8 things to understand about the human brain if you work in advertising

When it comes to advertising your product or service, one thing to remember above all others is that your customers are real people, not lines on a spreadsheet or a slide in a marketing deck. With that in mind, here are 8 things to know about how we all make decisions and are influenced

1)      We are rationalising creatures, not rational creatures

We make subconsciously informed decisions and rationalise them afterwards. Leading with your product or service's rational benefits can only reinforce the decision, not create the need for the product. 

2)      We are always in 2 minds

Out brain has two distinct ways of processing things - instinctive and considered. Daniel Kahneman has pioneered this theory in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’. If I asked you what 2+2 was, your 'System 1' brain would instinctively react with '4', without any though. However, if I asked what 17 x 22 then you'd need to engage your System 2 brain, which consciously would start to work out the answer based on reasoning constrained by prior memory and knowledge. When thinking about your product and service, what parts of the decision are 2+2, and which parts are 17 x 22, and how should your communications be adapted accordingly. 

3)      We aren’t in control of our thoughts most of the time

This might come as a surprise but so much of our brain activity is subconscious and this can influence our actions. Is this unconscious bias why only 9% of Americans are over 6ft but 59% of US CEO’s? Quantifying the effects of the unconscious in ourselves, let along consumers is very hard but knowing it exists is a start to understanding it.

4)      The brain saves energy for the important stuff – so don’t challenge me!

Are brain is a cognitive miser –it’ll take the easiest well trodden thought path to save energy for a potential emergency when it might need to think quickly. The brain will do just enough to get by most of the time, which is why forcing it to think differently about something can be such an effort. This puts into context how hard it is for advertising alone to ‘change a consumer’s mind’ – it actually physically takes brain effort.

5)      More of the same please

In its efforts to get more efficient, brains like repetition. The more times a brain is exposed to something the more familiar it becomes with processing the stimulus, as the brain can minimise the number of neurons required to the bare minimum so the thought becomes easy and natural. Therefore if brains require practice to learn things, brands need to recognise continuity is critical. A brand can only hope to get resonance and build brain memory by having a clear message over time. Ultimately this is all about brands helping consumers make decisions without using too much brain power.

6)      Brains distort input to fit with what you already know

We can often find ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance, a state of mind first coined by Leon Festinger. Cognitive dissonance is when we think one thing, but are actually doing another. For example when a smoker is fully aware of the inherent benefits of quitting, but in fact self-justifies the reasons why we’re not doing it. 

7)      Change what I do first, not what I think

Connected to the above, it is more important to change someone’s actions first, then their mind. This is where trial and price promotions can be so critical for brands to win over consumers.

8)      The brain can read other people’s minds

Within every brain there are mirror neurons. These fire when we observe the actions performed by another and they stimulate our ability to feel emotions by watching others. Video can be a powerful way to engage emotion in people for this very reason, so consider when creating content how you want people to feel, not just what you want to say.