Neuromarketing–You’re Doing It Wrong. Look For Human Insights, Not Magic Tactics

Douglas Van Praet says there’s a neuromarketing gold rush in progress, and issues a warning–neuroscience shouldn’t be seen as a weapon of influence, but a path to genuine insights.

Neuromarketing–You’re Doing It Wrong. Look For Human Insights, Not Magic Tactics
[Gold Photo: Shebeko via Shutterstock]

The rush to commercialize neuroscience reminds me of the story of Sam Brannan, the pioneer who started the California Gold Rush in 1849. Brannan became the Golden State’s first millionaire, not by striking gold but by selling the tools. He bought up all of the picks, shovels, and pans, owned the only store around the goldfields, published news of the findings in his newspaper the California Star, and ran up and down the streets of San Francisco shouting “Gold”!


While there was indeed gold, few of the ‘49ers would strike it rich. In fact, the merchants made more money than the miners as many gold seekers arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their back. And even Brannan, despite his tireless self-promotion, ended up losing his fortune after a series of ill-fated business decisions. He died without enough money to cover his funeral costs.

Neuroscientists have unearthed a profound discovery. Most of the business of life lies below the surface. But all we’re hearing is: “Thar’s gold in them thar hills.” There’s a wagon train of neuropioneers eager to mine the riches of our unconscious proclivities–selling brain scans, biometrics, black box measures, and bombastic claims. Marketers are leaping for the elusive buy button, hyping the wealth and hawking their wares. But we first should be heeding the lessons. The real gold lies not in these tools but in the teachings of cognitive authorities.

Photo: Flickr user Thomas Geiregger

Insights Into Strategy Over Tactics Of Persuasion

The disruptive neuroscience revolution has the capacity to be an important catalyst for business change. By better understanding the real motives of our decisions we can facilitate a non-zero sum exchange, creating both powerful brands and satisfied customers. Yet this opportunity is being given short shrift as weapons of subconscious influence not insights into unmet hidden needs. The emergent field of neuromarketing is being reduced and defined as the “the study of neurological responses to marketing messages.” This new view of who we are deep inside can become a watershed moment in cultural evolution. But only if we begin by asking bigger questions than: Which storyboard, jingle, or tagline engages our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex?

I’m not suggesting we ignore the possibilities of testing marketing material, but they should be approached with guarded optimism. The brain, much like the humans it commands, is inherently complex and paradoxical. Purchase intent can’t simply be reduced to pretty brain scans. But not all neuromarketers should be painted with the same brush of skepticism. There is indeed a treasure-trove of insights that can remarkably improve communication. And there’s no putting this genie back into the bottle. But the value is in the insights into people more so than the tests of ads.

The fact of the matter is anyone can do “neuromarketing” without scanning a single brain. The goal should be to integrate this knowledge into business practices, bringing together the behavioral, cognitive and evolutionary sciences. Instead of just searching for tips, tricks and cognitive biases to exploit in ads, we should first focus our attention up front on our customers and business models–to use neuroscience as insight into strategy not just tactics of persuasion.

Photo: Flickr user Travis Goodspeed

Biology of Branding

For example, neuroscientist Read Montague has cracked the code, the neural substrate of what branding is. We’re the only creatures on the planet that can manufacture our own happiness. And we decide by converting the values of our choices into a common neural currency of feelings. What makes us so special and successful is that we not only have the ability to fall in love with a person or a product, but we can fall in love with an idea or a mission.

As Montague explains, “Evolution has essentially bootstrapped our penchant for intellectual concepts to the same reward circuits that govern our animal appetites. The guy who’s on hunger strike for some political cause is still relying on his midbrain dopamine neurons, just like a monkey getting a sweet treat.” Higher thought uses the same neural currency of the feel-good responses of primary rewards such as food and sex, helping us to assess the relative rewards and risks between options. As Montague offers, “You don’t have to dig very far before it all comes back to your loins.”

In other words, the higher meaning we ascribe to a mission can be so gratifying that it subordinates even our basic instincts, largely because it taps into the same pleasures that drive our primary appetites. This is why when people align themselves with the higher beliefs of a brand, those beliefs can create an overriding loyalty and command steep profits due to the pleasures generated by the allegiance to the brand’s mission.

Photo: Flickr user Gouta

Profit Through Purpose

Take for instance Patagonia, a company with meteoric growth and about $600 million in revenue in 2013. Their mission puts primacy on purpose over profit, i.e., to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”. They contribute 1% of sales to the coffers of grassroots environmental organizations, amounts that have doubled in the past five years as company profits have tripled since 2008.

Founder Yvon Chouinard advocates leading an “examined life” and he’s intellectually focused on protecting the planet, not just the “brand territory”. Pundits have called him “America’s most unlikely business guru”. But maybe the pundits should take notes from scientists. As Chouinard puts it, “I know it sounds crazy, but every time I have made a decision that is best for the planet, I have made money. Our customers know that–and they want to be part of that environmental commitment.”


The reason people fork over $700 to buy their jackets, is they have fallen in love with a purpose not just a parka. An attraction so deep that when Patagonia placed a full page ad in the New York Times on “Black Friday” urging “Don’t Buy This Jacket” sales soared. A campaign that according to Chouinard, didn’t increase overall consumption but stole share from competitors, brands less beloved.

The neuro-business paradigm stands at a crucial divide. We can go the self-serving, profit-driven, ill-fated route of Sam Brannan and the Gold Rush. Or we can prompt industry to change for the better, and drive the competitive forces that shape progress on both sides of the free market fence. But only if we first heed the insights into humans and what makes us so incredible–rather than exploit tactics against consumers and what makes us so vulnerable.

Douglas Van Praet is a brand strategy consultant and the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also a keynote speaker and founder of Unconscious Branding, a leading-edge brand strategy consultancy whose approach to marketing draws from Unconscious Behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to business problems. He has positioned some of the world’s most iconic brands through highly effective award winning campaigns at leading agencies and marketers in New York and Los Angeles.

Read more on neuromarketing from Van Praet:

The Distraction Of Data: How Research Missed The Real Reasons People Buy