The Science Behind Brand

Your audience needs a clear consistent message in order to choose you. There’s a biological reason for this. In this section, you’ll find a quick explanation of how our brains make purchase decisions.

How We Get Information

Humans process new information in many different structures of the brain. Our emotional response to new information comes from a part of the brain called the limbic system.

This includes a brain structure associated with reward processing called the nucleus accumbens. When you eat a bite of your favourite food, it’s the nucleus accumbens that says oh yeahhhh, gimme more of that.

Our Cave-Dweller Brains

The limbic brain structures have not significantly evolved from our pre-civilized ancestors millions of years ago. We may think like modern-day homo sapiens, but we feel and react like cave-dwellers.

Our evolutionary ancestors simply didn’t have time for an internal debate over whether they should run from a predator or play dead. They needed their brain to quickly grab whatever information is available and make a fast decision using emotion and instinct.

Emotion & Instinct Rule

The limbic system’s work often goes on unconsciously, before our more complex cognitive faculties can catch up. This was just fine when our problems included, “How can I avoid sabre-toothed tigers?”

Modern decisions are often more complex, so it makes sense to use our higher-level cognitive abilities to assess information. In fact, we typically think we are doing this. Spoiler alert: we’re typically wrong.

Our Unconscious Decides First

This is the part of the buying process that is important for business owners to understand. Our cave-dweller brain has already made a decision up to ten seconds before our more sophisticated brain engages.

This means by the time your prospective buyer is listening to or reading your words, their unconscious brain has already made the decision, using emotion and “gut instinct.”

What’s more, we modern humans don’t know this is happening. We think we made a well-reasoned decision, when really our inner cave-dweller was the one calling the shots.
brain illustration

Harnessing Neurobiology

We need to take what we know about the reactive, emotional limbic brain and use that information to communicate with our audience. In order to do this successfully, we must understand what resonates with the cave-dweller brain.

Our limbic system has zero patience. It’s selfish and doesn’t have empathy for others, because its job is to keep us alive. It makes decisions fast so it’s important to quickly capture its attention, and to share information in easy-to-digest ways like simple comparison and contrast.

Are we in Cave-Dweller Mode?

This begs the question, “Do we always make decisions with the cave-dweller brain?” The answer is no. Of course we’re able to apply complex reasoning to make a decision. It’s just that we often don’t.

The process of whether we follow a knee-jerk reaction or carefully research our options is referred to in neuroscience as the “explore-exploit trade-off.” Do we exploit what we already know or can find out in milliseconds? Or do we explore what we can learn and make a better-informed decision?
family with brain scan

So What Does it Mean?

Here’s our dilemma as business owners with a message to get out. We know our audience starts in cave-dweller mode. Without brain scan equipment, we don’t know when they switch over to “careful consideration” mode.

As communicators, we must be ready for both. Our first, shallow interaction with the audience should appeal to the emotional, gut-reaction part of the brain. That’s why brand consistency is key, we can’t confuse the cave-dweller.

Then (and only then!) we need to communicate high-quality information that our amazing modern-day brains can explore to make a reasoned decision.
Soon, C., Brass, M., Heinze, HJ. et al. Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci 11, 543–545 (2008).

Donoso M., Collins A.G., Koechlin E. (2014) Human cognition. Foundations of human reasoning in the prefrontal cortex Science 344, 1481–1486 (2014).