Unlocking the Power of Persuasion

By Eric Nelson, Director of Digital Marketing

Studies of the brain take marketers below the surface to reveal why motivating consumers with logic is only the tip of the iceberg.

We would all like to believe logic can overcome emotion, so much so, that people will often state an opinion that does not truly match what they are actually thinking. It can happen in everyday conversation. Even survey respondents and focus group participants can struggle to put into words their honest truths. People may become conflicted between what they feel and what they imagine they should feel.

Predicting consumer behavior is tricky, but essential to the success of advertising and marketing efforts. Recent neuromarketing (ironically, the first time that word has appeared in BrainStorm) studies evaluating brains’ responses to advertising stimuli are helping us predict what types of messaging will elicit responses we are looking for — even if audiences don’t realize it. And you don’t need to conduct your own neuro study to learn valuable lessons from the emerging research.

If we want people to do something, we need them to feel something. And, thus, we need to fill our marketing messages with stories that evoke those feelings.

This breakthrough research indicates:

  1. We all have cerebral reactions to advertising and messaging, which we are often unaware of or cannot explain.
  2. Different marketing techniques spark reactions in specific regions of our brains that contribute to persuasion.
  3. It’s changing the way we approach research and creative strategy.

For example, storytelling — the foundation of great marketing — activates areas responsible for perception, emotion and action. So, we can attempt logical persuasion by listing ingredients like “pumpkin spice syrup, frothy milk and a shot of espresso in a compostable cup.” Or, a story as short as “Hurry, or you’ll miss out on PSL season” creates a nonrational influence causing customers to dart for the door so they don’t, well, miss out. If we want people to do something, we need them to feel something. And, thus, we need to fill our marketing messages with stories that evoke those feelings.

Mapping Reactions
Ads that generate both high arousal and positive valence create positive memories that are more deeply rooted into memory. In doing so, the ads have a stronger chance of maintaining a positive influence over time.

Flynn Wright Director of Consumer Insights Mike Irwin says tactics like focus groups, surveys and now neuromarketing are “not just learning about the ad, but learning about how we process information. When respondents say things like, ‘That doesn’t look like me …,’ or ‘I would never do that …’ or ‘That makes me nervous,’ they’re giving us signals about how they process our marketing. We can take that information and make more relatable, more meaningful messages in the next iteration.”


Author Simon Sinek gave a great TED topic on this subject more than 10 years ago. His “golden circle” model for inspirational leadership explains, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” It outlines how understanding your business’ “why” means more to potential customers than detailing your “how” or describing your “what” — something we address head-on in our article on emotion (page 10). His primary example: Some companies sell computers, but Apple sells a mantra of thinking differently. How does this translate to neuromarketing?

When you appeal to a person’s feelings, including trust and loyalty, you appeal to the part of the brain that controls behavior, that makes decisions — gut decisions. Sinek goes on to say a person can be given every fact and figure — every product feature, let’s say — and, still, a purchase or decision “doesn’t feel right.” That’s because, as Sinek explains, “the part of the brain that controls decision-making doesn’t control language.” We can consume all these words and make logical sense out of their syntax, but if those words don’t make us feel something, our brains won’t act on those feelings by forming a decision.


Another notable author, Seth Godin, says, “If you need to persuade someone to take action, you’re doing marketing.” That might be a purchase, a donation, a vote or a pledge. We do that through words that form stories, sounds that evoke emotions and sights that arouse feelings. When we apply qualitative and quantitative learnings from focus groups and surveys, we understand what makes a person tick. When we apply this type of science, we can persuade even the deepest folds of our customers’ brains to take an action in line with our objectives.

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