Neuromarketing and the “Buy” Button

What if there was a “buy button” in our brains? It’s every marketer’s dream. Just imagine if you could discover those hot buttons that will drive people to buy certain products or vote for a particular candidate. It’s not fantasy actually. There’s a science for that.

Neuromarketing is a field of marketing research that studies consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective, or emotional, response to marketing stimuli. Essentially, neuromarketing is trying to figure out how we subconsciously respond to certain messages and stimuli. Through the findings, neuromarketing companies learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what parts of the brain are motivating them to do so. Neurobranding then uses these findings to create products that people will want to buy and messaging they will respond to.

Buying decisions reflect feelings and beliefs. For example, through neuromarketing research Frito-Lay discovered that shiny chips packaging triggers an area in the brain associated with guilt while matte beige bags of chips picturing potatoes and other “healthy” ingredients didn’t trigger the same feelings of guilt. Similarly, a study of 600 women who got an empty Tiffany box found out that when receiving the box, their heart rate went up by 20%. Even thought there was no logo on the box, their reaction was associated with the color which triggered the emotional association women have with engagement, marriage or children.

Our brain has adapted to spend as little energy as possible to process sensory information. Science has found that the non-conscious brain (what they call the “old brain’ or the reptilian brain) is actually the real decision maker. The same senses of flight or fight that helped our ancestor survive millions of years ago is still at work today in the complex world of consumerism. In fact, your “reptilian” brain knows what you want 2 seconds before you do!

Neurobranding is essentially learning how to talk to the old brain effectively and stimulate it so it responds quickly. Here are six stimuli that the old brain responds to:

  • Me – People love to talk about themselves. Make sure to direct the message to them and they are more likely to pay attention.
  • Contrast – The old brain responds to contrast. Think of all those before and after ads. That’s a good example of using contrast.
  • Tangible – Make sure what you are communicating is easily understood and has tangible benefits. The old brain doesn’t understand numbers and abstract terms, you have to tell the customer what he/she will see, hear, smell, feel or taste as a result.
  • Beginning and End – Most people will have a good memory of beginnings and endings but not so much about the middle.
  • Visual – A picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Emotion – People respond strongly to emotions.

Want to see neurobranding in action? Check out this Old Spice ad and try to spot how many of these stimuli the company used.

Do We Get Happier With Age?

What makes us happy? Is it lots of money and a big house? How about a cute puppy or a hug from a loved one? Perhaps it’s a combination of things, which varies for everyone. Even so, there is a common theme when it comes to how people perceive happiness – a thread that can tell us a lot about our own emotional state.

Or perhaps it is something even simpler: maybe we just get happier with age. It makes sense if you think about it, we learn how to enjoy life more the more practice we have at it. Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen explains in the following TED talk that research demonstrates that as we get older we become happier and more at peace with the world at large. Not a bad thing to look forward to, as we all get older by the year.

Choice is Complicated

When I go to a restaurant, I like to order a-la-carte. Unless it’s a killer package deal, I prefer to get the appetizer, main dish and dessert of my choice for a three-course meal. Unlike me, my mom and her friends like to get prix fixe meals where all the thinking has been done for them.

Everyone has different tolerance levels for choice. I bet chefs sometimes wonder if choice should be given to those asking for their steak well done. Or check out this funny story about how the Japanese feel about a woman’s choice to drink green tea with sugar.

Choice has always been held high up as a veritable human right and part of the virtues of freedom. But is it?

The market seems to believe the more choices the merrier (consumers want their 40+ kinds of near-identical bottled water, coffee, toothpaste, etc). Then we learned that too much choice is paralyzing (the famed jam study). But wait, it’s not that choice alone is bad, it’s that what we really want is limited choices (Malcolm Gladwell makes the case around spaghetti sauces).

At the end of the day, however, we irrational human beings usually regret the choice we make and immediately think we could have made a better choice.

So what are we to do? What choice do we have?

Here are some surprising findings around our so-called freedom to choose. In fact, research has shown that we are not as free in choosing as we think.

  • Anchored: once we have set a price for something, we are swayed by that anchor independent of the choices’ merits or pitfalls, as seen in this research paper
  • Not a copycat: we have strong impulses to be unique, even if doing so goes against our real preferences, as seen in this case study on beer ordering
  • Decoy: setting up an unlikely but present choice helps to sway us to a more likeable choice, as seen in many restaurant menus that have a $45 steak item that makes everything look super cheap

The bottom line is that choice isn’t good or bad and is in fact a lot more complex in its cultural and irrational layers.

How to Create a Successful Behavior Change Campaign

Making social change requires having big ideas and lofty goals. It also requires having some very tangible results – a way to measure success and impact. Building long-term, lasting results means eliminating barriers and taking action. But how do we do that? These barriers may be plentiful, typically the larger the impact you want to make the more barriers that are in your way. Below are 3 tips to help galvanize people, break down barriers and make some real change!

1) Build a narrative: People like stories. The better the story, the more likely it is that the person hearing it will repeat it to his or her friends. Amazing stories bring people together and popularize an issue. If you are planning on building a campaign to make social impact, say promoting the use of solar energy, your efforts will be greatly strengthened if you can tie this issue to a story line.

2) Humanize the campaign: Similar to telling a story, your campaign must make sense to people. It must resonate with their daily lives and tug at their heartstrings. Once you have discovered your target audience you must be creative and entice these people by making your campaign real to them. In short, this means you must speak their language. It also means you must listen to what they have to say. If people can relate to your message they are all the more likely to overcome barriers and make change.

3) Stay positive: Sometimes the simplest advice is the best advice. This is one of those times. Often people are turned off by negativity. Speaking to people’s strengths, to their inherent good, is always a better approach than criticizing their behaviors. Take an example like littering: instead of pointing out how bad littering is for the environment, talk about the advantages of recycling. Doing so will help build awareness, but it will also provide people with a positive reason for changing their behavior.

If you are able to effectively utilize all three tips in conjunction with one another, you’ll be off to a very good start. But remember to create short-term objectives so that you can measure success.

Toast the Coast

If you’ve ever been to the pier in Malibu, Santa Monica or Venice, you’ve probably visited the Santa Monica Bay. SGA was honored to work with The Bay Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting the health of this very bay that is considered to be the part of the Pacific between Point Dume in Malibu and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The Bay Foundation wanted to be able to tell their story and engage its many stakeholders that include volunteers, academics, policymakers and advocates, to name a few.

We revamped the look and feel of its website to reflect this multi-faceted mission and helped the foundation present content in a way that would be easier for visitors to find. We gave the design an ocean feel with blue tones and a striking underwater image with sea life as a backdrop.
For content, it had to be engaging. Key to making the website more outward-facing was to think from the perspective of what the visitor would come to the website to do. Is it to find volunteer events or to find a paper on marine life protection? It had to be more about them and less about the Bay Foundation.

While important, pushing out information mostly about the organization could make it frustrating for visitors because it doesn’t take into account how visitors think. For instance, a policymaker won’t know what department within an organization would oversee white papers on a specific water quality issue.

We are proud to have been part of this project and are glad that both The Bay Foundation and local paper Santa Monica Mirror gave us a shout-out!

SGA’s Be the Street wins CASQA Award

At SGA, we think all of our marketing campaigns are winners. Whether we’re penning quarterly newsletters or launching large-scale interactive public outreach initiatives, we go in with gusto. All of our projects use insight, innovation and iteration to make the biggest impact possible.

But sometimes, one of our campaigns really makes a splash. Take Be the Street, the anti-litter campaign we created for the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association (BASMAA). On September 16, the California Stormwater Quality Association (CASQA) honored it with the Outstanding Regional Stormwater News, Information, Outreach and Media Award.

Be the Street was aimed at 14-24 year olds living in the Bay Area. Not the easiest demographic to reach. So SGA went to where they hang out—online. We created a vibrant online community on both Facebook and Instagram and built a website to serve as a hub for information and interaction.

As the Be the Street community grew, we challenged them a bit. We held a video contest that resulted in 52 hand-crafted PSAs, tens of thousands of views and shares and an awards show, broadcast solely over the web. We also threw a meme contest, which garnered 100 entries and hundreds of votes. And we showed up, multiple times a week on social media with content they would find interesting and inspiring.

But the crowning glory was our Be the Street app—available on iTunes and Google Play. Through engaging cartoons and multi-level challenges, the app proved that doing the right thing can be fun. Kids submitted photos of themselves tossing trash and used Google street view maps to find local storm drains. They had the ability to interact with other players and rack up points.

The best part, we got to watch all the action play out. Not a bad job if you can get it.

Bringing Sexy Back to Data

Nate Silver has certainly given the mundane topic of data a spanking new makeover with his book, The Signal and The Noise. Silver, who correctly predicted the winner in 49 out of 50 states during the 2008 presidential elections, said he was able to make a dent in political forecasts only because other political pundits were so bad at it.  Then he pointed to other industries such as finance and weather forecasting where predictions fail. It’s not all hopeless, however.

Silver has made data fun and buzz-worthy. He has recently infused data into such topics as finding the best burrito in America. The process to determine the 64 burrito-selling establishments nationwide that would be in the bracket involved something called a VORB, or Value Over Replacement Burrito, score, according to his blog. The judging system was based on 20 possible points in five categories: tortilla, main protein, other ingredients, presentation and overall flavor profile. The results led to a flurry of reactions (not all positive) on social media.
Continue reading “Bringing Sexy Back to Data”

4 Effective Ways to Persuade People


In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need persuasion. You would simply point out a few facts and people would do the right thing. Litterbugs would learn that 80% of the trash floating around in our oceans starts on land, and just like that, they’d never toss another gum wrapper on the sidewalk.

But it’s not a perfect world. And getting people to actually change requires finesse. The ultimate goal of every SGA marketing campaign is behavior change, so we’ve become pretty savvy on the best ways to get people to act differently.  Whether you’re trying to save the planet, convince your boss to kick in for a raise or persuade your sister to watch your dogs for the weekend, these four techniques will help you get results. Continue reading “4 Effective Ways to Persuade People”

Three Myths of Happiness

In recent years, happiness has become an increasingly popular topic in the field of psychology.  But as many researchers have found, it is a tricky topic to study. Happiness is easily misread, difficult to measure, and often created by counter-intuitive actions.
One researcher at the University of California Riverside, Professor  Sonja Lyubomirsky, has made some significant strides towards understanding what makes us happy.

In her book, “The How of Happiness” she creates an interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive guide to understanding what happiness is – and what it isn’t – based on her cognitive research of thousands of individuals.

To start, her research suggests that 50% of our happiness is set based on our genes, 10% is based on life circumstances and 40% is based on intentional decision we make. So while 60% of our happiness is out of our control, 40% is in our control… and yet many of the decision we make do not align with increasing our happiness. And to compound that problem, many of the expectations of society (i.e., societal social norms) push us towards a path that actually decreases happiness. Continue reading “Three Myths of Happiness”

3 Great Communication Lessons

Last weekend I was down on Belmont Shore eating lunch with my family, when, all of a sudden, throngs of people with baby blue and white stripped soccer jerseys started piling into the bar. Argentina was about to play and the fans were amassing.

Not sure if you have caught it yet, but World Cup fever is spreading.

It’s the excitement of March Madness wrapped up in the feel of the Olympics (but on steroids). Since I grew up playing soccer and am addicted to watching, I find the World Cup an amazing study of human behavior with all kinds of lessons to be gleaned as it applies to communications and marketing. Here are my favorite three:

  1. Play to Group Identity: The World Cup combines the power of patriotism with the addiction of being a sports fan. Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind” talks about humans having a “Hive Switch,” in essence where people naturally move from self-identity to group identity.   It is not only a very seductive and powerful shift, but an important thing to remember when communicating with people. Reaching out to people through their group identity is an extremely powerful way to reach your audience.
  2. The Power of Emotions: I have to admit my Spanish is not very good, but when it comes to watching the World Cup, I always watch it on Univision. The announcers on Univision bring passion, excitement and emotion to the game, which just isn’t matched by the ABC/ESPN announcers who focus on the technical play of the game.  Whether it is the announcer reaching a crescendo when calling out “Peligroso, Peligroso, Peligroso!” as Lionel Messi winds up for a shot or the infamous “Goooooooooooooooooool!!!” as the ball hits the back of the net, emotions are contagious. While we like to think we decide things based on information with our thinking brain, it is our emotional brain that moves us, changes us and powers how we respond to one another. Great communication speaks to those motivations and emotions first.
  3. The Addiction of Suspense: One of the reasons I believe soccer is not so popular in the US is because there is so little scoring. The World Cup has games where the scoring is 2-1, 1-0 or heaven forbid the blasphemy of a 0-0 tie. But that is the drama of soccer. Unlike basketball or football where scoring is happening all the time (and in my opinion, the tension and suspense doesn’t build until the last quarter or more often last two minutes). In soccer a 0-0 game is often the one that is the most suspenseful. Take the Mexico – Brazil game (0-0), every shot on goal had fans on the edge of their seat as Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa made save after save. We are naturally drawn to suspense, we want to know what will happen, how things will change. While we always want to be clear in our communications, sometimes holding off on the punchline and building the drama of the outcome is a great way to engage your audience.

So here’s to the soccer, here’s to engaging communications, and here’s to finding an excuse to join a group of strangers on a summer day to cheer with the emotions and drama of the World Cup.
*Photo Courtesy of Oasis Culture*