By: Martin Lindstrom



We are thinking, learning animals. Our brains are constantly busy collecting and filtering information. Some information will make it into long-term storage (our memory), but others are mere noise.

If marketers could uncover what is going on in our brains that makes us choose one brand over another – how we filter information and what sticks – then they would have identified the secret to success.

This is what Martin Lindstrom calls our Buyology: the subconscious thoughts, feelings, and desires that drive the purchasing decisions we make each and every day. And he believes the future of marketing is to truly and completely understand the thoughts, feelings, motivations, needs, and desires of consumers. Join us for the next ten minutes to explore further.

I am Irrational and Emotional – I’m Human.

As human beings, we think of ourselves as a rational species. We like to think we are more Spock-like. Unfortunately all of us engage in behaviour for which we have no logical or clear-cut explanation. The more stress we’re under, the more uncertain we feel, the more irrationally we tend to behave.

Our true reactions and emotions are more likely to be found in the nanosecond lapse before thinking is translated into words. Lindstrom points out that f marketers want the truth - unplugged and uncensored - about what causes us to buy, they have to get inside our brains.

Because emotions are the way in which our brains encode things of value, a brand that engages us emotionally will win every single time.

Marketing to the brain or neuromarketing isn’t about implanting ideas in our brains, or forcing us to buy what we don’t want to buy; it’s about uncovering what’s already inside our heads: the emotional and irrational associations we make with products.

Take American Idol. The three judges all keep cups of Coke in front of them, and both the judges and the contestants sit on chairs or couches with rounded contours specifically designed to look like a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Whether through semi-subtle imagery or traditional advertising spots, Coca-Cola is visually present approximately for 60% of the time on the show.

Now think of the Ford Motor company. Also a major sponsor. They invested $26 million in yearly sponsorship, and actually lost market share. Why? Coke was integrated fully into the narrative while Ford wasn’t at all. According to Lindstrom, Ford doesn’t play a role in the show. He reveals that we have no memory of brands that don’t play an integral part in the storyline of a program. They become white noise and are easily, instantaneously forgotten.

Your product has to make sense within the show’s emotional narrative. Want to be high-flying and adored? Coke can help. Want to have the world swooning at your feet? Drink a Coke. By merely sipping the drink onstage, the three judges forged a powerful association between the drink and the emotions provoked by the show. I’m successful and drink Coke. So can you.

Immersive experience

Ever sit and watch an American football game and feel yourself reacting to the tackles or take a sharp intake of breath before the hit? Why does this happen? Why do we mimic how others interact with objects? According to Lindstrom, we can put it down to mirror neutrons.

When we watch someone do something, whether it’s scoring a penalty kick or playing a perfect melody on a grand piano, our brains react as if we were actually performing these activities ourselves. In short, it’s as though seeing and doing are one and the same. Mirror neutrons are responsible for why we often unwittingly imitate other people’s behaviour. Interestingly, mirror neutrons are also at work when the opposite takes place — on those occasions when we actually take pleasure in others’ bad luck.

Lindstrom suggests mirror neutrons not only help us imitate other people, they’re responsible for human empathy. They send signals to the emotional region of our brains so we can experience what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.

But mirror neutrons don’t work alone. Often, they work in tandem with dopamine, one of the brain’s pleasure chemicals. Dopamine is one of the most addictive substances known to science—and purchasing decisions are driven in some part by its seductive effects. Here is how Lindstrom suggests the combination works.

As you pass by a store with desirable goods on display, your mirror neutrons fire up. You can imagine yourself being a proud owner of the goods: popular, desired, at the centre of it all.

You approach the counter with what you’ve just picked out. As you’re getting ready to blow your bank account, your dopamine level soars into the heavens. As the clerk rings up and bags your purchases in that beautifully branded bag, you’re feeling cool and one of “the in-crowd.”

Dopamine subtly flushes your brain with pleasure and before you know it, you’ve signed the credit card receipt. A few minutes later, as you exit the store, bag in hand, the euphoric feelings caused by the dopamine recede, and all of a sudden you wonder whether you’ll really ever use that camera or wear those shoes. Sound familiar?

As he states, between your mirror neutrons making you feel sexy and attractive, and your dopamine creating that near-orgasmic anticipation of reward, your rational mind doesn’t stand a chance. As marketers begin to learn more about how mirror neutrons drive our behaviour, they’ll find more and more ways to play upon them to get us to buy. Buyers beware.

It’s a kind of magic

Lindstrom suggests that the more unpredictable the world becomes, the more we grope for a sense of control over our lives. And the more anxiety and uncertainty we feel, the more we adopt superstitious behaviour and rituals to help shepherd us through.

So what do rituals have to do with what we think about when we buy? A lot. For one thing, products and brands that have rituals or superstitions associated with them are much “stickier” than those that don’t. Once we find a ritual or brand we like, isn’t there a lot of comfort in having a particular blend of coffee to brew every morning, a signature shampoo with a familiar smell, or a favourite make of running sneaker we buy year after year?

Lindstrom suggests brand obsession has a lot in common with rituals and superstitious behaviour—both involve habitual, repeated actions that have little or no logical basis, and both stem from the need for a sense of control in an overwhelming and complex world.

When we are stressed out, or when life feels random and out-of-control, we often seek out comfort in familiar products or objects. We want to have solid, consistent patterns in our lives, and in our brands. We need shortcuts.

Why did I choose you?

These are subconscious conversations going on in our heads every time we choose one product over another. If asked to describe how you came to your decision, you’d probably shrug and reply “Instinct,” or “No reason,” or “I just did.” But the real rationale behind your choices was in fact built on a lifetime of associations—some positive, others negative—that you weren’t consciously aware of. Lindstrom gives us a name for these brain shortcuts: a somatic marker.

Sown by past experiences of reward and punishment, these markers serve to connect an experience or emotion with a specific, required reaction. These same cognitive shortcuts are what underlie most of our buying decisions. Every day, we manufacture new ones, adding them to our decision portfolio. Whether for necessities or for pleasures, somatic markers help us with every buying decision we’re able to make.

So how do these markers form? And do companies and advertisers work to deliberately create these in our brains? Lindstrom suggests it’s easy and inexpensive to create a somatic marker in consumers’ brains. It’s all about the unexpected.

Sony created an ingenious somatic marker in the weeks before the release of Spiderman 3, using men’s rooms in selected cheaters. A guy would stroll in and see a conventional line of urinals and stalls. Nothing out of the ordinary. That is, until he would happen to gaze upward and see a single stand-alone plastic urinal seven feet above his head. Next to it: the words Spiderman 3 . . . Coming Soon.

Others create somatic markers in consumers’ minds using humour. Fear too can create some of the most powerful somatic markers, and many advertisers are all too happy to take advantage of our stressed-out, insecure, increasingly vulnerable natures.

Selling to Our Senses

According to Lindstrom, visual images are far more effective, and more memorable, when they are coupled with another sense—like touch, sound or smell.

When we see and smell something we like at the same time—like Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder combined with its signature vanilla-y scent—various regions of our brains light up together. When a pleasant fragrance matches up with an equally appealing and congruous visual image, we not only perceive it as more pleasant, we’re also more likely to remember it, but if the two are incongruous, forget about it. Literally.

Of all our senses, smell is the most primal, the most deeply rooted. Touch is another sensory sales technique. We like to stroke, rub, caress, and run our fingers through the garments we’re considering before we commit to buying them— kind of like a sensory test run. Why else do you think those tables of clothing at the Gap and Banana Republic are positioned where they are? To be looked at? Of course not. They’re there awaiting your fingers.

As for sound? The sound of a can of Pringles potato chips opening is largely engineered to make you associate the product with lip-smacking freshness.

According to Lindstrom, tomorrow’s retail world will have the distinct smell of cantaloupe, lemongrass, tangerine. It won’t be black and white, but in vivid colour. It will chirp, waltz, holler, infuse you, and leave you humming. And this assault on your senses will be more effective in winning your mind, your loyalty, and your dollars than you ever thought possible.