Marketing? Pah! It Doesn’t Work On Me!
26th March 2018

From a marketing perspective, branding is all about psychology. Brands work hard to create positive ideas and feelings in people’s minds when they see, hear, or think about a product or business. These could be factual (e.g. Coke tastes sweet) or emotional (e.g. Google is the best search engine ever!).

Most of us like to see ourselves as rational and objective – and not easily swayed by emotions. You might believe you’re immune to the powers of advertising. You know that advertisers use tricks to lure you in and make you spend money, but you’re wise to it so it doesn’t affect you.

You may find yourself saying things like, “Why do they play so many adverts? I always mute them anyway”. Thinking it immunises you against them…

But apparently, it doesn’t. In his (now famous) book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell shows us how we make split-second decisions about things we encounter in our environment. This happens below our conscious awareness.

Even being aware of the way marketing works won’t protect you from its influence. You’ve made your decision before you even realise it. Advertisers know this: it wouldn’t be a trillion dollar industry if it didn’t work.  

But why does it work?

Your Brain on Marketing

Marketing works on many levels, but the most important one involves your brain’s reward centre: the Mesolimbic Pathway. It plays a significant role in desire, seeking behaviour such as motivation and reward.

We have evolved to seek things that help us to survive, namely food, shelter, friendship, etc. One of the most important parts of this process is scanning the environment to find these survival supports.

When we see something we need, it triggers our mesolimbic pathway and raises our dopamine levels — a key neurotransmitter involved in pleasurable feelings and motivation. This makes us feel happy and then motivated to go and get that shiny thing.

“I need that!”

It’s not so much the item that’s driving your urges, but the feelings and thoughts that you have about getting it. We like the seeking and hunting. The feeling when your brain says, “I need this! I need this! Go get it!”

Marketing exploits this system. It’s just the business waving their shiny thing (products, services, subscription, etc.) at us and triggering our “I need that!” reaction.

They present their products so that your brain feels an urge to satisfy a need. This creates a positive association between the brand and your emotions. Eventually, you start to feel good about the brand – like a Pavlovian response.

You probably already know this, but the pleasure doesn’t last long. Remember, it’s triggering seeking behaviour, not feelings of satisfaction. No sooner than you have the shiny thing in your hand then another shiny thing attracts your attention. This “hacking” of our reward system helps explain our excessive consumerism.

It’s not just about hacking into your basic needs, either. It exploits our higher needs, too. To understand this, you need to understand the famous theory of human motivation, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Why we buy

Human behaviour rests on the motivation to satisfy needs. Maslow arranges these needs in a hierarchy from basic needs to complex needs:

  1. Physiological (food, water, etc.)
  2. Safety (shelter, defence)
  3. Love/belonging (family & friendship)
  4. Esteem (feeling capable in life)
  5. Self-actualisation (fulfilling your potential).

To be happy, we need to satisfy all our needs and this drive motivates our behaviour. These needs are cumulative: you have to satisfy the basic needs before you can reach the next level (there is some overlap, though).

The higher up the hierarchy a brand can position itself, the greater the positive responses it can attract.


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