Illustration: Nick McFarlane

Aim for the head

December 9, 2014 | features

The human brain really is an amazing piece of engineering. A small organ the size of two fists that reasons, analyses, manages emotions, regulates blood flow and controls our temperature. It instantly interprets danger from safety, fake smiles from real ones, surprise from anger and allows us to select our weekly groceries from a choice of 40,000 in only 30 minutes. And it does all this using around a third of the power of a 60-watt light bulb.

Because it’s such an amazing piece of engineering, it’s often compared with other great feats of engineering and technology, like a water clock, a telephone switchboard and, more recently, a computer. Today’s analogy spawns quotes like “the brain can process at the rate of 168,000 pentium computers” or “the brain has about 100 million megabytes of memory”. On their own, these quotes are fine, but if we carry the analogy too far we start thinking the brain actually works like a computer.

While brains and computers both have memory and processing power, the brain is designed to work differently. This is why humans are better than computers at some stuff, and worse at others. We don’t file information anywhere near as well for a start (something we can all probably relate to when we lose our car keys, can’t recall a friend’s name or inevitably forget things at the supermarket without a list). We also can’t retrieve our memories as well as a computer. Questions like “are there more four letter words with R as the first letter or the third letter?” are a piece of cake for a machine but not so much for us. We want to say there are more words with R as the first letter because that’s how the brain files this information, but the answer is the third letter (and by quite some way).

Computers are much better at detailed analysis and can retrieve information easily in a variety of forms. That’s why they now beat us at chess and why Google beats Encyclopedia Britannica. But put the world’s best robot on a tennis court and even average players would win in a canter.

We’re not particularly good at estimating odds. We use an ‘ease of imagining’ metric as a ballpark of the likelihood of an occurrence, which means we over-estimate dog attacks and under-estimate asthma fatalities. That’s because dog attacks make the news (making them easy to recall) and asthma attacks don’t.

Unlike a computer, the brain was not optimised for analysis, it was optimised for efficiency. From an evolutionary point of view, a reasonable decision made quickly was considerably more beneficial to our survival than a slower, more accurate one.

This is why we have a number of analytical glitches (known more commonly as cognitive biases). Of the 11 megabits of data that enter the human brain each second, we consciously process only around 40 bits which means we subconsciously process 99.9993 percent of the information around us. It’s an extremely efficient way to operate and most of the time we don’t notice any negative effects. But upon closer inspection of these data compressions, short cuts and approximations the brain is making, we can see a few errors creeping in.

For example, we’re not particularly good at estimating odds. We use an ‘ease of imagining’ metric as a ballpark of the likelihood of an occurrence, which means we over-estimate dog attacks and under-estimate asthma fatalities. That’s because dog attacks make the news (making them easy to recall) and asthma attacks don’t.

When we move house or change our car it can take weeks for us to stop driving the old way home, or switching on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicator if the instruments are the opposite way around. We have all the information, but it’s hard work for the brain to ‘think’ consciously. It wants to run on autopilot because it’s much more efficient.

The brain is so driven to operate efficiently that when it’s presented with a problem it can’t solve efficiently, it will even opt to make no decision at all. This behaviour is highlighted by Sheena Iyengar, professor of business at Columbia Business School, in her book The Art of Choosing. One of her better-known experiments involved the sampling and selling of jam at an upmarket food store. She set up a table that at times had six jars of jam on it and other times had 24 jars of jam on it (strawberry and other popular choices were left out). People were more likely to stop at the table with more jams but they were far less likely to buy anything. In fact, those that stopped at the table with fewer jam jars were ten times more likely to actually make a purchase (30 percent versus three percent). Once the number of items to choose from got too big, making a choice got too hard, so the most efficient choice was to make no choice at all.

Other examples of this behaviour include ice cream purchases dropping dramatically in stores when the freezer lid is down, and salad bar consumption decreasing in relation to the distance from diners’ tables. It sounds lazy and if it was conscious decision making it probably would be, but most of these choices occur without us noticing. Out of sight really is out of mind, at least out of the default efficient thinking mind.

This optimised way of thinking is also why we rarely attempt to find the ‘best’ choice in market when we’re shopping. On average we talk to only two mortgage providers when we’re buying a house and when we’re looking for a new car we only test drive a fraction of the cars available. A reasonably good fast choice beats a great choice that’s slow because it fits with how the brain wants to work. If we do this for two of the more substantial purchases we ever make, consider how this applies to the myriad of more trivial decisions we make each day. In order to make reasonably good choices really quickly the brain uses a variety of information, some of which we are completely unaware of. For example, the music playing in a wine store influences which wine we buy, as does the weight of the bottle.

However, thinking about the brain and how it wants to work is not something we usually do in marketing. We think product, company or brand out rather than brain in, so to speak. We ask people what they want and why they bought things, which makes us dramatically undervalue the 99.9 percent of subconscious information the brain uses to help make efficient decisions, and overvalue the conscious information people claim drove them to purchase.

But thinking how the brain is optimised and how it wants to think and applying this knowledge to the real world can create substantially more effective marketing. A few years ago, software developer and programmer Jared Spool gathered a lot of fame for his simple recommendation to move the personal registration section of a retail website from pre-purchase to post-purchase. This made it considerably easier for customers to purchase. The result was an additional $300 million dollars in revenue in the following year.

Product descriptions with fonts that are easier to read get a markedly better response rate than those that are more difficult (in an experiment at Yale University, it was over twice as high). Pictures that feature utensils set up for right-handed people get better response rates than those set up for lefthanded people because most people are right-handed and their brains find it easier to process the ‘righthanded’ image (this is known as cortical relief ). Closer to home, travel to New Zealand increased dramatically when the Lord of the Rings movie was released. Obviously the movies did a great job of showcasing the beautiful scenery, but there are many other countries with beautiful mountains. What it really did was make it much easier for a brain looking for an easy solution to ‘a where to go on holiday’ problem to recall New Zealand as a potential destination.

Basically, the easier you can make it the better. As Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman puts it: “Humans are to independent thinking like cats are to swimming. We can do it when we have to, but we’d much rather not.”

One of the more famous and debated campaigns of recent times was Cadbury’s Gorilla. It was the type of campaign that would make many a marketer nervous, primarily because it said very little, if anything, about the product. But if one of the important goals for marketing was making it easy for customers to remember the brand or product at the time of purchase then it begins to look like a pretty smart campaign.

German neuro-economist professor Peter Kenning found that when looking at brain scans of shoppers selecting brands, the area of the brain that lights up when they choose their preferred brand was different to all other brands, including their stated number two choice. Furthermore, the brain showed significantly less activity when choosing the number one brand (another example of cortical relief). In other words, strong brands help the brain ‘think’ less, which is its default, preferred setting.

A considerable amount of marketing is still based on outdated models of human decision-making. We often assume, incorrectly, that people are constantly analysing options, or as economists are fond of saying, maximising utility at every juncture. But there’s now a lot of compelling evidence to suggest this isn’t really true. Furthermore, it would be cognitively impossible to do even if we wanted to.

So next time you’re thinking about what you can do to maximise the efficiency of your marketing spend, perhaps you could start by thinking about how your customers’ brains are designed to work. Ask yourself how you’re making it easier for your customers to notice, think of, find and buy your product compared to your competitors.

Basically, the easier you can make it the better. As Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman puts it: “Humans are to independent thinking like cats are to swimming. We can do it when we have to, but we’d much rather not.”

Or to put it more bluntly: stop marketing to computers and start marketing to people.

  • Simon Bird is the planning director at FCB New Zealand. He is also a representative on the FCB Global Institute of Decision-making, which was launched to provide clients with behaviourally-based insights on how to influence consumer choice.
  • This story originally appeared in the November/December edition of NZ Marketing. 

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