Six ways your advertising can tap into how customers’ brains work

by Karen Leitze, EVP/Research and Strategic Planning Director

Your research shows you have a strong product benefit to convey and consumers say they like your advertising. But you’re still not seeing the results you’d hope for.

Where else do you look to improve communications effectiveness?  If your advertising isn’t working as well as you’d like, is it because it’s not designed to work the way the brain works?  Consider this – every buying decision starts with neurons firing in the customer’s brain. And as much as 95% of decision-making happens unconsciously[1].

Today, thanks to brain science advances, we know much more than we used to about how to make the “magic” of compelling communications happen more reliably. Behavioral Economics is changing the way we think about consumer behavior because it helps us understand what is happening in that invisible 95% of brain activity.

So if advertising that drives results is your goal, try thinking about it through the lens of Behavioral Economics. Here are six insights about the often irrational aspects of consumer decision-making:

1)     Are you overloading your audience with too much to process? 

Brain researchers tell us that the conscious capacity of our brains is severely limited. Commonly cited estimates of how many pieces of data we can retain at one time range from three to seven. Analyze one of your most recent advertisements. How many separate pieces of information are you hoping that your audience will take away from it?  Remember to count your brand name as one of them!

2)     Have you put the most effective context around your message?

 We recently helped a hospital client to increase their mammogram appointments by 25% by invoking the behavioral economics principle of Social Proof – the tendency we have to act the way that people around us do. We encouraged patients to pass along a “mammo-gram” – a humorous email they could send to friends and family to encourage them to make their annual appointment. (Read more about this in our article, Act Middle Aged. Go Topless In Front Of The Camera.”).

3)     Do you know what problem you are trying to solve? 

A few years ago, we were privileged to work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The problem was first identified as the need to create more awareness of the organization’s ability to “grant wishes to sick kids.” However, by digging deeper, we learned the real issue:  Many parents felt that asking for a wish for their sick child meant accepting that the child’s illness was terminal. They felt it implied they were giving up hope – in spite of the fact that most “wish kids” do survive their illness.

So the real problem was the way the decision to ask for a wish was “framed”. Framing is an important Behavioral Economics principle referring to the filter through which a person views choices. With that insight, we re-framed the wish-granting process as being an opportunity for sick children to forget, at least for a short time, about being sick. It was about living, not dying.  We developed communications focused on conveying the positive and hopeful experience of granting a wish to a sick child and his family. Wishes granted, volunteerism and donations soared for the organization.

4)     Are you battling against unconscious factors such as the power of the default choice?

When consumers are habitually purchasing a competitive brand, it’s very challenging to break them from their routine. The key is creating an emotional reaction with your communication. We pay attention to and store in memory what emotionally moves us. Have you identified the type of emotional response that can break through and help your audience remember your brand message?

5)     Do you understand how consumer values their options? 

What consumers value most may not be consistent with an option’s actual economic value. For example, multiple experimenters have demonstrated that consumers are likely to value an offer of something for “free” more than an offer featuring an equivalent dollar value discount. Recently, we validated this principle for one of our clients in their holiday ecommerce efforts. A free offer consistently outperformed offers with a dollar value equivalent or even more than the free offer. How many travelers stop to calculate whether an airline offering to check one bag for free actually ends up costing them less in the context of the total ticket price?

6)     Are you clear about what action you are trying to create with your advertising? 

This starts with understanding the rules that consumers use as short cuts in their decision-making process. If you can discern the “heuristics” or underlying rules that are operating in your category, you can better develop communications that work with the way decisions are really happening.

Just watch consumers shopping for carpet, and you will quickly notice that few of them scrutinize the technical information about the fibers or construction. Instead, most rely on feeling the carpet with their hand as a short-cut to tell them whether or not it is “quality.” Once you know how decisions are happening, you can line up the steps of the decision process with your message and media strategies to move customers along the path to purchase.

Smart marketers have always known intuitively that understanding “human nature” creates real business results. We’re using Behavioral Economics and learnings from other fields of brain science to consistently create compelling messages based on the way the brain works – and that means greater return on your marketing dollars. I hope you’ll call me at 412-562-2000 or email ( if you’d like to explore how Behavioral Economics can help you re-think how you talk to your customers.

[1] Neale Martin, “Habit:  The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore”