HC1E4R THE MIND READER, Warren William, 1933

By: Darren Baines / September 29, 2021
Tags: Brand, Customer satisfaction, Marketing Strategy

How marketers can tap into the subconscious

90% of buying decisions are made subconsciously.

It’s incredible to think that after billions of years of evolution, technological innovation and an abundance of choice, our primal brain does most of the heavy lifting. Leaving the most advanced and evolved part of the human brain, the neocortex, in autopilot, as the subconscious governs the majority of our decisions, actions and behaviours.

As humans we tend to believe that we are in control of all, or at least, a large proportion of our decisions and actions. The danger for businesses is that if we believe this to be true too, we will be ignoring billions of years of evolution and how we truly think, otherwise known as Neuroscience. Whilst you don’t need to be a scientist; understanding the brain, it’s impact on behaviour and cognitive functions, or how people think, is a powerful way to tap into your customer’s unconscious mind.

It is important to remember that as marketers, we need to uncover the hidden motives as to why customers buy. 99% of our evolution has been in hunter-gatherer societies throughout billions of years, with only the last few hundred years enjoying relative stability in survival, safety, security and sustenance.

The Three-Part Brain


Paul MacLean’s Three-Part Brain simplifies the brain’s design and is useful model for marketing.

The Reptilian Brain (or primal brain) is our legacy system, in control of our fight-or-flight survival response, or the four Fs: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and… F*cking. The Reptilian Brain always overrides the other parts of the brain, which means marketing must be accepted as enhancing one or more of the four Fs, or at least avoid raising any alarms.

The Limbic Brain supports a variety of functions including emotion, behaviour and long-term memory. This part of the brain is where we established bonds with people, tribes, groups and later on in our evolution… brands.  It is also part of the brain that determines what we choose to pay attention to.

The Neocortex is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and in humans, language. The most advanced and evolved part of the brain enables us to imagine and anticipate the consequences of our future actions.

So why does this matter for marketing?

Most of us are familiar with St. Elmo Lewis’ AIDA model, which suggests a buyer moves through four stages between Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action on their decision-making journey. The thing to be mindful of with this framework however, is that it assumes there is no competing product or services, the consumer has no objecting values or beliefs and that all decisions are given equal weight.

If you are buying a new car, the chances are there is a lot more thought, research and attention involved with this purchase than if we were buying a Mars bar. Similarly, if you are a die-hard Nike ambassador, it’s going to take more than linear textbook marketing steps to get you to choose Adidas.

To shift a person’s attitudes, personal beliefs and accepted norms, brands need to cut through logical, conscious thinking and into the subconscious part of customers’ brains to help shift behaviours and actions.

If you are seeking new customers, the most common hurdle is being seen. Typically, businesses focus on the channel (Facebook, television, Google etc), which in some ways gets your brand in front of the customer. However, if most of us are on autopilot, it doesn’t mean that ad or piece of marketing will be noticed by the customer.

Douglas Van Praet identifies the first step in unconscious branding as ‘interrupting the pattern’. In simple terms, this means getting the attention of your potential customer. And, to do this, there needs to be something interesting or different going on. Sadly, running generic ads on Facebook, isn’t going to cut it. Creative execution plays a vital role in ensuring your marketing efforts don’t just blend into the background, or timeline.

If the Reptilian Brain rules the roost, businesses need must also be mindful not to threaten or alienate their potential customers. Whilst it is important to do something different, or ‘out there’, to grab the attention, being mindful to create comfort or inclusivity is equally important. By showing that you ‘understand’ or align with your customer, their emotions and desires; your brand becomes something they want to gravitate to.

“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.” ― Confucius

It is said that we need to do something 60 times before it becomes a habit. Breaking those deep-rooted habits is the only way your product or service will achieve brand preference when it comes to making a purchase. Befriending the Limbic Brain so that an association is formed, therefore becomes an important part of the marketing mix. There are several methods which businesses can use to achieve this, such as simple free trials or test drives that provide an opportunity for a customer to experience your product or service. Creating an experience that customers remember whether that’s simply invoking an emotional response (happy or sad) through your communications, or by providing exemplary customer service, will help reinforce a positive association.

Brands such as Nike and Apple, go a step further by tapping into desires and ambitions via the imagination. The tagline ‘Just Do It’, not only appeals to the reptilian brain (remember the fourth F?), but it allows the customer to determine what ‘It’ is in their imagination. It could be running, climbing, or whatever you want it to be. Leaving a message open to the imagination, makes it much more personal and meaningful. It’s also the reason why we tend to prefer the book to the movie.

One factor that is often overlooked in shifting people’s perceptions, is the power of social proof and subjective norms. Everett M Rogers described the five types of adopters with his adoption cycle.

This was built on the understanding that some customer groups are more risk averse than others, and some customers are more inquisitive than others. When a large proportion of your market needs to trust that your product or service is good for them, social proof plays a vital role in shifting perceptions, as does having credible influencers or celebrities vouch for your business or brand.

With so many marketing and advertising options available, it’s common for businesses to concentrate their efforts on selecting relevant channels – making sure they are on Instagram, or their ad is played during Drive Time. However, for businesses to really win the hearts and minds of new, potential customers, creative execution and messaging plays a pivotal role in creating action… even if it is driven by the subconscious.

Darren Baines

Marketing Specialist & Director

Darren is an experienced marketer, having worked both client and agency side to deliver digital and traditional campaigns.

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