How cognitive neuroscience can affect consumer decision-making

Nir Wegrzyn shares three tips to successfully apply cognitive neuroscience to branding.

Nir Wegrzyn CEO Brandopus Nir_9b_embed biog 180Cognitive neuroscience is the study of how we, as human beings, actually make decisions. Although science and creative don’t traditionally go hand in hand, it’s now undeniable that applying learnings from this branch of science to our creative executions in the brand design world can help to successfully influence consumer decision-making for commercial success.

By now, most of us in the marketing and design world who are interested in behavioural economics and cognitive neuroscience have heard that the vast majority of decisions we make are not rational. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we understand the implications of the consumer irrationality at the point of purchase. The marketing industry constantly tries to second-guess how the consumer will behave, yet it remains stuck in the rut of relying on rational measures to achieve this – for example using surveys and focus groups. Cognitive neuroscience tells us categorically that we cannot ask consumers directly what they want, or indeed how they will respond to changes, as they simply don’t have the ability to know what they actually will do. Consumers are no more capable of predicting how they will respond under the pressures of a shopping environment than we are capable of guessing.

We must endeavour to go beyond the rational, both in our design approach and in our research capabilities.

To successfully apply cognitive neuroscience to branding and to allow it to affect actual consumer decision-making, we need to understand that it is not enough for our brands to be seen, they need to have the potential to be remembered and recallable. To achieve this, our messages have to be encoded into the appropriate part of the brain (the non-rational part) and tell a relevant story well, in order to win the hearts and minds of consumers.

Here are three ways in which to achieve this:

1. Make messages into memories

It is often assumed that achieving standout is enough to get a product noticed. However, being noticed is not all about being seen; it’s about being remembered. Instinctively, we remember what’s different or quirky, rather than the every day. We identify brands by their visual distinctiveness, rather than the category norms. Therefore we should try to deliver distinctiveness at a brand identity level so that we create an ownable presence that will stick in the consumer’s mind (as a memory).

Cognitive neuroscience further tells us that the brain’s ability to absorb messages is extremely limited. Humans can only absorb a fraction of the data that inundates us. We’re all aware of the volume of messages and information that bombards us on a daily basis, yet as a consequence of the brain’s inherent shortcomings, we fail to notice many of them. We have become so blinded by message saturation that it prevents the important messages from sticking in actual shopping environments.

To gain any sort of traction, messages must be converted into memories, easily identifiable, and associated with our brands.

2. Encode information in the correct part of the consumer’s brain

Once memorable, our brand identity must trigger and lodge within the appropriate parts of the brain in order to influence our decision-making. When referring to ‘appropriate’, I refer to the non-rational part of the brain, be it the intuitive part, the feeling part or the emotive part of the brain. It is these parts that influence the overall story in our head and that matter the most. In other words, the sum total of our intuitions and emotions create a story in our heads that drive our behaviour and provoke action. In this instance, influencing consumers to buy into the brand and purchase products.

To make a connection, brands need to tell a story over and above the products and services they offer and activate this at a brand level.

The advice to marketers is simple – deliver your messages through your brand. The core meaning and story of the brand must be anchored at a brand identity level.

Brand design is not a beauty parade. It’s an exercise in creating brand engagement in the moment of decision, by framing the product or service with a bigger idea. Encoding in the consumer brain is the best possible framing mechanism.

3. Tell a relevant story, and tell it well

If consumer reaction is generated through emotions and context, rather than rational processes and facts, having a story matters. Having an engaging and relevant brand story matters even more.

The brand must evoke an emotional story that is relevant to how consumers live their lives and therefore creates a connection between the consumer and the brand.

Brand identities are most memorable, and often recognisable, when they carry a metaphor and symbolism that triggers the meaning behind it.

The secret to success is knowing how to generate the metaphor, measure it and understand its archetypal nature in order to create a relevant brand story and identity. Semiotic analysis can give further detail of symbol association and emotive response. For example, when Nike chose to evoke the ‘goddess of victory’ through its name and swoosh or when Amazon’s ‘arrow’ was designed to highlight the ‘A to Z’ in its name – these brands activated ideas that define both what we think of them and how they behave as brands themselves.

Irrespective of whether we are actively aware of these ideas, they subliminally affect our relationship with the brand in a non-literal way. But they are never purely accidental. They have a huge impact on the way the brand behaves and therefore the way we engage with it.

The overarching brand story frames how consumers relate to the products and services sold. It is this feeling that will determine the purchasing journey and, if successfully implemented, increase sales. The key to success is delivering this at point of purchase.

The wrap

There’s a lot the marketing industry can learn from cognitive neuroscience. What it boils down to is engaging with the consumer on a deeper subconscious level, understanding what they relate to and providing them with what they actually need, not what they think they think they need.


Nir Wegrzyn is founding partner and CEO of BrandOpus.