Branding and the brain: the neuroscience behind consumer decision making

Rational choice theory tells us that consumers are rational agents who make choices after considering all the available information, costs, benefits and event probabilities, using the rational part of the brain (the Neocortex).

Sure. Your Starbucks coffee, trip to Bali, Chanel bag — all very rational right?

Of course not, we all know this. Every one of us can think of times when we have bought items we didn’t choose rationally, and this happens every day. While some consumers are more disciplined than others with their planning, even the most rational of us do this all the time.

Where it gets interesting is understanding why we decide to choose our chosen brands at the point of purchase (last minute or otherwise). When I grab the ice cream at the grocery store, why do I choose Ben and Jerry’s over Haagen Dasz? I might tell myself it’s the specific flavour or the price or the packaging, or post-rationalise it in my brain in one of a million other ways. But for some reason, I instantly go for one over the other. This is brand salience. Brand salience is that trigger in your brain that, when the moment comes to buy, says, choose that one.

Neuromarketing is the newer field that believes consumer decisions are actually made in the older parts of the brain. According to Harvard Business School professor Uma R. Karmarkar:

“People are fairly good at expressing what they want, what they like, or even how much they will pay for an item. But they aren’t very good at accessing where that value comes from, or how and when it is influenced by factors like store displays or brands. [Neuroscience] can help us understand those hidden elements of the decision process.”

Big caveat: I am not a neuroscientist. While many neuroscientists believe in this, some don’t! You’ll need to make your own mind and decide for yourself.

In order for any of this to make sense, you’ll need a quick overview of the brain. This is based on neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain Theory.

According to this theory, the brain is comprised of 3 parts: the Reptilian Brain, the Limbic Brain, and the Neocortex.

The Reptilian Brain

Credit: Conscious Discipline Brain State Model

The Reptilian Brain is also known as the Old Brain, the Lizard Brain, or the R-Complex. As you can probably guess, this is the oldest part of our brain and goes back a long time! It first appeared in fish around 500 million years ago.

The Reptilian Brain includes the brainstem and cerebellum and it controls the body’s core functions like heart rate and breathing. It drives primal behaviours like survival instinct, direct-stimulus response, fight-or-flight, competition and aggression. It gave our ancestors the skills they needed to survive. Basically, this part of your brain is all about impulse and instinct since these were critical for survival.

The checkout at the grocery store has thrived based on instinct and impulse buys. Ecommerce retailers now replicate this online at the end of your purchase journey. It works very well for low-ticket items, but there are also many ways of experimenting with calls to action for higher ticket items that appeal to the same part of the brain. It’s the reason why the real estate agent tells you there’s another buyer who is very interested too. Or the online retailer that tells you there’s only one item left so you should buy it before it’s gone. All of these tactics that push urgency appeal to our Reptilian Brains.

The Limbic Brain

Credit: Conscious Discipline Brain State Model

Also known as the Limbic System or the Mammal Brain, this part of the brain evolved next, after the Reptilian Brain. Of course “next” in this context was significantly later in our biological evolution by around 250 million years.

This part of the brain includes the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus. This is where emotions come from. If the characters from Inside Out really were living inside your head, their headquarters would firmly be planted in the Limbic Brain.

Credit: Disney/Pixar

This part of your brain is responsible for feelings, memories, value judgments, trust, loyalty, hopes and dreams. Your Limbic Brain loves a romcom. It generates and regulates the flow of chemicals and chemical reactions that create emotions. That dopamine shot you get when you buy a lottery ticket and think about what you’d do if you win? That’s got the Limbic Brain written all over it.

The Limbic Brain has no capacity for language. So if you post-rationalise an emotive decision made (well actually it was the right thing to do because…) you’re doing it in your Neocortex, which we’re about to discuss. With no language capacity in the Limbic Brain (or the Reptilian Brain for the record), you’re making decisions based on gut feelings, not rational logic. The Limbic Brain is the part of you that drives you to innovate and try new things. It’s not actually logical to do either, but this part of your brain understands that the upside of how it could make you feel makes it worth it.

The Limbic Brain is the reason you buy a plane ticket to an exotic destination on the other side of the world. It’s why you pay for skydiving in Interlaken and scuba diving in Great Barrier Reef. It’s why you buy the really beautiful but expensive trench coat from the luxury brand instead of the cheap one from the mall. It’s why you leave your stable job to go back to school for a career change.

That’s me in blue the moment before I jumped out of a plane in Interlaken / Credit: My Limbic Brain

None of these are rational decisions, but you do them because with high risk comes high reward. Your Limbic Brain has taught you this.

The Neocortex

Credit: Conscious Discipline Brain State Model

The Neocortex is also called the Cerebral Cortex, the Human Brain or the New Brain. It was the last part of the brain to evolve. The Neocortex performs higher-order brain functions like cognition, sensory perception, language, abstract thought, imagination and consciousness. This includes logic, reason, science, art, music and creativity.

Unlike the older parts of the brain, the Neocortex likes to compare and contrast and think metaphorically. It’s split into two hemispheres:

  • Left brain: analytical, logical
  • Right brain: creative, intuitive

The Neocortex uses tangible factors and language to rationalise what we can’t rationalise in the other parts of the brain.

So if I choose Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, my Neocortex might tell me that it’s because I align with their values or because Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough just tastes so good. But the decision was already made, this rationalisation has come after. The same goes for the exercise you did with the various brand logos at the beginning of this article. Something in your gut made you choose one over the other — the Neocortex just made it make sense to you.

As crazy as it may seem, the prefrontal cortex (which is the rational, reasonable part of your brain, a part of the Neocortex) is responsible for only 5% of the decision making process. Performance marketing lives here. In reality, the vast majority of consumer decision making comes from the Limbic Brain and Reptilian Brains.

Dan Hill, author of

Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success said, “We have gut reactions in three seconds or less. In fact, emotions process sensory input in only one-fifth the time our conscious, cognitive brain takes to assimilate that same input. Quick emotional processing also happens with cascading impact. Our emotional reaction to a stimulus resounds more loudly in our brain than does our rational response, triggering the action to follow.”

Credit: Conscious Discipline Brain State Model

How you can make the most of the brain for the entire consumer journey

By now I’m hoping you’ve thought about how this impacts your own consumer behaviour. Think about where you believe you sit on the spectrum of being a rational or emotional consumer (and realistically, this will vary dramatically in individuals based on product category and time in their life). You probably had a different approach to shopping when you were aged 10 vs 20 vs 30.

So what does this mean to you as a marketer?

There are many definitions for what a brand is, but my favourite is that brand is the unique story people recall when they think of you. I’ve chosen the word ‘people’ intentionally, not ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’. Relationships with brands are based on a collection of exposures and experiences and associated feelings for people. Those feelings get stored in your Limbic Brain to give the Reptilian Brain the inputs it needs to make the final call. The rational components of those experiences live in the Neocortex, so they’re ready to rationalise your decisions when the Reptilian Brain tells it that it’s time.

Here are a few specific ways you can target the decision making part of your customers’ brains:

Be customer centric: The Reptilian Brain is very self centric (considering it had to primarily focus on not dying, I think that’s fair). So you need to sell benefits, not features. It’s very easy for businesses to be internally rather than externally focused, so watch out for this at every touchpoint. Consider your wording carefully: it’s not about what the company provide, it’s what the customer will get. Make sure it’s clear why what you’re selling is valuable to the customer.

Think about what you’re really selling: The human brain post-rationalises decisions but really, these decisions are made based on feelings and gut instinct. Yes, you’re selling a product or a service. But what are you really selling? Happiness? Time? Control? Freedom? Once you know what you’re actually selling, communicating it becomes a lot easier.

Show why it’s better: According to Harvard Business Review, the brain craves contrast in order to to make a decision. Make it easy for the consumer to understand the difference between products or services (don’t make them work for it).

Use what’s familiar: Remember that the Reptilian and Limbic Brains have no capacity for language. Therefore, according to author Christophe Morin, they scan for what is concrete and recognisable. They don’t want to have to think, so make it easy for them by using familiar concepts and imagery to get your point across. Did you know that the number one factor for why someone chooses to click on a search result when looking for products is because they have heard of the brand before. Creating this familiarity beforehand is critical in order to get the most out of your performance marketing.

Be consistent: Further to the last point, consistency is one of the most important factors in creating strong brands. Your team needs a deep understanding that while they may be seeing key messages again and again, the consumer will only be exposed to them a fraction of the time. When your team starts to think that it’s getting boring, that’s when it’s working!

Focus on the beginning and the end: The brain likes beginnings and endings and tends to overlook what’s in between. Key messages need to be at the beginning (primacy) and the end (recency) in order for you to have your best shot at successfully landing your point.

Use strong visuals: The Reptilian Brain responds to visuals much faster than words. First impressions will be based on visual stimuli. According to the book Brain Rules, after 72 hours, only 10% of people can remember information delivered in words versus 65% who can remember it if a visual is added. Make sure you put a considerable amount of time / money / effort into strong design, consistency and guardianship for your visual identity because it makes all the difference for your brand. The strongest, most memorable and iconic brands transcend language and geography to appeal to the most primal part of brains around the world.

Go heavy on emotions: Emotions create electrochemical responses in the brain that impact the way we process information. As emotionally persuaded beings, it’s in the interest of companies to leverage our human nature for decision making. One of the most important components of strong brands is that they stand for something and stick to it. This is often the area that gives them the opportunity to emotionally connect with their audiences. That being said, this only really works over the long-term if it’s genuine. Companies need to be willing to stick with their values through ups and downs, regardless if it’s trendy or not. If a company really cares about something that matters to its customers, it can use this emotional connection to drive long-term loyalty. The most motivating emotions to drive purchase behaviour are love, pride, fear, guilt and greed. To increase positive brand recall, move from rational to emotional language including storytelling, metaphors, empathetic wording, endorsements and social proof.

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