The Science Behind Why we Buy

How much do we know about why we buy and why we pass? What truly influences our purchase decisions? An eye-grabbing advertisement, a catchy slogan, an infectious jingle? Great marketers wrestle with these questions in order to make us notice and, ultimately, buy whatever they are selling. What is that power of persuasion? There is no doubt that there’s science in persuasion, and a lot of the science is quite surprising. Recent research suggests that many of our buying decisions are influenced by unconscious thought processes.



Marketing has Evolved into Neuromarketing

Neuromarketing is taking the world by storm and has been utilized by almost every major company and university in some way or form. The term neuromarketing was coined in 2002 and is based on the premise that 95% of all our thoughts, emotions and learning occur before we are ever aware of it. What that means is that traditional marketing strategies only talk to 5% of their customers’ brains. Now, thanks to advances in technology, we can peek inside the brains of consumers to see what’s going on neurologically as they consider products, packaging, ads, logos, commercials, and brands.

Interest in consumer neuroscience took off when business school researchers started to demonstrate that advertising, branding, and other marketing tactics can have measurable impacts on the brain. In 2004 researchers at Emory University served Coca-Cola and Pepsi to subjects in an fMRI machine. When the drinks weren’t identified, the researchers noted a consistent neural response. But when subjects could see the brand, their limbic structures (brain areas associated with emotions, memories, and unconscious processing) showed enhanced activity, demonstrating that knowledge of the brand altered how the brain perceived the beverage.

Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota has studied the effects of the number of choices on consumers. She found that a day of shopping decisions at the mall reduced the self-control of the individuals she tested. Her research showed that those subjects who had made more decisions during the day showed less inclination to study for a math test or drink a somewhat unpleasant drink in return for a reward. In essence, their brains were tired from a day of decision-making.

Frito-Lay discovered neural imaging as a way to test commercials, products and packaging of their products. They discovered that shiny, colorful potato chip bags triggered activity in the anterior cingulate cortex – the area of the brain associated with feelings of guilt. When they replaced the shiny bags with matte beige bags, activity in the anterior cingulate cortex decreased significantly. It turns out less guilt actually sells more snacks. 


When they wanted to reposition their kid-friend Cheetos brand for adults, they used traditional focus groups and EEG testing on a commercial featured a woman taking revenge on someone in a Laundromat by putting a handful of the orange snacks in a dryer full of white clothes. Participants in focus groups said they hated it, that it was mean-spirited and negative. But neural imaging tests revealed quite the opposite. While people didn't want to admit that they liked a commercial about revenge on the jerk at the laundromat, the EEG tests showed they loved it.  "The Orange Underground" Cheetos campaign that this ad kicked off, which featured people doing subversive things with Cheetos, was a huge success. 



Neuromarketing research has also discovered that rituals help us form emotional connections with products and brands and make them memorable. Once we find a ritual that we like, the brain likes the familiarity and ultimately that translates into loyalty.

For example, In the early 1900s, revenue at the Guinness Ale Company was way down.  Customers didn’t want to wait the few minutes it took for the foam to settle and the bartender to top it off.  The company turned the annoyance into a ritual that would inspire an emotional connection with the brand…and it worked.  100 years later, Guinness is still going strong and associated with that experience.


Neuromarketing is in its infancy, but we are learning a lot about unconscious factors that persuade us to buy or not.  The right packaging colors, a warm beverage, a comfortable chair or pictures in babies in advertising campaigns are all tactics that will poke the subconscious brain and influence whether we pull out that credit card or walk away.

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