Posted on 05 May 2015

We all know that a complex piece of machinery dwells in our skulls. We also learned throughout our years at school that the brain still has the power to baffle scientists; that it’s the centre of intelligence (spawning insults such as ‘brain-dead’) with lots of folds; and it’s ugly, unless you’re a brain surgeon.

But it’s time to change that perception, and learn about the strong impressions made by various stimuli on the brains of our target markets. It’s time to learn about using Neuroscience in Direct Marketing.

How was your Science at school? All the tubes, formulae, odd-smelling liquids, twitching frogs’ legs….. and very little of it was of any use when venturing into the big bad world after Matric, nor was it considered by most students when choosing a tertiary education. So, when I was told that there was a new approach to direct marketing that involved science, my immediate reaction was a flashback to the school lab, complete with all of the above.

The science that is beginning to form the basis of all successful market communication, however, is the science of the brain – Neuroscience - and in particular, Cognitive Neuroscience, also known as Behavioural Science.

‘Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, genetics and allied disciplines including philosophy, physics and psychology.’

When you understand one of the basics of neuroscience – i.e. the effect of external stimuli on the brain – you’ll see how beneficial it can be to marketing. Are we targeting the right people? Is the market accepting our messages, and do the consumers retain the information? Are we even using colours the market finds appealing and therefore, more retentive?

And, before anyone tells me that Pavlov showed us classical conditioning behaviour with his dogs, a bell and a plate of food and so it’s nothing new, let me tell you that you are right – but not about Pavlov. Well, maybe a bit.

If you know what ‘trepanation’ is, you’ll know it has to be a pretty sophisticated procedure so as to not kill the patient. Drilling holes in someone’s skull was a rather OTT way of curing bad headaches in the Neolithic era and even in ancient Egypt there was an understanding of the function of the brain, although for many years it was believed the heart was the centre of Life.

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that scientists began to form the basics of the understanding we have today of the functioning of the brain, and it is generally accepted – with all the knowledge we have, thanks to the brilliance of luminaries such as Camillo Golgi and Ramón y Cajal (Nobel Prize winners 1906), Carl Wernicke and Franz Joseph Gall to name but a few - that even now we are just scraping the surface.

In fact, it was only as recently as 1966 that Eric Kandel and colleagues examined the biochemical changes in neurons associated with learning and memory storage. And the study of the nervous system, with more understanding of the incredibly complex neuron, has developed significantly since the late 1900s through advances in molecular biology, electrophysiology, and computational neuroscience.

Even more interesting is an observation by Charlie Rose in 2009 during an interview with Dr. Eric Kandel (Nobel Laureate in Medicine and a member of the NeuroFocus Advisory Board): ‘We have learned more about the brain in the past five years than during all of human history combined.’

So, why has the brain taken centre stage in marketing at this late stage? It seems obvious that we have to appeal to people, that we have to give them what they want, that we must ensure the messaging is relevant and stays at ‘front of mind’.

But as in so many ‘obvious’ matters, does the practice live up to the theory? And does knowing what we as marketers should be doing, mean that we are doing it? Which is all a roundabout way of saying that if we want to market successfully, we have to delve deeper into the minds of the consumers than we do at present. Building a huge database of ‘surface’ personal details and mining information from that no longer cuts it.

We have to learn how our marketing campaigns impact on the emotions of our target markets. And to do this, we have to study the research presented on cognitive neuroscience – and any facts unearthed by the rest of the 21 branches of the science. Sounds difficult, boring and too much for a brain exhausted after the daily grind, maybe?

In fact, it’s incredibly interesting and some of it even gives you those ‘but I know that already’ moments. It makes me wonder how many hours, and how much money we marketers have wasted in trying to attract consumers; and how on earth have we managed to market to anyone at all with any permanent degree of success?


As I have mentioned, scientists eventually clicked that it was the brain, not the heart, which was the centre of intelligence. And further, more current scientific research identified that neurons are the key.

To put it simply, neurons in the brain – all 100 billion of them - work on electrical impulses. It’s all about positives and negatives: when a neuron is just sitting around quietly resting and has no impulse to transmit, we are told that the cell membrane surrounding it is polarised, meaning that the electrical charge on the outside of the cell is positive (excess sodium ions), while the inside is negative (excess potassium ions).

And there’s more…

When the neurons end their rest period and decide it’s time to get active, a process takes place that still has scientists baffled – and intrigued. You’ll see from the illustration of the neuron shown above that there are distinct areas, each with its own function.

Neurons have three basic parts: The cell body contains the nucleus and cytoplasm. The axon extends from the cell body and often gives rise to many smaller branches before ending at nerve terminals; dendrites extend from the neuron cell body and receive messages from other neurons; and synapses which are the contact points where one neuron communicates with another. The dendrites are covered with synapses formed by the ends of axons from other neurons. When neurons receive or send messages, they transmit electrical impulses along their axons, which can range in length from a tiny fraction of a centimetre to about one metre or more. Many axons are covered with a layered myelin sheath, which accelerates the transmission of electrical signals along the axon. This sheath is made by specialised cells called glia. In the brain, the glia that make the sheath are called oligodendrocytes, and in the peripheral nervous system, they are known as Schwann cells. The brain contains at least ten times more glia than neurons. Glia perform many jobs. Researchers have known for a while that glia transport nutrients to neurons, clean up brain debris, digest parts of dead neurons, and help hold neurons in place. Current research is uncovering important new roles for glia in brain function.

This brings us back to the use of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience by marketers. As we mentioned before, ‘cognitive neuroscience addresses the questions of how psychological functions are produced by neural circuitry’.

‘All very interesting’ I hear you say, ‘but how does it help us in our marketing campaigns? Well….

Wouldn’t you as a marketers like to know what colours appeal to consumers; if there’s a difference in the way that women and men perceive the same message; if repeating a message necessarily means retention; if the channels you have chosen to relay the message are actually those that are the correct carriers; if the time and day matters?

Here are some thoughts from experts in the science and in marketing….
•In 2011, the American Marketing Association produced a White Paper ‘Marketing and Neuroscience: What Drives Customer Decisions?’ which covered a virtual event where marketers could ask questions of experts ‘using neuroscience to supplement and enhance their research and marketing initiatives.’ Barbara O’Connell, Senior Vice President, Consumer Neuroscience Practice, North America, Millward Brown; Steven Walden, Senior Head of Research and Consulting, Beyond Philosophy; and Andrew Pohlmann, Managing Partner Professional Services, NeuroFocus shared their views and experiences.

O’Connell told the delegates that ‘Consumers really aren’t very good at telling us why they buy what they buy’, showing a chart analysing the factors people cite as important in their decision to buy a brand, compared to their opinions about the brand they bought last. The chart showed some interesting differences. ‘Factors people don’t say are important to them do figure into their decision’. For the best results, she recommends a combination of Electroencephalography (EEG) which uses sensors or electrodes on the scalp to measure electrical impulses emitted by the brain and the more conventional survey-based approach. Reactions to a brand are easily measured through Implicit Association measurement, which can provide information of which they are unaware by using ‘lexical decision (word choice) tasks.

Walden explained that ‘evidence from brain scans shows that emotions impinge directly on consumer decision making. That fits with what the psychology of customer experience is about: finding that emotional connection.’

He outlined the 10 key principles of experience psychology – these can be studied and used by companies:

1. We make decisions based on preconceived expectations and prejudices of what an experience will be—not what it is.
2. We don’t always consider all elements of an experience, only those most noticeable.
3. We identify a moral code in what you do, even if it is not directly relevant to the purchase in question.
4. Sometimes we don’t know about the things that influence us; we just subconsciously perceive them.
5. Emotional twinges affect our ‘in the moment’ decision making and hence behaviour.
6. We are prone to be wary of anything that threatens our well-being.
7. It is about what we want from an experience at a deep level and as we traverse it.
8. Our memory of an event is not perfect, but subject to manipulation.
9. We like to follow the herd, be seen as part of the group.
10. We get bored with the same old, same old. Sometimes innovation for its own sake is important.

Pohlmann pointed out that the development in neuroscience was possible only through the parallel development in computing capacity, software tools and algorithms. The rapid growth in technology has enabled the speedy collection and processing of the enormous amount of data collected during neuroscience experiments and consumer research. Results are often available in a few hours, not the couple of months required in the not-too-distant past.

An interesting fact unearthed during recent research is that the brain processes 11 million bits of sensory information every second, but only 40 bits per second are processed consciously – the rest gets processed subconsciously. This begs the question, according to Pohlmann, as to whether we are measuring and appropriately capturing that decision-making process within our consumer research.

I think it’s pretty obvious from all the research undertaken into how the human brain recognises and retains marketing information that we as IDM practitioners have to begin to think long-term when it comes to measuring the impact of our campaigns. If we don’t, we’ll be left far behind.

There are so many tools available, and as technology advances these will become easier and more cost-effective to use.

Pohlmann lists the 5 five lessons learned from neuroscience research, emphasising the need to combine logical and neurological processes when planning our campaigns:

•Most processing in the human brain occurs subconsciously, below the level of conscious awareness.
•Most of this subconscious processing is emotional, not logical. ‘Logical’ refers to a considered conscious decision, while ‘emotional’ refers to the realm of the subconscious or non-conscious.
•Subconscious processes have a significant effect on shoppers’ attitudes, decisions, and behaviours.
•Subconscious processes do not control us entirely, but they form the vast majority of our decision-making. Conscious choice represents a minority.
•Consumers cannot tell you about these influences because they are unaware of them.


When I was delving into the fascinating world of neuroscience, I became aware of what, to me, is a very scary possibility. And I discovered Nessi shares my concerns.

So while we can get really excited about the rosy picture painted by ensuring successful campaigns with high ROIs, I will leave you with the words of caution from Nessi:

‘One risk of neuromarketing is that it may be used specifically to target desirable subconscious responses in the consumer, independently of their actual conscious recognition of this influence. To an extent, this already occurs with traditional advertising, but the degree to which neuromarketing might enhance and add sophistication to the advertiser’s ability to bypass the conscious mind in evoking a response raises many controversial questions about freedom of thought, as well as invasion of privacy. While some present it as a harmless opportunity for increasing the popularity of a brand, others see it as a dangerous encroachment on the free will of individuals in society.’
Scary stuff.

Article written by: Colleen Vilela

Colleen holds a Diploma in Public Relations from Technikon Witwatersrand. Her PR journey began in 1995 at Adele Lucas Promotions in Rosebank. After which, Colleen spent six years at The Sun City Resort in the North West Province. Part of the Sun International group, Colleen spent four years as the promotions manager for the Casino followed by two years as the public relations manager for the resort in its entirety.

After a four year stint in the United Kingdom, she returned to South Africa and was appointed marketing manager for Pirelli South Africa. Moving into consultancy work was a natural next step for Colleen, and in the two years that CMN Marketing has been in operation, she has built up an impressive stable of clients across a wide spectrum of business sectors such as Daytona Group (Aston Martin, McLaren, Rolls Royce), SMAC (distributors of Parrot products), HP, Olympus, SanDisk, Leica, Belkin, Bidvest Integrated Outsourcing, Ignition TV, Nikon, Axiz, Tarsus and Itec.

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