Marketing to humans

by Dr Diane Harner

by Dr Diane Harner

The title of this article probably seems a little bit strange, because “who else would you market to, right?”

Whilst we all know, on a rational level, that people are the focus for our marketing efforts, when it comes to actually getting down in the trenches with your marketing person, and deciding on your marketing strategy, sometimes we forget about the human aspect of marketing. We get so tied up in process and making sure that our customers know everything there is to know about our offering, that the intent of the message gets lost.

I am a neuroscientist, so it is my job to understand how the brain works and, importantly, from a sales and marketing perspective, how people process information and make decisions. I want to share just a couple of points about how the brain works that have a huge impact on the effectiveness of marketing and sales efforts.

When we make a decision, emotion comes first, subconsciously

We all like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who absorb information, diligently weigh up the pros and cons, features and benefits and then make an informed decision based on this information.

However, in actual fact, by the time you get to the point of doing the analysis, your subconscious brain has already made a decision and attached an emotion to it. This is where our “gut feelings” come from.

The subconscious part of our brain is largely responsible for our instinctive reactions, emotional processing and basic survival mechanisms. It can process information 1 million times faster than our conscious brain, which is responsible for all of our conscious thought, analysis, problem solving, and logic.

So it comes as no surprise that the subconscious part of our brain quickly makes decisions first, before our logical conscious brain chimes in about half a second later, and tries to make sense of everything, by analysing the data. If you think about the iceberg model when it comes to decision making, conscious decision making is above the surface of the water and the subconscious is below.

Our conscious brain gets exhausted easily and prefers to take shortcuts in thinking

Our brain is bombarded by millions of pieces of information every day that our subconscious brain deals with, before deciding whether it needs to send it upstairs to the conscious brain for further consideration.

Not all information makes it to the conscious brain because, quite frankly, our conscious brain has a very small processing capacity, is incredibly resource heavy and gets exhausted easily.

Our conscious brain makes up about 4% of our total brain mass, but uses more than half of the brain’s available resources. We can only hold about 3 or 4 pieces of information in our conscious thought at any one time. In order to deal with this lack of capacity, our brain has evolved over millions of years to automate as many processes as it can so we don’t have to consciously “think” about them.

In fact, our brain will favour those automated processes every time rather than take on new information, because it requires less resource. This is where habit and bias are born and why changing people’s behaviour is so tricky.

So what does this mean for marketing? To make this a little bit easier for our poor little conscious brain, I have created a list of 5 strategies for marketing that take into consideration how our brain processes information and makes decisions:

1) Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

We know that our conscious brain cannot handle more than 3 or 4 pieces of information. What happens when we are presented with too much information from a marketing perspective, the conscious brain cannot handle the load and reverts to the automated predetermined information.

Now if this automated response is to prefer your competitor’s product because they have been using it to this point in time, you have just lost a sale. Your marketing messages must be as simple as possible to engage your customer.

The intent of marketing should be to pitch for the next step in the process, not close the business, unless that is the next step. Only share the relevant information to get them to click the button, make the phone call, or visit the website. You don’t need to communicate everything there is to know.

2) Get Emotional

If when making a decision, our emotions come first, subconsciously, let’s make sure we create marketing that considers how we want the customer to “feel” about our product or service when they consume our marketing.

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, showed that if somebody has damage to the part of the brain where emotions are generated, they had a reduced capacity to make decisions. This was because they didn’t know how they “felt” about anything.

Your customers won’t make a decision because it’s logical, they will make their decision because you have helped them “feel” it is to their advantage. Ask yourself “How do I want my customer to feel as a result of this marketing message” then create your content around that.

3) Make it Visual

Humans are very visual creatures. It is much easier for our brain to process a visual image than it is to process words.

Some statistics: 46% of people say that a website’s design is their # 1 criterion for determining the credibility of a company (NewsCred). Customers make decisions about the overall impression of a webpage in as little as 50 milliseconds (1/20th of a second).

In terms of what we have already covered about the brain, having images in your marketing is advantageous.

Firstly, as visual imagery is very easy for the brain to process and recall, images do not place a heavy burden on the conscious brain, making it easier for the customer to engage. Secondly, you can elicit a vast amount of emotion with images, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

4) Create Contrast

Contrast is easily understood by the brain and is an important skill for us to have in terms of survival. It is imperative that we learn from experience that, “if we do this, that will happen”.

Creating a contrast for your customers in terms of before using your product and after using your product, or creating contrast between the outcomes of using a competitor product or service compared to using your product or service is incredibly impactful.

It has been shown that customers have a more difficult time making a decision about a product or service if they don’t have something to compare it to.

5) Repeat it

The basis of learning is in repetition. Part of our job as marketers is to educate our customers about our offering. In order for effective learning and long term memory formation to take place, the brain must be exposed to the same message repeatedly.

Part of the reason we want our customers to remember us is because when the brain can recall information easily, it feels good. The fancy word for it is “conceptual fluency”. The nice trick about having conceptual fluency around your product or service, is that the brain misattributes this nice feeling to your product or service, not the fact that the ability for the brain to recall the information was easy and therefore rewarding. So the moral of this story is that the easier it is for your customers to recall information about your product or service, the more favourable their feelings will be towards it. This is, of course, where branding is key.


This is just a brief introduction to how having knowledge about the brain can be applied to gain a deeper insight into the human condition, and give you an advantage in the market. The aim is to take the guess work out of human interactions by understanding ourselves and others better. If you would like to learn more, you can connect with me in the following ways:

LinkedIn: Diane Harner
Twitter: @diane_harner