Marketing Bootcamp

6 Secrets About the Human Brain That Will Make You a Better Marketer

Knowing how the mind processes information and images can help you send the right message.
6 Secrets About the Human Brain That Will Make You a Better Marketer
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This story appears in the September 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Knowing how the human mind processes information and images—and putting that knowledge to use—can help you become a more engaging and effective marketer.

Researchers in a new(ish) field of study are trying to figure out how our hard-wired preferences affect the decisions we make. Neuromarketing research is “the systematic collection and interpretation of neurological and neurophysiological insights about individuals using different protocols, allowing researchers to explore nonverbal and unconscious physiological responses to various stimuli for the purposes of market research,” according to the Neuromarketing Science & Business Association.

Put simply, neuromarketing is the study of how our brains respond to marketing and how it affects our behavior—consciously or unconsciously—explains Andy Crestodina, co-founder and strategic director of Chicago web design and development agency Orbit Media Studios, who speaks and writes about the topic.

“There are ‘cognitive biases’ built into all of us,” he says. “We can’t help it. Marketing either works with or against the cognitive biases.”

It’s critical to understand these predispositions, to know how our minds process information and images. “The competition for attention is fierce, so knowing what lights up our brains gives marketers an edge that can help them win,” says Grey Garner, vice president of marketing at Emma, an email marketing provider based in Nashville, Tenn.

So let’s take a look at some secrets of the human mind you can tap into from a marketing perspective.

Secret 1: We all have a primitive brain. The amygdala controls our reactions and emotions, and it works much faster than our conscious, rational mind, Garner says. In fact, we experience gut reactions in three seconds or less. Emotions make a more lasting imprint than rational thought.

Marketing takeaway: Aim for a gut reaction, and pay special attention to how your materials look when scanned quickly (as opposed to deliberately considered—because no one has the time or inclination to do that anymore).

Pay attention to the things people see first. In email marketing, your subject line and pre-header (that bit of text you read most prominently on a mobile device, above the body of the email) should grab readers and speak to their pains, wants, needs and emotions. In blogging or other online content, pay special attention to headlines. (You should spend as much time writing the headline as you do the rest of the piece.) In website content, make your pages welcoming and easily grokked.

Secret 2: Our brains love images. Our brains process images much faster than text. Approximately 90 percent of all data that the brain processes is visual. We remember pictures with text more than we remember text alone.

Marketing takeaway: Use images, of course—but make them special, and lay off the stock shots. I like the way Loews Hotels & Resorts integrates candid guest images into its “Travel for Real” ad campaign, and the way men’s clothing company Chubbies uses hilarious GIFs in its email mailings. You can also use a web tool like Canva or mobile app Over ( to create custom images.

Secret 3: Our brains love images of faces. Research suggests that natural selection favored humans who were able to quickly identify threats and build relationships. As part of that, we are wired from birth to recognize and prefer human faces. The part of the brain that processes human faces is right next to the part that processes emotions.

Marketing takeaway: Use real people in your marketing materials, and consider putting faces on landing pages, in emails or on web pages designed to drive a desired action.

Eye-tracking studies show that our brains will default to first look at human faces on a web page. What’s more, we’ll look where the faces are looking. So entice by adding, say, a photo of a face that looks toward a call-to-action button or crucial bit of text.

Secret 4: Colors inspire specific feelings. There’s more to color choice than what looks good. Different colors cue different signals in a brain. In fact, research has shown that 62 to 90 percent of our feeling about a product is determined by color alone. Yellow activates the anxiety center of the brain. Blue builds trust. Red creates urgency. And that’s just the start.

Marketing takeaway: There’s a science and art behind color choice—especially as it relates to marketing fundamentals like call-to-action buttons. “Don’t choose colors arbitrarily,” Crestodina says.

What colors work best for your company will depend on your brand, positioning and audience. The best approach, as always, is to test how color affects response before choosing.

Secret 5: Names change behavior. What something is called affects our reaction to it. A recent study by David R. Just and Brian Wansink of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab found that calling the same portion of spaghetti “double-size” instead of “regular” caused diners to eat less.

Marketing takeaway: Carefully consider how your wording might influence attitude as you name products, describe models or options and create customer messaging.

Secret 6: We crave belonging. We have an innate desire to conform. “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other,” said philosopher Eric Hoffer.

Marketing takeaway: Remove anxiety, signal belonging and build credibility with an audience by using social proof and signals—in the form of endorsements from well-known influencers in your market; badges or awards from McAfee, TRUSTe or Norton; media logos (from outlets that have quoted or referenced you); customer testimonials woven throughout a site (not exiled to a specific page); and social widgets and shares, assuming you have a solid social media program in place.

One more tip is to use inclusive, specific language on any call to action to signal what Crestodina calls a “call to conform.” Rather than having a sign-up box for a newsletter, say something like, “We are the nation’s leading resource for home heating and cooling information and supplies. Subscribe now.” You might invoke belonging by saying: “Join more than 35,000 contractors and homeowners who seek weekly heating and cooling tips and supplies.”

Edition: October 2016

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