Neuromarketing for Small Business

Handwritten word "neuromarketing" over cartoon drawing of a brain

This week, I started working on a master’s degree in neuroscience. I have no plans to slow down my business; quite the opposite, in fact. Getting a neuroscience degree is actually all about my business. Many people may not have heard of neuromarketing, but we’ve almost certainly seen it in action.

Neuromarketing is the commercial application of a discipline called consumer neuroscience which studies activity in the brain to learn how and why we make certain decisions and choices. Neuromarketing helps businesses use that information to sell.

Before the pandemic, I began to notice more and more large companies following early adopters like Frito-Lay, Hyundai, Lowes and PayPal by investing in neuroscience to help them sell more. After reading everything I could about neuromarketing, including taking a free online course, I decided to study it myself and applied to grad school.

That might seem a bit extreme. But I realized that researching this emerging discipline could help my clients and all small business owners. Here’s why.

White Hat Neuromarketing 

After reading several books, dozens of research publications, and even taking a Coursera class on neuromarketing, I was obsessed with unlocking the secrets of neuromarketing for small businesses.

I saw how my clients’ big business competitors use neuromarketing to manipulate their customers. I wanted to learn as much as possible and develop a protocol for what I like to call “White Hat Neuromarketing” to help my clients’ audience get the information they’re looking for.

When I say “White Hat” neuromarketing, I’m not implying that all big companies who use brain biology to influence sales are “Black Hat” or have unethical intentions. Not at all. I’m just saying Create That’s neuroscience interest is 1) connecting people with things they are actually already looking for and 2) helping people understand how organizations could manipulate our natural cognitive processes. I feel like this is an ethical purpose that levels the playing field for small business owners. Hence, I feel like I’m wearing the White Hat.

 I can also see a lot of potential for non-profit and public health organizations to benefit from understanding how to ensure their audience absorbs their message.

What Exactly IS Neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing or consumer neuroscience is the study of brain function as it pertains to decision making and applying the knowledge derived from this study to business.

It really means figuring out why we make purchase decisions based on real, hard scientific data. Not best guesses, not on the latest trends, not on pithy Forbes articles, but actual brain biology.

At its core, neuromarketing is just good communication. It’s communication so targeted that it reaches your audience and your audience’s subconscious, where the real decision-making happens.

We know that much of the human decision-making process happens in the most primitive parts of the brain. Because these brain parts existed even in our earliest ancestors, I like to call it our cave-dweller brain. 

 When faced with a choice, the cave-dweller brain has already made up our mind for 8-10 seconds before the more evolved part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), has caught up. I like to think of the PFC as the “commander” brain because it’s certainly the most qualified to be in charge of the operation. 

drawing of the brain by Bridget Brown
Yes, I realize this isn’t a perfectly accurate brain. It’s a drawing I made with markers, not a blueprint for performing brain surgery.

Scientists know that even at times when we feel like we made a decision after logical consideration, what actually happened is our commander brain simply pulled together a bunch of information that supports the unconscious decision our cave-dweller brain has already made. Kind of like the boss taking credit for an underling’s idea.

In other words, the cave-dweller brain is the actual decision-maker even though the commander brain gets all the credit.

 Neuromarketing: Cool or Creepy?

Scientists are using brain-imaging technology like fMRI, EEG and SPECT to literally see how these decisions come about and what prompts the cave-dweller brain to make a specific choice. That has all kinds of beneficial applications, and one of them is understanding our audience and their buying patterns.

The idea of using brain scan data to predict the best way to influence people can seem, on the surface, manipulative. However, that is not how we use cognitive neuroscience at Create That. We simply want to give small businesses the same advantages as big corporations. 

 Large organizations and governments have been pouring money into consumer neuroscience for the last fifteen years or so. There are many private businesses using brain scan technology for market research.

Orange You Glad You Asked?

One example is the Frito-Lay company which was among the first companies to wade into neuromarketing more than 10 years ago. Frito-Lay made some significant changes based on what they saw from brain scan research. First, have you noticed an increase of “artisan” style potato and corn chips over the past decade? Can you think of anything all the different brands have in common? What about the bag itself?

Frito-Lay learned that women shoppers found chips more appealing if the bag was matte instead of shiny. When I read the study, I was surprised to realize that a) a heck of a lot of chips come in matte bags now, and the “value” brands tend to be the ones in shiny bags. b) I DO, in fact, find a snack more appealing if it’s in packaging that doesn’t look like it belongs in a high school cafeteria. Anecdotal? Sure. But the fact that reliable science backs this up was not surprising.

The second Frito-Lay discovery was not as relatable for me personally, but maybe it will be for you. Brain scans found that the propensity for Cheetos to make your fingers orange is part of why people like them. They launched an entire campaign around this tangerine-hued corn dust. It was a massive success. 

Don’t Manipulate, Motivate

Those examples are pretty innocuous. Imagine what other entities might be doing with science and technology to shape our behaviour. I’m not suggesting a big conspiracy. I’m just saying that if this knowledge is out there, the more we all know about it, the less likely Black Hats can use it to manipulate us.

While some may wish to use the data to manipulate, it’s also possible to use it to connect more quickly and deeply with people you can help. That is how we choose to use consumer neuroscience. We only take on clients who align with our values. They do work they genuinely believe in. We use what we know about the brain to make sure people who want our clients’ work can see and connect with it.

In their seminal book Neuromarketing, authors Renvoise & Morin point out that consumer neuroscience is not manipulation but a shortcut. We can use what science has taught us about the brain to help our audience sort out information more quickly. We’re making it easier for them to access what they want not telling them what they want.

Revelations in Neuromarketing

The oldest, most primitive part of the brain (the part I call our cave-dweller brain) gets stimuli before more advanced elements, which I call our commander brain. We can learn a lot about how to help our audience find and choose us if we can view brains as having different departments for different jobs. 

For example, the cave-dweller brain is self-centred, and it doesn’t have empathy. On the 90s TV show Seinfeld, there is an episode where the notoriously reactive character George Costanza is at a child’s birthday party, and there is an emergency. Instead of making sure the children get out safely, George pushes them out of the way and runs for the door. It’s not George’s commander brain making this decision; it’s 100% his cave-dweller brain telling him to get the hell out of there. George’s overactive cave-dweller brain is fundamental to the show’s humour.

Appealing to the Cave-Dweller

Some other things our primitive cave-dweller brain enjoys include:

  • A good story. Our brain physiology shows good storytelling is the best way to connect to your audience. That is the central premise of one of my favourite marketing books, “Building a StoryBrand,” by my fellow ex-TV-reporter Donald Miller. Miller points out that your message as a seller needs to grab attention by starting with your audience, not your business.
  • Clear writing over clever writing. Just like my former news editors. Go figure. 
  • The BLUF method of communication. (BLUF = “Bottom Line Up Front“) You want to get right to the point in every communication with the cave-dweller brain. That’s what advertising industry icon David Ogilvie was getting at when he said, “To sell fire extinguishers, open with the fire.”
  • Dopamine. Anticipation helps the brain’s reward centre produce more dopamine, and a story is good at cultivating anticipation if it makes the listener wonder what comes next.
  • Visual stimuli. Part of this is that the optic nerve is so fast at sending information to your brain. (40 times faster than the auditory nerve, for example)
  • Emotion over reason. “If your customers cannot easily remember your message, how can you expect them to choose your product ” Renvoise & Morin 

Be Authentic

There is a caveat to leaning on a narrative to make sure your message grabs the attention of the cave-dweller brain, though. Audiences reject stories that they find to be emotionally manipulative. Authenticity is the key, the final step in capturing the attention you need to sell. 

If you describe your business using an authentic, compelling story, you have your audience’s full attention when it’s time to ask for the sale.

To recap, there is a lot of information out there about how to use advances in neuroscience to understand how to connect with your ideal buyer. One method that works is:

  1. Imagine your ideal buyer’s story;
  2. Introduce what you do by telling that story;
  3. Follow up with facts; and,
  4. Be authentic.

What do you think? Would you be interested in trying neuromarketing to sell? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

picture of author bridget brown