understand the symbolics reflecting this world of interest—then to embed these indirectly into the merchandise. “The reason why the Mini Cooper was as successful as it was,” Lindstrom explains, “is because the baby symbolics used are very subtle and leaving it up to the observer (or owner of the car) to discover, rather than being told or shouted at.”

“Marketers do a comprehensive analysis of their audience, break out their attributes incountless dimensions, analyze what would appeal to their senses, and create demand by producing brain activity that would trigger purchase intent, curiousity, and imagination,” says Nikos Acuna, author of “Mindshare: Igniting Creativity and Innovation through Design Intelligence.” “Take for instance the new campaign for Microsoft’s IE9 — which is a very cutting-edge ad that caters to a younger demographic and essentially tries to capture Apple’s design-driven audience. The way that the commercial is shot speaks to a richer web experience, with lots of eye and ear candy to match. This is what their research has shown, and the rise of design thinking elevates this dynamic. This is all very clever on their part, but primarily because they focused on creating a more intuitive brand experience.”

There are three main parts of the brain: the cortex, which is responsible for learning, language, logic, and our conscious thoughts; the limbic system, which is responsible for our emotions, memories, and hormones; and the R-complex, or reptilian brain, which controls our basic survival mechanisms, such as hunger, breathing and fight-or-flight responses. It is this last part of the brain that marketers and designers are interested in, because while we as conscious consumers like to believe that we’re making decisions on the products we buy after much thought, the truth is a lot of it essentially comes down to what marketers have tricked our brains into unconsciously seeing or believing.

An experiment performed by Lindstrom demonstrated this. In a restaurant, he hired four actors to play the roles of four friends sharing a meal. They all ordered soup, the only starter on the menu, and then, after taking one mouthful, one of the actors asked for a waiter and ranted for three minutes about how the soup was far too hot. As the evening progressed, more complaints about the soup started trickling in. In the end, Lindstrom found that 26 percent of the guests had made similar complaints about the soup.

As much as we like to tout individuality, the truth is, our brains are unconsciously taking in a stream of information and being influenced by it all. And that’s just the beginning. Neuroscience is beginning to show us how the female brain differs from the male brain, an aging mind from a young person’s, and so on. For instance, A.K. Pradeep, author of “The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind,” found that a brain over the age of 60 has learned to ignore negative messaging, so marketers trying to appeal to this market need to frame their marketing in a positive way.


“A famous retailer some hundred years ago said that 50 percent of what we do works,” says Lindstrom. “The problem is that we don’t know which 50 percent. And unfortunately, this is still the issue. I think it is fair to say that we get things more wrong than right. Neuroscience is slowly helping to change this track, which means that obvious mistakes like usage of wrong symbolics, sensory clues or conflicting messages now are cleaned out, but there’s still a long way to go.”

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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