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It’s All In Your Head: What You Absolutely Need to Know About Neuromarketing

Have you ever wondered why some stores are so specifically and liberally scented that you can smell them 50 yards down the mall hall? How about why cereal companies put games and puzzles on the back of their boxes? Make…
by Sarah Moriarty | Mar 13 2016
Have you ever wondered why some stores are so specifically and liberally scented that you can smell them 50 yards down the mall hall? How about why cereal companies put games and puzzles on the back of their boxes? Make no mistake—they’re not coincidentally delightful details—these are purposefully architected examples of strategic marketing based on a branch of scientific research called neuromarketing.


Neuromarketing is great for businesses and here’s why: it allows companies to fathom human behavior on a profound psychological level. For businesses, this means understanding customers and their deepest needs better than ever before to predict and influence what and why they buy.

If you’re not yet hip to neuromarketing and its attendant suite of benefits and implications, welcome to your crash course! You’ll discover snippets from some of the best books on neuromarketing technique, how it’s done, why it matters, and how you can start using it today.

I. What is neuromarketing?

Where brain science meets brand architecture, where neurons meet new products—that’s where you’ll find neuromarketing. But names can be deceiving: it isn’t a new type of marketing, but rather a measurable, empirical way to study the impact of marketing and advertising on consumers.

The techniques that fall under the umbrella of neuromarketing are based on scientific principles about how humans really think and decide, which relies on a host of brain processes of which we’re mostly unaware. Scientists use eye tracking experiments, studies of facial expression, biometrics, and more to measure response. Marry these principles with smartly designed experiments and you’ve got an unparalleled peek into the mind of the modern consumer.

II. How do neuromarketing techniques work?

Methods powered by neuromarketing appeal to the old brain—the lazy, survivalist part we really listen to when it’s time to make a choice—and keep its attention with stories and appeals to the senses.

They shape an offer around what the old brain wants

Knowledge is power, but what exactly do you do to get the old brain to love you? In their book Neuromarketing, Patrick Renvoisé & Christopher Morin explain how to prepare your product to do just that in three simple steps:

  1. Diagnose the pain. Be attentive and listen to your customer, and they will give you insight into their pain–the reason they desperately need your product.
  2. Differentiate your claims. Ask yourself: What makes me and my product special, and how will it help solve my customers’ pain? Try to come up with an answer that is as concrete as possible. Maybe your unique differentiator is that your customers believe you have the most reliable product, the best customer care or the quickest delivery of replacement parts.
  3. Demonstrate the gain. Your goal here is to definitively demonstrate how your product answers potential customers’ pain and adds something to their lives.

Once you’ve prepped your product offer, Renvoisé and Morin emphasize that to win the old brain, you’ve got to grab its attention.

They grab—and keep—the old brain’s attention

One way to do it is to tap into the power of story and use what they refer to as “Mini-dramas.” Describe your customer’s typical day, focusing on their deepest pain (which you identified in step one, above). Next, you show the contrast between life before and life after implementing your solution. Through this combination of pain and emotion,mini-dramas are easily memorable.

Imagine, for example, that you want to sell “toughbooks,”—nearly unbreakable laptops. Your mini-drama could focus on the devastation that your customer feels as their laptop slips from their hands and falls to the ground. Luckily, right before their laptop smashes to the pavement, they remember that there’s no reason to worry: their toughbook is unbreakable! And while you’re scripting, don’t forget: the old brain only focuses on the beginning and the end of something rather than the middle. Make sure that these parts are bold and attention-grabbing so they get remembered.

They appeal to the senses

In Brainfluence, Brian Dooley cites Singapore Airlines as a shining example of a company that’s doing sensory appeal right. They’ve combined a number of sensory triggers as a means of developing their brand image and sticking in customers’ minds. Their flight attendants, for instance, are impeccably dressed in uniforms that match the aircraft’s color scheme. They also all wear the same perfume, which is likewise used in their hot towels and other services. Singapore Airlines has created a positive, harmonious, wraparound experience that appeals to every one of a customer’s senses, and the effort has consistently put them at the top of travelers’ preference rankings.

III. Why should you care about neuromarketing?


For centuries advertisers had been patting around in the dark, essentially making guesses—albeit educated ones—about what might boost a brand or make a sale. Sometimes those best guesses were right, and sometimes they were wrong. But now, thanks to neuromarketing, it’s possible to gauge a customer’s real reaction without the mediation of wishy-washy self-reporting or misleading surveys. This should be reason enough for you to pay attention to neuromarketing, but if you’re still skeptical, here are a few more reasons to take note:

1. You’ll never throw away money on market research again.

Fact: most consumer choices are unconscious, making traditional surveys an inadequate tool in market research. By using neuromarketing, however, researchers can better predict a product’s success and finagle the answers that go unspoken.

Martin Lindstrom’s book, Buyology, cites a study in which volunteers watched the shows Quizmania, The Swan, and How Clean is Your House?, and were then asked to rate the likelihood of watching them again later. Traditional questionnaires showed that Quizmania was least likely to be watched, while The Swan and How Clean Is Your House? were neck and neck. Brain scans, however, told a different story—one that mirrored the shows’ later performance: How Clean Is Your House? enjoyed the most success, followed by Quizmania and, finally, The Swan. Here, the neuromarketing technique told a truth consumers weren’t ready to admit about their television watching habits.

2. It will separate winning marketing techniques from the losers

Neuromarketing techniques can also help marketers purge their toolkits of tactics that are ineffective or even counterproductive. For example, had Nationwide Annuities had access to neuroimaging data, they might have reconsidered airing a commercial that featured Kevin Federline, Britney Spears’ ex-husband, working a shift at a fast-food restaurant. The tagline read Life comes at you fast, implying that you should invest with Nationwide Annuities, lest you, too, go from riches to rags. Actual neuroimaging data from fMRIs, however, showed that the commercial was actually scaring away potential customers. As it turns out, customers felt that the ad tarnished Nationwide’s respected image. Mission, decidedly not accomplished.

3. It will give companies reliable answers about what their customers want.

In another study from Buyology, volunteers were asked to rate their enjoyment of various wines. The catch, however, was that one of the wines was presented twice—once with an expensive label and once with a cheap one. According to brain scans, brain activity flared up in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (the part of the brain in which pleasure is perceived) when participants were presented with the expensive wines. This revealed that a higher price can actually increase enjoyment of a product, even when everything else about it remains the same. By studying how customers’ brains respond to products or advertisements rather than relying on self-reporting, companies can adapt their products and communication techniques accordingly.

4. It can create fans for life.

Once a company has managed to make their brand appeal to kids, they want to ensure that these children stick with their brand into adulthood. Lindstrom notes in Brandwashed that people are more more likely to stick with the brands they favor in early age. Companies do what they can to ensure this by targeting children with adult or teenage products as early as possible. A rather benign example is Bonne Bell, which offers cosmetics to girls as young as seven years old. Another (slightly more shocking) example is the birthday parcel that R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (the wily rogues behind Joe Camel) sends to teenagers on their eighteenth birthday. It’s lovingly packed with coupons for their menthol cigarette brand “Kool” and CDs of new rock bands.

BONUS: 5 neuromarketing tactics that you can use RIGHT NOW!

So, now that you know what it is and why you should be paying attention to neuromarketing, it’d be nice to have an idea as to how to apply it, right? Right! We went through some of the Blinkist library’s best books on neuromarketing to pull out 5 little tips and tricks from neuromarketing research that you can integrate into your product and marketing tool kit.

1. Play with your words
The hippocampus, a small component in our brains, predicts what will happen next. It does this by automatically recalling a sequence of events in response to a single cue. But when those expected results are defied? Surprise! We react, pay attention, and remember. Of course, you can use the element of surprise to your advantage.

Good copywriters often leverage surprise by substituting an unexpected word in a familiar phrase. For example, instead of “a stitch in time saves nine,” they might write, “a stitch in time saves money.” Of course, you don’t have to use words—surprising images and designs work just as well. This strategy for garnering attention is timeless; even Shakespeare used it! But in his case, he usually created surprise by misusing words rather than substituting them. He would take, for instance, the noun “God,” and turn it into a verb with a phrase like “he godded me” (meaning, he treated me like God). Shakespeare’s misuse of words increases brain activity in the reader or viewer, which, according to researcher Neil Roberts, is among the primary reasons for his work’s enduring appeal.

2. Slap a baby on it
As it turns out, we really are wired to respond to baby faces, and even baby-like characteristics in adults. Our medial orbitofrontal cortex (the area associated with emotion) goes wild just 150 milliseconds after having seen a photo of a baby. The reason for this is likely evolutionary: babies are highly vulnerable, and increase their chances of survival if they tug at the emotions of all adults, not just their parents. So, if you want your customers to pay attention, hey—put a baby on it!

3. Follow the gaze
If you really can’t use a baby to advertise your product (any alcohol marketers in the house?) make sure that whatever person you do use is looking at what you want the viewer to focus on. According to the Australian usability specialist, James Breeze, when someone in an ad is looking at something, we’ll look at it too. If a face is regarding us, then we’ll look right back at it. However, make that face face a different object—say, your handsome headline, a product image, key information, etc.—then that’s where the viewer will direct her attention. By using pictures of people, you can motivate your viewers to actually spend time reading that snazzy copy you’ve crafted, rather than letting your ad simply become part of the background.

4. Speak into my good ear
Dr. Luca Tommasi and Daniele Marzoli from the University Gabriele d’Annunzio in Italy found that humans prefer information spoken into our right ear, so requests spoken into the right ear are more likely to be successful. In their studies, Marzolie and d’Annunzio observed people in noisy nightclubs and found that the majority spoke into each other’s right ears. When they put the theory to test, they found that they had more success bumming cigarettes if they spoke into right ears. Next time you’re at a networking event or a dinner party, sit to the right of whomever you want to best schmooze!

5. Reject and retreat
Just as we like to pay back favors, so too do we feel obliged to match concessions in negotiations. Consider this: if a boy scout first asks you to buy a five-dollar raffle ticket, but then retreats to requesting you only buy a one-dollar sweet, you are likely to buy the sweet to match his “concession,” whether or not you’ve got a sweet tooth.

That scout just earned a badge in sales with something called the rejection-then-retreat strategy. In addition to our desire to reciprocate concessions, it also evokes the contrast principle: when two items are presented to us one after the other, the difference of the second to the first is magnified. Thus, the sweet in the boy-scout example seems disproportionately cheap after the raffle ticket.

Your Neuromarketing Reading List

Liked what you just learned and want to discover a little more about neuromarketing? Any of the books we used in this article would be a grand place to start. Here are the five from our library that we swear by:

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