7 Marketing Lessons from Neuroscience

The brain science of marketing

In his recent book Brainfluence, Roger Dooley shares 100 tricks for persuading and convincing consumers based on a wide range of evidence from neuromarketing and many other fields such as psychology and behavioural economics. The examples are well documented and overall this is a much more practical, structured and sound guide to brain science of marketing than many other books (including notably Buyology which is less structured and poorly documented).

Many of the tactics outlined in the book make perfect sense and have sometimes been popular wisdom for a very long time, even without the scientific evidence which backs their effectiveness. Others are more speculative and less explainable by our current knowledge, but always based on real experiments which demonstrate that the 95% (or more) of the thinking, emotions and learning which happens outside our conscious control is using a complex system of heuristics (mental shortcuts) to make our decision making (and hence our lives) as simple and efficient as possible.

Rather than repeat the contents of the book, here are seven key themes which emerge from the 100 ideas, and are consistent with many articles here and also at

Getting in your face

Humans are instantly drawn to faces (read more here), and including names, pictures and personal testimonials is always far more powerful than anonymous advertising and generic claims. Our brains look at faces before anything else in our environment and are wired to process them much more quickly than any other visual stimulus. Faces have a great impact on our behaviour. For example, Roger Dooley cites an example of radiologists who were far more meticulous in their jobs when a patient file contained a personal picture (and claimed to feel more connected to the patients too).

Faces also encourage us to comply, even when they are our own in a mirror, encouraging more ‘socially responsible’ behaviour (by making us think about our own self image). In one famous experiment, the use of a pair of eyes in a picture dramatically reduced the amount of petty theft / non payment in a company pantry area. We pay attention to the people around us (including ourselves) and the behavioural signals we send.

Faces are a powerful tool in advertising (read more here) and create a much more personal impression than any other form of marketing collateral. That’s especially true of baby faces (read more about baby face bias here), having a much greater impact on our brain than similar pictures of adults (we are instantly drawn to their vulnerability, and an instinctual reaction to protect). Interestingly, (baby) faces can distract us from other parts of messages, although having the faces look at the key message or content encourages us to look in a similar direction.

Go easy with numbers

We are all poor judges of numbers, especially when they are very large or very small, and the framing of numeric information has a profound impact. For example, we are much better at absolute numbers than percentages. Of course real numbers imply real people, unlike percentages or numbers so large or small that we can’t relate to them. This is perhaps the only thing that Stalin and Mother Teresa ever agreed on, as in the quotes below:

  • “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” – Mother Teresa
  • “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin

A 2% chance of failure sounds very different to 2 in 100, especially when linked to real people. That’s why the adverts more often say “9 out of 10 … ” than “90% of … “. However, when you have negative information to present it may be better to use percentages to hide some of the pain. At all other times, use real numbers.

Similarly, when quoting prices it pays to be as precise as possible, and although lower is generally better, the precision of the price tag will impact perceptions of quality and value, and the frame of reference used to evaluate comparisons. As Dan Ariely has demonstrated (most famously with the Economist pricing example), frames of reference have a huge impact on decision making. Most especially, introducing decoy products and prices can completely shift choices, as our brains evaluate things relatively and not in absolute terms, comparing costs and benefits against the immediate ‘consideration’ set. The strange implication of this is that it sometimes pay to offer an option which you know that noone will choose, as long as it helps reframe the choice towards the more acceptable alternative (which is almost always somewhere in the middle of the range of options). So showing a less good product, helps us to appreciate the merits of the slightly better alternative. This is why estate agents always show the worst (or best) home first, to help frame our subsequent evaluations.

However, when offering choices don’t provide too many. As Barry Schwartz and others have shown, more choice is most definitely not better and often leads to reduced levels of purchases (it becomes easier to decide ‘no’, than to try and evaluate all the available choices). Companies like Procter & Gamble have seen sales increase when they rationalise a range of products offering less choice, but easier decision making leading to higher total sales.

Engage the senses

The most powerful and persuasive products engage as many senses as possible (read more here). The more senses you can engage (especially when this is done through a consistent ‘signal’ across the senses), the greater the impact and success. There are many more than five senses and five opportunities to engage customers. Sight includes brand logos, product design, colours (which are especially powerful) and typefaces, sounds include the sound of the product itself along with music and jingles (read about tuning into brands here), taste encompasses taste and smell of both the product and its environment (smell is also particularly powerful), and touch includes the shape of a space or design, the surface touch and any related materials which go with the products.

Touch is often overlooked in designing products and experiences, but consider how Apple use touch as a brand signature (the first use of the product is a virtual handshake) and pay so much careful attention to packaging. More than this, the design of their in-store interactions encourages buyers to touch and use their products. This is not just for show, but has a very strong influence on subsequent behaviour, helping us develop a relationship and even psychological ownership of something we enjoy touching. Getting a brand into a customer’s hands is guaranteed to increase your chances of a sale.

Sensory memories are encoded across the brain in different areas according to where they are processed, and are brought together by the triggers of emotion and context. As neuroscientists say (repeat after me), “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that the environment in which we experience a product or service plays a key part in our enjoyment, differentiating it from other other experiences. That’s why Nespresso chose to open upscale coffee shops to create a stronger sensory signature for the brand when consumed at home (Starbucks are now doing the same with their Via brand).

Emotions beat logic

Emotions beat rational arguments every time in advertising (read more here) and are far more effective at provoking a response than other tactics (and that’s true for businesses as well as consumers). According to the UK Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), campaigns with purely emotional content are twice as successful as those which rely mostly on rational arguments.

Equally, consumers will avoid negative emotions (such as the pain of paying), so it pays (no pun intended) to make payment fair and easy, and to avoid the danger of creating multiple pain points as different cost elements are added up (bundling, payment terms and credit options can help). For example, many sushi restaurants work on a per piece basis, giving a pain point each time we purchase a small sushi roll. All inclusive offers and menu sets are much less painful and more acceptable (and you may find that you can get away with a bigger premium across the total sale).

Emotions are no more engaged than when we sight an enemy, which is why many brands take so much care to communicate what they are ‘not’ as well as what they are (Apple are a good example of this again, as are Pepsi in their battle with Coca-Cola). Many famous experiments in social psychology have shown the power of creating group identities, and creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality which is a very strong motivator. In advertising, it is usually better to focus on comparing people (users) rather than the products (brands) to encourage your users to think that they are ‘different’.

First impressions last

Anchors, priming and framing are all psychological phenomena which demonstrate that our brains pay a lot more attention to our first interaction with any brand, product or experience than they do later on (although the last interaction is also relatively important). So make that first interaction good, and if you are a salesman, then use it to good effect. It’s been shown that many judgements are made within the first 50 milliseconds (and once judgements are made they are very hard to shift due to confirmation bias).

There are some very different strategies for influencing on the first encounter. It has been shown that ‘asking big’ at first can pay off if you subsequently moderate your demands (an age old bargaining tactic). For example, if you ask for a donation in the thousands, then asking someone to pay a few dollars for cookies seems trivial by comparison (and hence a lot more people do).

Another different (and not as contradictory as it sounds) strategy to achieve closure is to offer a small favour first, as it draws us into a relationship and instils a sense of commitment which would not be present otherwise. That’s why Hare Krishnas would always like you to take a free gift before asking your for something more substantial. The foot in the door syndrome really does work, so ask a small (easy) favour first (eg. a cup of tea, a trial order, a small donation, a short survey), and you will find that bigger ones are then much easier to accept.

Make it look good

Things that look better work better (read more here), because what we see is usually our first impression (see above). Making things beautiful can be done in many ways, by appealing to our aesthetic sense for symmetry, golden ratios (read more here) and forms which mimic nature. It can also be leveraged by using pictures of ‘beautiful’ people (especially of beautiful women for men). ┬áBeauty is of course related to symmetry, and the human body (in its better forms) shows a close relationship with the golden ratio.

The power of empathy

Empathy is a short cut to reaching someone’s heart and provoking an emotional and social response (read more here). You can see our strong reaction to faces, especially baby faces, earlier in the article. This is also seen in the much greater value we place on reciprocity rather than reward. For example, on websites which share materials, presentations and articles, it has been shown that response is much higher when browsers are allowed to download and then asked to provide contact details, than when they are asked to provide these details before being rewarded with the items. Just as in giving a small favour, we are much more likely to give more when we receive even a small token first.

Let customers find you

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In summary

Seven themes from brain science to apply to your marketing and communications:

  1. Use faces and people
  2. Go easy with numbers
  3. Engage the senses
  4. Be more emotional
  5. Focus on the first impression
  6. Always look good
  7. Show empathy


Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing by Roger Dooley (2011)

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