The Forum Buzz: on neuroscience and marketing

Jasmine Butler Burnham

Marketing Manager

The Financial Services Forum

I was so excited to speak to Dr Helena Boschi over Zoom this Monday. Not least because I spent the weekend eagerly devouring her book ‘Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Our Brain to Get the Best Out of Ourselves and Others’ at record speed. But also, because the relationship between the brain and marketing was the focus of my MSc research a few years ago.

Dr Boschi uses neuroscientific concepts to provide insights into how the human brain behaves, with a focus on communications, leadership and creative and cognitive abilities. I promise that I’m not receiving any book sale commissions when I say that I wish I’d had ‘Why We Do What We Do’ to hand when I was writing my dissertation. It provides a clear explanation of the brain’s functions and their relationship to how we behave, illustrated by some fascinating case studies from across business and science.

So, why should marketing leaders be thinking about neuroscience? The answer is pretty straightforward. ‘If you want people to pay attention, you want to create a chemical change in the brain’ explains Dr Boschi. ‘When people approach communications like economics, they approach it as if people are rational – but we are not really rational creatures at all. In addition to this, the brain doesn’t like change  – or anything ambiguous or unpredictable – and most of us hate being told what to do!’

Dr Boschi has some simple advice for making your messages brain friendly. ‘By understanding neuroscience, you can construct messages in an entirely different way, and increase their effectiveness. The word ‘change’ feels painful because the brain can’t predict what will happen. So we need to make it feel less painful. Decide first what your message is and at the same time investigate any potential concerns and objections. Address concerns early and involve people as much as possible’.

‘People like to feel that they have a choice because the brain likes to be in control. And always give a reason: answering the ‘why’ reduces uncertainty. We may not necessarily like the reason, but at least we have been given one.’

Of course, most great marketing campaigns are already using the principles of neuroscience to their advantage. I bring up the government’s latest ‘Look into My Eyes’ ad, a classic example of appealing to our negativity bias (so much so that I was even compelled to talk about it in last week’s newsletter!). ‘Drama makes us pay attention’ Dr Helena explains, ‘and when our attentional system is switched on quickly we release noradrenaline which sharpens our focus.’

The Andrex puppy is another classic example ‘puppies – and most baby animals really – stimulate the release of oxytocin in our brain’ Dr Boschi smiles, ‘if you want people to bond with your product, you need oxytocin! Oxytocin helps us trust and build connections with each other, and it is predominantly released when we touch, but also when we see something that we want to touch.’

We hear a lot about the power of storytelling, but the reason it’s so compelling is also chemical. ‘When telling a powerful story, you have a golden elixir of chemicals at play, that help you engage with the story on many different levels,’ notes Dr Boschi.

This, to me, is the apex in which applied neuroscience distinguishes itself from behavioural science. Whilst behavioural science is also interested in heuristics, biases and choice architecture, the intersect of marketing and neuroscience focuses on the functions of the brain itself, considering the behaviour, biases and neuroscientific implications for both the sender and receiver of any given message.

After all, despite our attempts to extricate our own human selves from the marketing equation through the medium of brand imagery and HTML email campaigns, we all bring our own brain baggage to the party. And, as Dr Boschi discusses in her book, having self-awareness of your own unconscious behaviours is a crucial component in successful leadership. Yet, so rarely do we consider ourselves – and our brains – as active participants in brand communications.

In truth, the work is just beginning, as Dr Boschi explains. ‘To build the bridge between neuroscience and marketing, we need to be open to new connections and be prepared to create something new together’. She adds ‘plus, we must let go of our own reality, which is entirely subjective, and learn to see the world through a completely new lens’. Communications aside, this is striking advice in a world that is increasingly hostile to opposing viewpoints.

It occurs to me that marketing is, more often than not, busy with reducing the behaviour of our customers down to a series of clicks, opens and dwell times. Rarely do we stop to consider the impact of our communications on the brains of our customers, nor how our own brain is influencing our own behaviour and by extension, marketing decisions.

What would happen, if we instead measured brand equity by our ability to create cognitive connections, and influence behaviour to improve financial outcomes for customers? In a world unclouded by pre-conceived perceptions of success, what would the new measure of good marketing and a good customer outcome even look like, if we could rebuild the marketing discipline from scratch?

One thing is for sure when it comes to the relationship between neuroscience and communications; we need to start getting comfortable with the fact that we don’t have the answers. And, we would also do well to question conventional wisdom. After all, as Dr Boschi writes ‘the more polarised our views are, the less value we place on facts that threaten them’. Now there’s a thought for the weekend ahead.

Dr Boschi’s book ‘Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Our Brain to Get the Best Out of Ourselves and Others’ is published by Wiley and available widely from your preferred retailer. You can buy it on Amazon here, or Hive here.


See you next week, for our Card Payments event on Tuesday with MESH Experience and Mastercard.

We’ll also be hearing from the formidable Lucian Camp, flanked by Incisive Media’s editorial director, Adrian Barrick, Sarah Shôve, Co-Head of EMEA Marketing and Head of Global Brand Strategy at Columbia Threadneedle Investments and Geraint Jones, Global Marketing Director at Clear & Growth Operations Director at M&C Saatchi Group on Thursday, for the aptly named ‘An Online Event about Online Events’.

Join us here from 0930am-1030am for case studies, tips and tricks on how to make sure your online event programme delivers on your objectives.

As ever, I wish you a peaceful and enjoyable weekend, and look forward to hopefully seeing you next week.


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