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Intuitive Consumers Aren’t Rational, but...

By Steve Genco

...They Aren’t Helpless Either.

Neuromarketing still triggers a fear response in some observers who believe it can somehow produce marketing messages that are so enticing to consumers that they will be literally irresistible. We discuss this concern at length in our new book Neuromarketing for Dummies (N4D), which will be published by Wiley on August 5. Much of this fear expressed by critics of neuromarketing seems to be based on the erroneous belief that consumers are weak and passive recipients of marketing messages and, therefore, are easy dupes of wily and clever marketers (and neuromarketers).

This misunderstanding of consumers comes from a misunderstanding of the brain science that underlies neuromarketing. In fact, research shows that consumers are equipped with highly evolved behavioral guidance systems that make them formidable players in the economic game of buyer versus seller. As we show at length in N4D, consumers are not rational actors as predicted by classic economic and marketing theory, but they are intuitive actors who deploy both conscious and nonconscious impressions, evaluations, and choices to help them navigate the marketplace and make good decisions in an extremely complex and noisy commercial world. Here are some lessons for marketers that emerge from the new Intuitive Consumer Model.

Some lessons for marketers

Your consumers’ preferences and decisions are influenced in ways quite different from the direct persuasion model you grew up with. You can’t simply ask them about these influences, because they aren’t aware of them. Nonconscious goal pursuit is a major source of consumer behavior. It is counterintuitive to say that people can have goals that they are not aware of, but the science on this point is beyond dispute. Nonconscious goal pursuit is adaptive and flexible. Consumers in pursuit of nonconscious goals are persistent and motivated to succeed, even though they aren’t aware of what they’re doing. If you understand the goals your consumers are pursuing, both consciously and nonconsciously, and connect your product to the satisfaction of those goals, your consumers will find a way to get to your products.

Consumers have a built-in resistance to persuasive messages, even very subtle ones like slogans. This resistance can produce reverse priming effects, which means your hard-earned advertising and marketing dollars may be producing the opposite effect to the one you’re trying to create. You need to understand what messages your marketing is sending, and whether those messages are triggering resistance or the persuasion you are seeking. Your advertising functions as a nonconscious prime. Priming is not necessarily logical, so exposure to your advertising may activate goals and reactions you never intended. You need to understand what goals and behaviors your advertising is priming, as well as what goals and behaviors your competitors’ advertising is priming.

Brands can act as primes and trigger nonconscious goal pursuit. Research has demonstrated, for example, that Apple primes creativity and Disney primes honesty. People respond nonconsciously to brands in difficult to predict ways. You need to understand what goals and behaviors your brand prime, as well as what goals and behaviors your competitors’ brands prime. If neuromarketing has one key lesson for marketers, it’s to remind you that you need to respect the intuitive powers of the consumers you want to influence. Consumers are, in fact, not easily fooled and will seek out what’s ultimately good for them, not what’s good for you or your brand. Consumers in modern economies have developed some strong corrective responses and decision-making shortcuts that make persuasive messaging even harder, not easier, to deliver. 

Neuromarketing doesn’t provide a bundle of “cheap tricks” to help marketers take advantage of helpless consumers. It provides a more scientifically grounded way to understand the brains of both marketers and consumers, and with this new information, it holds out the possibility of making marketing more effective for marketers and less intrusive for consumers everywhere.

Steve Genco is a pioneer in the field of neuromarketing and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (Wiley, 2013). In 2006, he founded one of the first neuromarketing research firms. From 2009 to 2012, he was Chief Innovation Officer at another well-known neuromarketing vendor. He is currently working with Intuitive Consumer Insights, promoting his book and helping clients develop and execute market research programs and business strategies that blend traditional research techniques with the latest advances in neuromarketing.