Understanding Irrational Customer Behavior and Something Rotten in the State of Advertising

Let’s face it, we’re all consumers. Whether we’re buying a cell phone, a Swiss anti-wrinkle cream, or a Coca-Cola, shopping is a huge part of our everyday lives. Which is why, each and every day, all of us are bombarded with dozens, if not hundreds, of messages from marketers and advertisers. TV commercials. Highway billboards. Internet banner ads. Strip mall storefronts. Brands and information about brands are coming at us constantly, in full speed and from all directions.

With all the endless advertising we’re exposed to every day, how can we be expected to remember any of it? What determines which information makes it into our consciousness, and what ends up in our brains’ industrial dump of instantly forgettable Huggies ads and other equally unmemorable encounters of the consumer kind?

Have You Seen My Room Key?

Here, I can’t help but be reminded of one of my numerous hotel visits. When I walk into a hotel room in a strange city, I immediately toss my room key or card somewhere, and a millisecond later I’ve forgotten where I put it. The data just vanishes from my brain’s hard drive. Why? Because, whether I’m aware of it or not, my brain is simultaneously processing all other kinds of information—what city and time zone I’m in, how long until my next appointment, when I last ate something—and with the limited capacity of our short-term memories, the location of my room key just doesn’t make the cut.

Point is, our brains are constantly busy collecting and filtering information. Some bits of information will make it into long-term storage—in other words, memory—but most will become extraneous clutter, dispensed into oblivion. The process is unconscious and instantaneous, but it is going on every second of every minute of every day.

Most brands out there today are the product equivalent of room keys. I realized that, to clumsily paraphrase my countryman Hamlet, something was rotten in the state of advertising. Too many products were tripping up, floundering, or barely even making it out of the starting gate.

Traditional research methods weren’t working. As a branding advisor, this nagged at me to the point of obsession. I wanted to find out why consumers were drawn to a particular brand of clothing, a certain make of car, or a particular type of shaving cream, shampoo, or chocolate bar. The answer lay, I realized, somewhere in the brain. And I believed that if I could uncover it, it would not only help sculpt the future of advertising, it would also revolutionize the way all of us think and behave as consumers.


Understanding the Brain is Key to Brand Building

Yet here’s the irony: As consumers, we can’t ask ourselves these questions, because most of the time, we don’t know the answers. If you asked me whether I placed my room key on the bed, the sideboard, in the bathroom, or underneath the TV remote control, consciously, at least, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea. Same goes for why I bought that iPod Nano, a Casio watch, a Starbucks Chai Latte, or a pair of Diesel jeans. No idea. I just did.

But if marketers could uncover what is going on in our brains that makes us choose one brand over another—what information passes through our brain’s filter and what information doesn’t—well that would be key to truly building brands of the future. Which is why I embarked on what would turn out to be a three-year-long, multimillion-dollar journey into the worlds of consumers, brands and science.

I soon came to see that neuromarketing, an intriguing marriage of marketing and science, was the window into the human mind that we’ve long been waiting for, that neuromarketing is the key to unlocking what I call our Buyology—the subconscious thoughts, feelings and desires that drive the purchasing decisions we make each and every day of our lives.

Subjugating the Mind and Using It For Mind Control?

I’ll admit, the notion of a science that can peer into the human mind gives a lot of people the willies. When most of us hear "brain scan," our imaginations slither into paranoia. It feels like the ultimate intrusion, a giant and sinister Peeping Tom, a pair of X-ray glasses peering into our innermost thoughts and feelings.

An organization known as Commercial Alert, which has petitioned Congress to put an end to neuromarketing, claims that brain- scanning exists to "subjugate the mind and use it for commercial gain." What happens, the organization asked once in a letter to Emory University president James Wagner (Emory’s neuroscience wing has been termed "the epicenter of the neuromarketing world"), if a neuroscientist who’s an expert in addiction uses his knowledge to "induce product cravings through the use of product- related schemes"? Could it even, the organization asks in a petition sent to the U.S. Senate, be used as political propaganda "potentially leading to new totalitarian regimes, civil strife, wars, genocide and countless deaths"?

While I have enormous respect for Commercial Alert and its opinions, I strongly believe they are unjustified. Of course, as with any newborn technology, neuromarketing brings with it the potential for abuse, and with this comes an ethical responsibility. I take this responsibility extremely seriously, because at the end of the day, I’m a consumer, too, and the last thing I’d want to do is help companies manipulate us or control our minds.

Mind Control: The Good, the Bad and the Intention

But I don’t believe neuromarketing is the insidious instrument of corrupt governments or crooked advertisers. I believe it is simply a tool, like a hammer. Yes—in the wrong hands a hammer can be used to bludgeon someone over the head, but that is not its purpose, and it doesn’t mean that hammers should be banned, or seized, or embargoed. The same is true for neuromarketing. It is simply an instrument used to help us decode what we as consumers are already thinking about when we’re confronted with a product or a brand—and sometimes even to help us uncover the underhanded methods marketers use to seduce and betray us without our even knowing it. It isn’t my intention to help companies use brainscanning to control consumers’ minds, or to turn us into robots. Sometime, in the faraway distant future, there may be people who use this tool in the wrong way. But my hope is the huge majority will wield this same instrument for good: to better understand ourselves—our wants, our drives, and our motivations—and use that knowledge for benevolent, and practical, purposes. (And if you ask me, they’d be fools not to.)

My belief? That by better understanding our own seemingly irrational behavior—whether it’s why we buy a designer shirt or how we assess a job candidate—we actually gain more control, not less. Because the more we know about why we fall prey to the tricks and tactics of advertisers, the better we can defend ourselves against them. And the more companies know about our subconscious needs and desires, the more useful, meaningful products they will bring to the market. After all, don’t marketers want to provide products that we fall in love with? Stuff that engages us emotionally, and that enhances our lives?

Qualitative Versus Quantitative Marketing

Seen in this light, brain-scanning, used ethically, will end up benefiting us all. Imagine more products that earn more money and satisfy consumers at the same time. That’s a nice combo. Until today, the only way companies have been able to understand what consumers want has been by observing or asking them directly. Not anymore. Imagine neuromarketing as one of the three overlapping circles of a Venn diagram. Invented in 1881, the Venn diagram was the creation of one John Venn, an English logician and philosopher from a no-nonsense Evangelical family.

Typically used in a branch of mathematics known as set theory, the Venn diagram shows all the possible relationships among various different sets of abstract objects. In other words, if one of the circles represented, say, men, while the other represented dark hair, and the third, mustaches, the overlapping region in the center would represent dark-haired men with mustaches.

How the Unconscious Mind Drives Behavior

But if you think of two circles in a Venn diagram as representing the two branches of traditional marketing research—quantitative and qualitative—it’s time to make room for the new kid on the block: neuromarketing. And in that overlapping region of these three circles lies the future of marketing: the key to truly and completely understanding the thoughts, feelings, motivations, needs, and desires of consumers, of all of us. Of course, neuromarketing isn’t the answer to everything. As a young science, it’s limited by our still-incomplete understanding of the human brain. But the good news is that understanding of how our unconscious minds drive our behavior is increasing; today, some of the top researchers around the globe are making major inroads into this fascinating science.

At the end of the day, I see this book—based on the largest neuromarketing study of its kind—as my own contribution to this growing body of knowledge. (Some of my findings may be questioned, and I welcome what I believe will result in an important dialogue). Though nothing in science can ever be considered the final word, I believe Buyology is the beginning of a radical and intriguing exploration of why we buy. A contribution that, if I’ve achieved my goal, overturns many of the myths, assumptions, and beliefs that all of us have long held about what piques our interest in a product and what drives us away. There are indeed a multitude of subconscious forces that motivate us to buy.

First published in Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom Copyright © 2008, 2010 by Martin Lindstrom. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group. All rights reserved.