Category Archives: Neuro-Marketing

Words matter…

When it comes to writing copy, creating a masterpiece (we should be so lucky, eh?) means leveraging a mixture of experience, skill and a well-packed toolbox. For marketers, the latter will be packed with the words needed to draw the reader or target in. The skill comes in using them effectively — to achieve the goal.

Luckily for marketers, patterns have emerged as a result of years of research into the power of certain words on our thought processes. These “key” words act on a part of our brain that light-heartedly is referred to as the ‘lizard brain’. If we think of the brain having three separate sections, two new and one old, the lizard brain is the old part. Its reactions, if any, are limited to the following…attack, eat, run away or mate. In today’s world where threats to survival are somewhat reduced the lizard brain tends to focus on relationships. And it is inclined to do this by making snap judgements.

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The following 6 words are known to play directly to the lizard brain, triggering our subconscious, impulsive instincts. This happens almost instantaneously.

  1. You. Everyone cares about him- or herself. Think of the cocktail party effect identified by Colin Cherry. Our brains have the ability to immediately detect words of importance originating from unattended stimuli. This means hearing your own name will immediately cause the lizard brain to focus its attention on that source. It’s the same visually, the word ‘you’, when read, will have an instant filtered effect on the lizard brain. So as a marketer, play to this innate weakness and make it about the reader. Research by Carmody and Lewis (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1647299/) shows that seeing our own name in print is intrinsically tied to our self-perception, identity feelings of worthiness. Thus it comes as no surprise that text referring directly to the consumer will cause people to feel more engaged and trusting of the copy in question.
  2. Free. Arguably the most powerful four letters in marketing. People love free stuff so much they have been shown to make choices they wouldn’t usually make when they see it. Dan Ariely showed, in his book ‘Predictably Irrational’ that the word ‘free’, when studied in terms of concrete values, has extraordinary power.  In his study, people had to choose between a 1 cent Hershey Kiss or a 15 cent Lindt Truffle (half its normal value). 73% went for the truffle as a deal is a deal, right? Leaving the remaining 27% (that’s fast maths…) stuck on the Kiss.  Yet, in the second part of the study, each of the goodies dropped value by 1 cent, making the Hershey Kiss FREE, and, guess what, 69% chose the it. A deal’s a deal but a steal’s a steal. The lizard brain has a natural inclination for low-hanging fruit.
  3. New. This seems strange as, on the whole, we humans are creatures of habit and don’t like change. Neuroimaging has shown that we respond more favourably to brands we recognise. Yet, it’s also known by neuroscientists that novelty plays an important role in activating the reward centres in our brain which results in lots of dopamine (the happy hormone) being released and thus causing a mood boost.  A word of warning, you’ve got to play the “new” card carefully to get the best of both worlds. To keep the brain thinking it’s safe, you must make sure your brand is portrayed as stable, thus building a trusting relationship with your customers. However, to keep the dopamine levels high, focus on stressing new products and features.  At the end of the day, no one likes a stagnant offering.
  4. Instantly. In this day and age, everything we want, we want now. While greed isn’t the most attractive trait (hence the deadly in 7 deadly sins) it works in the marketer’s favour. The midbrain activity in the reward centres is stirred up once again with greed, causing those dopamine levels to soar. The promise of an instant reward has been studied in drug addiction, showing that when an addict is told they will be given the desired narcotic immediately, half the rush gained from the drug is activated in dopamine-heavy brain areas before the drug is even introduced into the body. As marketers, service is the drug.
  5. Guarantee. The feeling of safeness and protection the word ‘guarantee’ brings causes the parts of the brain involved in feelings of anxiety (mainly the amygdala) to decrease its activity. Less adrenaline is released which calms the body. Now we have our cool, calm customer; next?
  6. Proven. The last but by no means the least. Evidence is key, Bold claims with no back up are a recipe for disaster in a world full of sceptical customers. Intelligent people don’t want to be mugged by shabby statements. Prove a product’s worth and you will reap the benefits of customer interest and trust. If you’ve got the Case Studies, use them. But exaggerate at your own risk.

So, there we have it; 6 lizard brain words in 34 lizard letters for marketing lizards to exploit. As Orwell didn’t quite remark in Animal Farm: ‘all words are equal but some are more equal than others’. He also didn’t quite say “the only good marketer is a dead one.” But he might have!

As Seth Godin puts it: “The lizard brain is not merely a concept. It’s real, and it’s living on the top of your spine, fighting for your survival.” So take advantage of, yet respect, the power of words, written or spoken, on the ancient parts of your brain’s cytoarchitecture. And be careful to put these words in a context that is suitable for your business or clients or the activation of the lizard brain may have an effect opposite to the one you’re looking for.

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Should your marketing stink? Literally…

Olfaction (the process of smelling) occurs when a piece of the thing that smells, or, more scientifically, an ‘odourant’ binds to olfactory receptors in the mucosa. An orchestra of cells then earn their keep by carrying information about the odourant to the olfactory bulb.

From here, the message travels predominantly to five different brain regions, some of which belong to the limbic system (the area of the brain involved in emotional processing). Due to these close anatomical ties to the limbic system, odour information plays a huge role in emotional processing and perception. Put another way, smell does what a 140 character-long Tweet or even a rambling Facebook status update can’t do. That is, a smell can simultaneously conjure up both powerful memories and emotions instantaneously. It provides a shortcut to some of the brain’s oldest cyto-architecture.

The limbic system’s role in memory is as vast as it is in emotional processing. Once a scent enters the brain and becomes embedded in the memory/emotional regions, visual cues alone can cause it to be resurrected and, in certain cases, re-experienced. For example, watching an M&S advert showing someone smelling a just-baked cake or a freshly brewed cup of coffee can make us, as consumers, experience olfactory sensations.  For the less self-restrained among us (pointing the finger directly at yours truly) this kind of advertising tends to end up in a trip to said shop in an inevitable attempt to recreate the sugary goodness rekindled in our minds in our own home.

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But it’s not only through visual cues that companies manage to touch our deep olfactory mechanisms. Some have gone one step further and used smell itself as a way of making their products memorable. This is exactly what Abercrombie does with their trademark scent, ‘Fierce’. And ‘Fierce’ has become central to the Abercrombie brand itself. Take care, though, because playing with smells can backfire. For proof, look at Hollister. The smell of SoCal fills you with feelings of claustrophobia and near-blindness — like a ruthless blow to the head. Getting the wrong scent is an avenue, therefore, best avoided.

Another example of smell going wrong can also be found 30,000 feet up. When airlines choose to use a specific scent in their plane’s cabins, stores and merchandise, there’s a tangible risk of an undesirable outcome – for the scent if not the airline. For someone afraid of flying, or who has had a bad experience in flight, the brand smell will quickly become very powerfully associated with feelings of fear and vulnerability. Or for those that look to the alcohol to ease in-flight nerves, that cabin scent quickly becomes an accomplice to the head-pounding, sick-inducing feeling of the hangover that may have resulted.

Those examples just go to show how carefully the sense of smell has to be respected by marketers. It is easy for companies to underestimate its power and long lasting effects on the networks in our brains, yet once those connections have been formed, they are very difficult to unravel. As we can see, the natural synaptic strength of the neurones in a brain can either act as a huge advantage or a drastic failure for marketing techniques.

On a slightly different note, marketers have to make sure potential smells are appropriate to the situation and environment in which they are trying to portray a message. For instance, if McDonalds decided to use the smell of freshly cut grass as their ‘scent logo’, the olfactory system would enter a mild state of confusion. Let’s face it, the natural smell of freshly cut grass and the processed food of McDonalds are to each other as clockwork is to an orange.

Whilst there may seem to be a a lot of speed bumps on the road to successful olfactory branding, if you play your cards right, you could create a novel and unique connection in your consumers’ brain that is harder to shift than a cage of African elephants. New research from the Institute of Science in Israel explains why. Scientists there found that first-time scents seem to be given a  unique status in our brains. The special status of scent memories seems to be reserved only for first-time exposure:

“We expected a unique representation of initial or ‘first’ olfactory associations but did not expect that it would materialize even in cases where the behavioural evidence did not indicate a stronger memory,” Yaara Yeshurun of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel said. “In our paradigm, initial and later olfactory associations were remembered equally well, but only first associations had the unique brain representation.”

In terms of understanding the brain, the findings suggest that activity in two brain regions, known as the hippocampus and amygdala, together can render a memory “special.”

All this is food for thought for marketing agencies like us, who serve both B2B and consumer clients. Scent would appear to be the province of the latter, but you can’t help wondering if it has any application – thinking outside the box – for the former, too. Judging by research like the above, there is hoards of potential in the realm of olfactory advertising and scent logos. If appropriate and well executed, companies could find themselves in very good stead with a few wafts in the right direction.

Serendipity and creativity. Go on, take a walk

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” – James Webb Young. A Technique for Producing new Ideas, 1940.

 ImageEver felt that you’ve wanted to run as far as humanly possible from something you’ve been working on just to end the stalemate occurring in your head?  And then you’ve been told to stay exactly where you are and just keep persevering?

Well, according to Ap Dijksterhuis and his fellow researchers, your gut instinct is, in this case, right. The teams’ investigations found that, against mainstream belief, the hardest intellectual problems are best solved by our unconscious minds.

By showing that our minds can still be focussing on a problem without any conscious awareness that they’re doing so on our part adds a huge spoonful of evidence to the general theory of creativity.  This is that there are two factors involved in creativity: divergence and convergence.

Divergence allows for the generation of many possible resolutions to a certain problem and the convergent phase brings this array of raw materials together for you to assess and pick the likely best course of action. It’s the divergent phase that is increasingly being recognised as the best time to give unconscious thought a free reign.

In other words, next time you hit the wall with a puzzle, problem, dilemma or stressful situation, go for that run or watch that TV programme or listen to a piece of music and let your powerful subconscious take up the challenge. Because often, it will do just that.

Another study, this one published by Haiyang Yang et al in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, asked participants to think about all the different possible uses for paperclips. Some were given 1 minute, others 3 minutes and the rest 5 minutes to answer. The participants were split into two main groups, the first group was asked purely to focus on the task set and the second group were asked to count backwards by threes, which affirmed the second group would not be able to consciously focus on paperclip solutions.

However, the results observed are really quite fascinating. Those participants in the second group (having to use their subconscious to propagate possible paperclip uses) came up with the most novel ideas for paperclip utilization in the 3 minute interval.

Even if we rewind to the 1940s, this conclusion was supported by James Webb Young, an American Advertising executive, who has been coined a ‘Marketing Master’. Webb Young agrees, in his book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas, that the best way to generate an appropriate solution is to stimulate your unconscious by meditating, reading or walking.  He also offers a few more clauses, including building a rich pool of ‘raw material’ ideas that can help us to grow as creativity machines.

He also suggests letting our ideas simmer by mulling over the raw material and slowly letting it slip from the conscious mind via a relaxing walk or something similar. And then, BAM, the a-ha moment should hit us!

For the marketer, the big story may be this; throw away the box, because just when you think you know what you’re doing, you find yourself (once again) having to think outside it!

SIZE MATTERS. REALLY.

Thinking of hiring a social media strategist or a sales representative/associate? We’d recommend having them undertake an fMRI scan slotted between the CV review and the interview stage. This may seem like a slightly drastic measure, but British psychologists and anthropologists from the Royal Society B have shown a direct linear correlation between the size of a person’s orbital prefrontal cortex and the size of a person’s social network. Earl Miller and Jonathan Cohen’s research further found that dysfunction in this area causes social defects. However, unfortunately this doesn’t mean that the more people that follow you on Twitter, the larger your brain will become, as, by your early twenties, your prefrontal cortex size has more or less reached maturity after the extensive neuronal pruning that takes place during adolescence. It basically means that if you happen to have been genetically granted a large prefrontal cortex, you should naturally be able to manage your social groups to a higher standard than your smaller prefrontal cortex carrier companions.

The study behind this observation invaded old territory for one of the researchers, anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Back in 1992, Dunbar showed that the size of the neo-cortex (in which the pre-frontal cortex is contained) relative to the rest of a primates brain, was larger as the size of the subject’s social group increased. In the same paper, Dunbar identified the “Dunbar Number” as the cognitive limit to the number of meaningful relationships a person can reasonably maintain. The Dunbar number ranges between 100-230 relationships but 150 is the widely accepted average value. Dunbar asserted that this number is the same throughout all cultures and has not altered through the course of history. Does this mean we should carefully shape and prune our facebook friends down to a select few before the cut-off point at that crucial 150th friend request? And could this mean that those of us not as well endowed in the prefrontal cortex area should make the friends cut at an even lower value than 150? The research is continuing, especially as social media is quickly becoming the largest form of communication both on a personal and business level.

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So Dunbar’s demonstration of neo cortex size relating to ease of social group maintenance seemingly lends credibility to the notion that our brains aren’t big to be smart in an academic sense, but to help us manage and maintain the relationships that will ultimately lead to our survival. After all, having a strong social base has been proven to reduce short term and long term stress. This stress dwells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is vulnerable to and becomes damaged under prolonged stress, eventually leading to atrophy and memory problems. As well as being less prone to these problems, those in possession of the ideal prefrontal cortices could possibly start being sought out by businesses looking for employees with strong social connections.

However, according to some research, a worthy prefrontal cortex alone might not land you in the running for being up there with the highest ranked natural social butterflies. Another key player needed on the brain team is a strong theory of mind. The theory of mind could be described as a kind of social radar, being able to relate to and empathise heavily with others. It also allows a person to attribute thoughts, intentions and desires to other people and to predict or explain the consequent actions of others. So, in addition to our earlier point, a strong theory of mind coupled with an above-average orbital prefrontal cortex would be a near-perfect predictor of a person’s ability to handle a hefty social network. And the science seems to suggest that some people are just more wired (quite literally in neuronal terms) for social encounters than others. What does this mean? Perhaps that you should take the nature over nurture option and seek out the naturals at forging social connections over the smaller pre-frontal cortex-harbouring individuals when looking for potential networkers for your organisation. Or invest in Human Resources and fund that MRI programme as part of the recruitment process.

Seriously, besides being interesting, there’s a point here. We think that over the next decade marketing and disciplines like psychology will increasingly collide. That’s because one has the power to improve the performance of the other. Multi-million pound MRI machines aren’t the short term future of marketing enablement, but an enhanced understanding of the human mind – something we refer to casually as”neuro-marketing” – is.

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