Marketing and the science of feelings over facts

I was incredulous that I could fall for such a basic mistake. For a few days if I saw a brick wall I would back off and go around it in case I was overcome with an urge to bash my head against it.
I realized I had made the mistake when Dennis commented, 'We are not animals because we are more than animals.' For a moment there had been silence, a heartbeat when everyone in the audience stopped. 'Animals do not reflect. Animals do not look into the future. Animals live in the moment.' The audience knew this contradicted what I was saying and they were alert to see how I would respond.

I was incredulous that I could fall for such a basic mistake. For a few days if I saw a brick wall I would back off and go around it in case I was overcome with an urge to bash my head against it.

I realized I had made the mistake when Dennis commented, ‘We are not animals because we are more than animals.’ For a moment there had been silence, a heartbeat when everyone in the audience stopped. ‘Animals do not reflect. Animals do not look into the future. Animals live in the moment.’ The audience knew this contradicted what I was saying and they were alert to see how I would respond.

I was leading a seminar. It was a small group, just twelve individuals, but their credentials were impressive. Every one of them was a president or marketing VP. They had built companies and as opinion leaders their influence was undoubted. I had handpicked the participants because they were the type of freethinking individuals who would give me honest and intelligent feedback.

Dennis continued, ‘Let’s go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When you are down here at the bottom all you need is food. As you move up you become more conscious of who you are and who you are in relation to others. We have beliefs and dreams.’

The challenger was formidable. Dennis Bruce is a veteran of the advertising industry with over 300 creative awards to his name. Now running Mindset Creative Planning, a Toronto-based research firm specializing in finding the ‘significant human insight on which you can base a big idea,’ he is an expert at hearing beyond what people say and sensing what they mean. He was easily reading this room full of executives and picking up on their skepticism.

I had been explaining that for the first time in history scientists now understand how the brain works. The discoveries have been coming from all directions: geneticists are learning about the inheritability of behavior; biochemists are figuring out the chemical mechanisms; neurologists know about brain dysfunction; pharmacologists know about the effects of drugs on specific parts of the brain; and new neural imaging technologies are allowing scientists to see pictures of the thinking brain.

Some of the discoveries are coming from unexpected disciplines; network engineers are showing how simple programs can do complicated things and mathematicians are finding strange, ubiquitous patterns everywhere – including the mind.

In the fields I studied at university, neurophysiology and zoology, there have been dramatic breakthroughs. One is that the functions we take for granted like seeing, understanding words and social interaction are very sophisticated. We are not consciously aware of much of what the brain does and more goes on under the hood than we would ever have guessed.

I had said, ‘We are learning a lot about human behavior from the ethologists – those who study animal behavior. Their discoveries are helping us see our own behavior more objectively.’ It was this comment that had provoked Dennis.

I had presented the ideas from a relentlessly scientific perspective. For me science is endlessly fascinating and now for the first time, it is becoming undeniably relevant to the discipline of marketing.

I had made the same mistake that most managers make, especially those working in high-tech, engineering and medicine. Most assume that facts, when presented logically, are persuasive.

My logic was watertight. Abbreviated it runs like this: In marketing it is essential to communicate and change people’s behavior. The source of all comprehension and behavior is the human brain so if you understand the human brain you can communicate better. Scientists are discovering how the mind works – not how we believe or hope it works, but how it actually works. Learning, motivation and persuasion can now be understood objectively.

Science of the human mind is not an easy subject; the discoveries are counter-intuitive and in some cases so surprising they are hard to fathom. Nonetheless, I reasoned, the brain is a physical object – an organ that can be thought about objectively. Scientists have a good idea how other organs work – the heart and kidneys are well understood and the brain is no different.

Dennis’s reaction showed the naiveté of my approach. Never mind the science, I was giving a seminar on the science of persuasion and was overlooking the very principles I was espousing.

‘Facts do not sell, feelings do.’ The mantra that I have used to counsel numerous CEOs echoed in my ears. The most common pitfall of marketing communications is to assume that the more facts you communicate the more believable they become, but the opposite is the case. People buy things they feel good about. If they don’t feel good about a purchase they will not buy, regardless of facts or price.

I had fallen into the same trap. Everyone assumes that in their particular situation their clients are different. Frequently, in technical and business-to-business markets, one hears the comment, ‘My customers just want the facts and the price.’

Regardless of the product or situation, everyone buys or does not buy based on feelings. Decisions are made because they feel right and then if necessary, facts are used to justify the decision. And the facts themselves are only believable if they feel right.

This reasoning does not feel right to many executives, especially those with well-tuned deductive powers that have served them well. ‘Tom, not all product decisions are made based on feelings. Some are logical.’ Bill Albino, manager of the $6 billion North American large copier division for Xerox, was unconvinced. ‘What about life insurance? You evaluate policies and make a decision.’

On the surface this is true but delve deeper and bolstering the logic are emotional rationales. What makes you buy life insurance? Concern for relatives and offspring whom you care about. Care about them deeply or care only about what they think of you; either way the decision to buy is emotional.

Is there not something that exists called pure logic; rational thought processes that are devoid of emotion? Leading scientists now believe that the purest of rational subjects, mathematics, is true because we feel it is true. Facts such as one plus one equals two, are true because the meaning of the words and their logic fits preconceptions. Nothing absolute differentiates true logic from false facts, other than our innate ability to sense whether a statement conforms to what we already know.

What makes us believe one fact over another? How we feel about it. If a fact comes from a reliable source and fits our pre-existing beliefs we believe it, otherwise it becomes part of the sea of irrelevant and dubious information that washes past us every day.

One insight of marketing is that most people care very little about the things of life but care deeply about the reactions of other people. When someone buys a shirt, they are not interested in the details of thread-count and double-stitched seams; instead they are concerned about how others will see them in the shirt. If friends smirk when they wear it, they will regret the purchase irrespective of the product details.

Leading psychologists are now corroborating this insight and explaining the details of the mechanisms. This in turn is shedding light on the movements of markets. Our behavior is very much influenced by the behavior of other people. If everyone is buying Northern Telecom shares we assume they must be valuable. If everyone is selling we assume it is because shares are over-valued.

My scientific explanations were for me factual and relevant. But my audience found the facts unbelievable because they did not fit what they had been taught. No university marketing course teaches students about the importance of feelings or that facts are made factual only because of reasons that are emotional – they fit in with what we already believe.

There is a universal principle of persuasion that applies in every situation, whether you are communicating new ideas or persuading someone to make a purchase. Always understand where your audience is coming from: always start from where they are – not from where you are coming from. You will persuade people more successfully if you understand their emotional state at any given moment.

Dennis found my comments were contradictory to his own beliefs. Scientists, philosophers and theologians have theorized about the superiority of humans for millennia. Many people find the notion that our behavior happens not because of conscious thought processes but instead because we respond to feelings, deeply disturbing.

If these ideas seem plausible to you, you are likely to accept that marketing is about to undergo a dramatic revolution. It may be a while before this newfound knowledge is accepted but eventually it must because the benefits are massive.

Tom Beakbane is president of Beakbane Marketing and author of the upcoming book: Primal Marketing: The Science of People and Persuasion. He can be reached at tom@beakbane.com.