90 Percent Of All Purchasing Decisions Are Made Subconsciously

Do we really need the latest smartphone or will a cheaper cellphone do it as well? Why do we want the Nike athletic shoe, even though it doesn’t appear any different from the competitor’s model? Most of us will not have a rational answer to these questions – we don’t know why we buy. Our brains are on autopilot most of the time


Martin Lindstrom

was selected by Time Magazine as one of the “2009 Time 100” for his work in the area of neuromarketing. At age 12 the Danish national started his own agency and began his successful career. He coined the term “Buyology” describing the subconscious thoughts, desires and emotions that trigger our purchasing decisions every day. He wrote a book of the same title about his findings.

We make about 10,000 decisions every day, many of them revolve around buying. What is happening inside us? What pushes the “I Want This” button? Since he was a teen Martin Lindstrom has dedicated himself to marketing. In one of the world’s most extensive studies the marketing guru researches how our subconscious influences consumer behavior. To “get a glimpse into the head of consumers” he applies the fMRT process, a strong magnetic device generally used for medical diagnoses. He came to the conclusion that companies should focus on neuromarketing rather than consumer polling in order to find out which products will have the best chances on the market. It is even more critical because eight of ten products flop as soon as three months after market introduction, he claims. Brain scans dependably show why a product has a positive or negative effect on consumers. But let’s start at the beginning.

Products that evoke emotions always win

“A major part of our brain is busy with automatic processes, not conscious thinking. A lot of emotions and less cognitive activities happen,” says behavioral economist George Loewenstein. Our brains usually run on autopilot, despite making us believe we know what we are doing. Thus, our subconscious explains our consumer behavior better than our conscious. 90 percent of all purchasing decisions are not made consciously, experts claim. Or put it this way: brands and products that evoke our emotions, like Apple, Coca-Cola or Nivea, always win.

Example: Elliot was a successful attorney until he underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. This unfortunately seemed to have destroyed a part of his personality. The formerly very energetic man turned into someone who could no longer make decisions. He was unable to write anything, because he could not decide which pen to use. He wanted to listen to the radio but could not find a station, he planned to tidy his desk, but did not know how. Elliot’s IQ remained unchanged, yet he was no longer able to deal with his daily routine. After being introduced to António Rosa Damásio,  the renowned psychiatrist diagnosed that Elliot was completely emotionally stunted. He wasn’t sad, frustrated or happy, everything felt the same to Elliot. Damásio suspected this was the reason why Elliot could no longer make any decisions.

“Advertising and marketing people who roll their commercials like avalanches over us may as well smoke the millions they burn doing it in a pipe.”

TV commercials are not very effective

By age 30 you have seen close to two million commercials. Do you remember what was broadcast yesterday? Probably not. 34 percent of television viewers in 1965 remembered commercial, in 1990 the percentage fell to eight, and in 2007 down to only 2.2 percent. “The reason for this forgetfulness is the lack of originality,” Lindstrom claims. Television viewers watch numerous commercials that all seem to blend into each other, and in the end are unable to differentiate one brand from another. The result of product placement in movies is just as bleak. It only works if integrated into the theme’s context. Extraterrestrial E.T. for example was lured from his hiding place with sweets by Hershey’s. After the film hit movie theaters the sale of the chocolates tripled. These days, however, TV and bigscreen movies are almost swamped with products. Some films feature one product placement for each minute. The consequence is that people become blind to the commercial effect. Lindstrom: “Advertising and marketing people who roll their commercials like avalanches over us may as well smoke the millions they burn doing it in a pipe.”

We all want to get the same things

When a child falls down, the parents suffer at the same time. Our favorite soccer player messes up the perfect chance to a goal, we get upset. Watching a dancer feels exhilarating to us. The so-called mirror neurons, a widespread nervous system in our brain, are responsible for these feelings. The proximity of other people activates these nerve cells and recreates the mirror image of the condition or emotions of the other person within us. This means, if we are watching someone, our brain reacts as if we were active.

85594783_edited“As soon as a consumer sees a red Ferrari his subconscious associates the car with the brand.”

Mirror neurons are also responsible for our desire to imitate the behavior of others. Apple’s iPod and its white earbuds are the perfect example for the influence of mirror neurons on our purchasing behavior, Lindstrom explains. Before the iPod era headphones and wires were available only in black. “When we see a person wearing unusual headphones our mirror neurons spark the desire within us to get the same trendy earphones.”

During a shopping trip women see fire-engine red stilettos and subconsciously think “if I buy these high heels I’ll look sexy”. Men are drawn to a car racing game while strolling through the toy department, and suddenly feel like Formula 1 drivers. Even if something was not interesting or even considered ugly, it becomes attractive all of a sudden when faced with it all over the place. Fashion offers plenty of examples. UGG boots rapidly conquered the world market even though the clunky boots make the wearer walk like a duck.

Mirror neurons often act in cooperation with dopamine. The hormone flow is not caused by possession but by the act of purchasing. Even the view of a pair of cult jeans is enough. The joyful anticipation floods the brain with dopamine, and the credit card comes out of the wallet. Most purchasing decisions take as little as 2.5 seconds.

Anyone who believes they bought those overpriced cult jeans because they fit better, errs. This piece of apparel’s purpose is to increase one’s social status, and that, in return, is rooted in our basic instincts (better chance of procreation). With the help of fMRT scans Lindstrom proved that the Brodmann Area 10 in the human brain’s frontal cortex is activated if someone “thinks a product is really cool”. This area is linked to self-awareness and emotions. That jeans purchase generates confidence; there is no logic behind it.


What is Neuro­marketing?

Neuromarketing is a new field of marketing research in which scientists combine studies of consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli with psychology. Brain scanning provides an insight into the reaction while viewing brands or products. The method is called functional magnetic resonance tomography, or fMRT.

The impact of logos is overrated

By measuring brain activity scientists can predict which product someone will select. Marketing strategists use this information and focus on subliminal message that do not really have much in common with the actual product. Brand logos play a minor role in this respect, they do not need to be in the picture; images related to the brand are more effective, according to Lindstrom. Smokers, for example, are more motivated by images of camels in the desert or cowboys, than by cigarette company logos. The test persons were more susceptible to the hidden messages because they did not realize “they were exposed to marketing messages. Had they seen a logo somewhere, they would have been warned immediately,” Lindstrom observes.

A world without logos and ad slogans? Where one is exposed to an image and subconsciously knows what brand is behind it? Lindstrom believes that this is the future and many companies are already working on it. Several tobacco companies have found ways to bypass the advertising restrictions in order to stay in business. They pay bar owners to furnish their facilities with furniture and accessories in certain colors, or act as sponsors for motor racing. Lindstrom: “As soon as a consumer sees a red Ferrari his subconscious associates the car with the brand. And more: everything that has something to do with Formula 1 is automatically associated with brand.”

Vanilla scent is reminiscent of mother’s milk

Scents are another way to promote products among people. Whenever a scent reminds us of something all rational barriers are removed. Vanilla scents always stimulate sales because we associate the scent with mother’s milk. It is no coincidence that every supermarket places a bakery selection at the entrance: the scent of freshly baked goods makes you hungry and entices you to purchase additional products. Artificial grass scent sprayed in DIY stores made customers comment that they believed the staff to be more competent. Shoe stores smell like leather (from a spray can) and wisps of perfume are suspended in the air in department stores. A cleaning liquid with a strong smell sells better than one with a floral scent because the consumer thinks the strongly scented liquid works better. And many a consumer feels younger using skin care products reminiscent of the scent of baby skin.

Sounds are also important for brand recognition. Everyone knows the roaring lion of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, signaling the beginning of the movie, as well as the popping noise of Kellogg’s. Wine stores playing classic music in the background sell more French champagne than those that play pop music. Lindstrom: “The deciding factor is that sounds can trigger strong feelings and considerably influence our behavior.” In addition, many consumers test what a product feels like. This is particularly important for apparel. Before a consumer decides to purchase a clothing item, he or she touches it, a behavior analyzed by retail expert Paco Underhill.



Rituals help distinguish brands

Have you ever wondered why it is hard for you to decide to upgrade to a new operating system or change running shoe brand? It is probably your sense of habit, and because you know what to expect from what you are already used to. Rituals help keep control and distinguish one brand from another. Successful brands create stories. You are not just purchasing a products, but a whole world and membership in a community. The example is Apple. “Apple is the ultimate form of a new religion” says Lindstrom, “founder Steve Jobs was a prophet. And he acted like one.”