You Know You Want it



Most of us think we know why we prefer one brand over another. But
the truth is, we don’t. The majority of the time, our brains are on
autopilot, flooded with subconscious cultural biases rooted in our
tradition and upbringing. While we shop, our brains assert a powerful
but hidden influence over the choices we make and the products we
ultimately buy. It turns out most of the time, we’re just along for the

Most of us think we know why we prefer one brand over another. But
the truth is, we don’t. The majority of the time, our brains are on
autopilot, flooded with subconscious cultural biases rooted in our
tradition and upbringing. While we shop, our brains assert a powerful
but hidden influence over the choices we make and the products we
ultimately buy. It turns out most of the time, we’re just along for the

It’s clear that neither marketers nor consumers themselves know
exactly what makes us tick. That’s why I launched Project Buyology, a
$7 million, 3-year study of what really goes on in our brains when we
buy. With 200 researchers involved, Buyology was 25 times larger than
any "neuromarketing" study ever attempted. We scanned and measured the
brains of 2,081 volunteers from the United States, England, Germany,
Japan, and China, using some of the most advanced brain-scanning
techniques available, including functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI). We wanted to learn three things: how branding and marketing
messages work on the brain, how people react to stimuli at a level far
deeper than conscious thought, and finally, how our subconscious mind
controls our behavior.

Our first experiment underscored the grudge match between our
conscious and subconscious minds. We asked smokers if prominent
warnings (e.g., "Smoking causes fatal lung cancer") on cigarettes
affected them. Nearly all said the warnings worked, and some even said
they were smoking less as a result. Using the fMRI machine, though, we
saw the warnings actually stimulated a desire center of the smokers’
brains called the nucleus accumbens. The labels not only fail to deter
smoking, but appear to encourage it, says lead researcher Gemma
Calvert, D.Phil., chairwoman of applied neuroimaging at the University
of Warwick.

Doesn’t matter if the product is cigarettes, socks, or an HDTV-our
brains work the same way when we’re making a buying decision. Read on
for the six mind games your brain plays-and strategies you can use to
wrest back control of every buying decision.

Brands bewitch us
I’ve long believed that brands and religion are fundamentally similar.
Both rely on a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies,
sensory appeal, storytelling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery,
and rituals. To prove my theory, we placed volunteers, most of whom
considered themselves to be very spiritual, in an fMRI machine and had
them view a broad array of images, such as a Harley-Davidson
motorcycle, the Pope, an Apple iPod, children praying, a can of Red
Bull, rosary beads, the Microsoft logo, and Mother Teresa.

The results? When the people viewed images associated with strong
brands (like iPod or Harley-Davidson), their brain activity was
precisely the same as it had been when they viewed religious images.
Religiously oriented regions, according to a separate study, include
the caudate and the insula, both of which may be linked to feelings of
joy and unconditional love.

From a scientific point of view, we’re hardwired for gadget lust. A
region in the prefrontal cortex dubbed Brodmann area 10 becomes active
when we see products we think of as cool (as opposed to, say, a snazzy
new garbage can). This zone is associated with self-perception and
emotions. In other words, whether we realize it or not, we assess sexy
stuff-consumer electronics, sports gear-largely in terms of its
capacity to enhance our social prestige.

In fact, a 2008 University of Michigan study found that some men
overspend to attract mates. The researcher found that the most
financially conservative men had an average of three sexual partners
over the previous 5 years, and desired just one over the next 5. The
men who were loosest in their spending had double those numbers.

Outsmart your brain: Brand loyalty is fine, as long as it doesn’t
cloud your rationality. If you find yourself camping outside Toys"R"Us
awaiting a Wii shipment or sitting in a tattoo artist’s chair about to
be inked with the Microsoft logo, you’ve probably crossed the line. If
nothing else, ensure your loyalty is recognized and rewarded.

Example: When Apple lowered the price of its iPhone from $599 to
$399, the company offered a $100 gift card to early adopters who’d
bought the device before the price cut. If necessary, keep receipts.
Expect and demand preferential treatment. The cost of obtaining new
customers is five times that of keeping current ones, and companies can
potentially earn 25 percent to 100 percent more profit by turning an
ordinary customer into a brand loyalist. Research suggests that people
stay faithful to brands that earn their affection and trust. So make
them earn it.


Touch betrays us
hands are a liability that marketers and retailers are all too happy to
leverage. In a 2008 study at Ohio State University, researchers found
that if people spent 30 seconds touching an object instead of just 10,
they were willing to pay more for it than they otherwise would have.
Touch, it appears, causes us to begin to form an attachment in less
than a minute. This is why manufacturers spend much of their
development time working on how products feel, not just on how they

One high-end technology company, for instance, adds completely
useless aluminum weights to remote controls. Why? I had a group of
consumers compare two versions-one with the aluminum, one without-and
they complained the lighter version felt "broken."

Here’s another example: Duracell once had an idea to design
batteries shaped like bullets. (The product never hit store shelves.)
The company’s research showed that 100 percent of men who replaced the
normal batteries in their flashlights with the heavy bullet-shaped
ones-the process felt like loading a gun-thought the new batteries were
more powerful. But the opposite was true; the bullet shape
substantially weakened the battery. My point: The feel of a product can
blind our rational judgments.

Outsmart your brain: Test-driving the equipment is crucial to going
home with the right gear, but a couple of guidelines can protect your
pocketbook. First, don’t handle the merchandise if you aren’t prepared
to commit. Second, stick to products in your price range. There’s no
point in taking the $3,000 SLR through the paces when you’re in the
market for the $1,000 model. Negotiating? Talk price before you fondle
the goods.

Scent woos us
Even the subtlest aromas can have a potent effect on shoppers. When we
smell something, the odor receptors in our noses make a beeline to our
limbic system, which is involved with emotions, memories, and sense of
well-being. Our experiments revealed that when we’re exposed to equally
enjoyable scents and visual images, we not only perceive the experience
as more pleasant, but we’re also more likely to remember it.

In one study, researchers placed two identical pairs of Nike shoes
in two separate but identical rooms. One room was filled with a floral
scent; the other wasn’t. Volunteers examined the shoes in each room and
filled out questionnaires. Eighty-four percent of them preferred the
shoes in the floral-scented room. Moreover, they generally assessed the
scented Nikes as being more than $10 pricier than the pairs in the
unscented room.

Outsmart your brain Hang with me: Always eat before you head out to
shop, especially if the smell of food will be wafting nearby (like in a
mall). In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research,
67 percent of buyers who were given a strict budget but exposed to a
cookie scent made an impulse purchase as opposed to only 17 percent of
those in the scent-free environment. The researcher posits that subtle
exposure to appetizing food (possibly with the help of hunger) can
induce what’s known as the "hot state," which focuses your attention on
the immediate environment and increases the odds of an impulsive
decision. Feeling full may inhibit that effect.

Specs seduce us
You may not be able to make sense of what a 600Hz subfield drive does
or what DLNA is, but your brain doesn’t care. It wants them-bad. In
fact, the mere presence of a long spec list can increase the likelihood
that you’ll actually buy that product, a 2009 study in the Journal of
Consumer Research concludes. The study authors found that even when
consumers knew a spec was dubious, they still preferred the
spec-stacked product.

Outsmart your brain: Put the jargon through your own b.s. filter.
Picture yourself buying the 42-inch LCD HDTV and explaining the
tri-reflector and hypercolor-comb technologies to your friends. If you
can’t explain how something works, you’re probably being jerked around.

Better yet, don’t dwell on specs, and go with your gut. Ask
yourself: Do I want this product based on my first impression? A 2009
study found that people who overthink their decisions make less
consistent judgments than those who trust their instincts.

Decoys dupe us
you ever ventured into a big-box retailer intent on purchasing an 8-gig
MP3 player but walked out with the 32-gig instead? Manufacturers pit
products of varying values against one another to push their premium
products, utilizing a phenomenon known as the "decoy effect."

In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research,
volunteers were asked on several occasions to decide among three
products-two with equally unappealing tradeoffs (a low-power car with
great gas mileage, for example, and a high-power car with pitiful fuel
economy) as well as a third, just-okay option (same low power as the
first car, but only mediocre gas mileage). The presence of the third
car increased the appeal of the first. The study also showed that
presenting a third option decreased the activation of the amygdala, an
area of the brain associated with negative emotions.

Outsmart your brain: Pay with cash and you won’t be as tempted to
splurge. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental
Psychology: Applied, people who used cash spent 14 percent less on
their purchases than those who made their purchases with credit cards.
The pain of parting with actual bills probably helped cap their

Sales deceive us
markdowns spark a primal urge in consumers’ brains–especially during
financial downtimes. The prospect of a bargain activates our
centuries-old hoarding instinct. Marketers know this, so they set the
MSRP high and then put the product on sale and create the impression of
a bargain. And we buy: After all, who knows what the future will bring?

Recently, my team scanned the brains of consumers as they were shown
various going-out-of-business banners. Their brains were lit like
Chinese lanterns. Another recent study of ours revealed that consumers
quickly become addicted to discounts. Securing the lowest price
possible becomes the chief driver of our behavior, and whether or not
we actually need the item becomes secondary. As far as our brains are
concerned, it’s all about winning the game.

Outsmart your brain: Can’t walk away from a deal? Put yourself in
timeout for at least 30 minutes by leaving the store. Grab lunch, or
call a friend. Allow yourself to cool down. If you’re still hot to
seize the item on sale, go for it. At least you’ll be able to pull the
trigger when you’re in a sound state of mind.

Martin Lindstrom is chairman and CEO of Lindstrom Company, a
branding consultancy. Time magazine named Lindstrom one of the world’s
100 most influential people in 2009.


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