The Brain of an Entrepreneur

The Customer Brain

No brain research has spurred as much business interest as the studies of marketing and brains. The hope is that we'll learn to market in ways far more effective than anything anyone has come up with yet. Early results are promising.

A couple of studies did MRIs on people exposed to celebrity faces and brand images. One found Coca-Cola's logo triggered impulses in the midbrain, an area that sits between the primitive hindbrain and the more developed forebrain. A Pepsi logo didn't have the same effect. The study suggests a brand's image can drive behavior in a way that neither instinct nor conscious thought controls.

These and other findings are being translated into practice by Patrick Renvoise, co-founder and president of SalesBrain LLC in San Francisco. Renvoise, co-author with his business partner, Christophe Morin, of Neuromarketing: Is There a "Buy Button" Inside the Brain?, says we should rethink marketing to reflect current brain understanding. To start with, marketing should be more visual and less verbal.

Areas of the brain controlling vision are much older than those for language, Renvoise says. That has implications for anyone attempting to influence decision makers. "A lot of entrepreneurs talk about their benefit or solution and don't use a strong visual metaphor," says Renvoise. "And it's very hard to convince people using words when their organ of decision is primarily visual."

In addition to strong visuals, marketers should present their solution in sharp contrast to other options. To Renvoise, brain research says too many entrepreneurs rely on "me, too" marketing slogans such as "We are a leading provider..." when they should be finding ways to say "We are the only provider..." It's a critical distinction. "Without contrast," he says, "the brain cannot make a decision."

It's also important to tell the truth, because customers' brains are better at detecting untruths than even they know. Renvoise's book reports on one neuroscientist who had people play games with decks of cards rigged to produce unfair results. Players were occasionally asked whether the games seemed fair. After a number of rounds, players started reporting the decks were stacked. But skin-conductance tests revealed that they became nervous when reaching for rigged decks well before the knowledge reached their conscious minds.

Another study Renvoise quotes asked people to accept money for placing a large billboard in their front yards. The success rate was more than seven times higher if the homeowners had first agreed to display a much smaller postcard in a window. The moral: Don't underestimate the power of starting small.

Brain Boundaries
Brain understanding appears to open up limitless possibility. Brain-based business, however, has costs, limits and risks like everything else. For instance, Amen says pre-employment screening using brain scans will likely become common practice in several years. But at the current price of $1,000 per MRI scan, these tools will be used only by wealthy companies filling high-value positions. Brain drugs aren't free, either. Modafinil costs about $3 a dose, and newer drugs are likely to cost more.

Similarly, neuromarketing may not match promoters' claims. "There's only one area of real importance," says John Philip Jones, a professor of advertising at Syracuse University in New York. "It destroys the supposed differentiation between rational and emotional advertising." To Jones, brain studies suggest that most ads need emotional appeal to get people to pay attention long enough to get in the rational selling proposition. "That's the key thing, and there's nothing more to it than that," he says.

There are also side effects. Modafinil apparently has few-except that it allows people to do without sleep. And doing without sleep, while a major short-term productivity booster when you're facing a crunch, is ultimately bad for the brain when engaged in long-term. "Sleep deprivation is a real trap for the ambitious," warns Farah. "You might think the extra hours on the job are helping, but in many ways, you'd work smarter if you were rested."

While it may be possible to change your brain, it's not inevitable, says David Weiner, an entrepreneur and science writer who authored Reality Check: What Your Mind Knows But Isn't Telling You. Weiner says practices such as thinking positive thoughts will actually change brain structures, but not without a lot of repetition. He says, "Your brain is stubborn and doesn't change easily."

Brain Futures
The idea of fielding a work force equipped with enhanced memory, never needing to sleep and able to learn any subject quickly and easily, may sound like utopia, but brain boosting probably won't create super-employees or super-entrepreneurs. Nor will just anybody be an entrepreneur.

Thomas Harrison is a cellular biologist as well as CEO of Diversified Agency Services and author of Instinct: Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals, in which he shows how highly successful people use genetic advantages to overcome their own weaknesses and exploit competitors'.

At bottom, Harrison says, we are who we are. While we can change much about ourselves, we can't change everything. He says, "You have to be genetically inclined to do what you want to do."

Mark Henricks is Entrepreneur's "Staff Smarts" columnist.

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This article was originally published in the January 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Gray Matters.

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