Giving consumers a multitude of rational, well thought-out and logical reasons to buy your product or service should win the day for marketers, right? Wrong! Instead, ongoing advances in the field of neuroscience reveal that people are far less rational in their decision- making processes than was previously believed.

Even at a Business-to-Business (B2B) level, where marketers tend to focus more on hard-headed rationality than their B2C colleagues, there needs to be an understanding that emotional responses, made in milliseconds, are fundamental to the buying decision.

“I feel , therefore I am”

Neuroscience – the study of the structure or function of the nervous system and brain – tells us that the rational human being does not exist, says Ian Rheeder, a South African-based trainer of sales and marketing professionals, and holder of an MSc in Persuasion Science. “Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher and scientist, was wrong when he said ‘I think therefore I am’. It is not nearly as accurate as ‘I feel therefore I am’. Feelings make us act, thoughts merely guide us.” He is supported by research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School.

Catherine Hays, Executive Director of the Future of Advertising programme at the school, says that 80% of the decisions or choices people make are based in their subconscious. “[In] bringing them to the fore and making them explicit, the business applications are mind boggling,” she observes.

Nielsen, the international research and measurement company, has been operating a consumer neuroscience division for nearly a decade –  and employs 20-plus neuroscientists to “help brands understand consumers’ non-conscious engagement and responses, which they can use to create stronger connections with their audiences”.

How to practically apply what we know now

So the relevance of neuroscience to marketing is well documented. But what does it mean in practical terms? For Rheeder, one of the most important lessons is that you can’t bombard consumers with multiple arguments in favour of your product. No matter how rational or relevant your messages may be to a potential customer, they simply won’t be remembered.

“In comparison to our ‘feeling’ brain (limbic system) our ‘thinking’ prefrontal cortex is not that well developed,” he explains. “The novice persuader bombards the receiver with too many messages, thinking they can absorb and remember them all. The expert communicator will not deliver more than two benefits for a product or service, as the drop-off in recollection is drastic. This is why persuaders need to offer fewer options and reasons to purchase.”

The requirement for fewer options and reasons to purchase also ties into another important finding:

The brain consumes about 25% of a person’s total energy…

“Compared to other primates at only 8% energy consumption, our brain has a downside – we battle to make decisions when we are tired, which is known as decision-making fatigue,” So, what can we learn from Rheeder’s observations?

  • Be prescriptive in your approach: don’t offer too many options

  • Understand that people struggle to make decisions when they’re tired, particularly around tea, home and lunchtime, so deliver your message at the right time.

  • Tell a story with your marketing messages: humanities receptiveness to storytelling means you need to incorporate a narrative into blog posts, ads, case studies and articles.And, don’t be afraid to use a character or metaphor.

  • Use the “sad-to-glad” mechanism in your storytelling, to help the reader walk away with a sense of reward and a shot of extra dopamine. Secondly, when people are tired they battle to make tough decisions (i.e. around lunch or home time). 


The science of sales persuasion

Rheeder has the following advice for those involved in face-to-face sales situations requiring persuasion:

  1. Ask Questions. If you want to be engaging, don’t immediately begin chattering incessantly about you, your product or your service. Rather ask questions, as this gets prospective buyers to think and feel deeply about what they really want. From a neurological perspective, brains are 100% engaged in producing protein-memory when answering a question.

  2. Build Trust. One of the best ways to make a sale is to build trust by showing empathy. Trust produces oxytocin, which is the platform for starting new relationships and maintaining existing ones. A good way to build trust is to be the first  to do a small favour. Smile warmly, do a single eyebrow-flash during the handshake and show genuine sincerity when greeting (for example, by asking relevant questions). It’s difficult to fake sincerity because people pick up on the unconscious micro-signals that warn us of insincerity. Always remember that a small change in the level of mutual trust can have catastrophic consequences for current and future sales.

  3. Be Happy. Because of our mirror neurons, customers’ moods are automatically lifted when they see us smile. Some studies show that a happy salesperson’s sales increase by between 37% and 400%. Why? Because the happiness is transferred to customers and makes them more inclined to purchase.

Neuroscience in advertising

Deepak Varma, Global Head of Neuroscience for insights agency Kantar, says the company is analysing responses to advertising using, among other techniques, facial coding. This is the process of measuring human emotions through the computer-based analysis of facial expressions.

Instead of observing the behaviour of somebody after showing them an ad, by understanding heir moment-by-moment reactions (through facial coding), you can do several things, he said in a 2018 interview with the Australian publication Marketing.

Optimise – “One. It allows you to optimise the ad. It enables you to understand what may have gone into people’s implicit memory, because explicit memory is very different than implicit memory. Certain messages can be recorded in implicit memory which you may not be able to recall. But if I know those specific moments which were engaging, even though they may not be recalled, I can activate implicit memory.

Get to the point – “Two. You can cut down the ad. You can take a 60-second ad and cut it down by understanding which parts of the ad were enjoyable, which parts of the ad were persuasive and which parts of the ad were relevant. That’s just one very simple example of how you can leverage facial coding.”

The last word goes to Wharton’s Hays: “Businesses and marketers need to get up to speed on the use of neuroscience in advertising and marketing… understanding how we tick, why we tick and then using that information to make sure that we tick well,” she concludes.