Why we buy.

In the early 1980s Pepsi launched the Pepsi Challenge. In blind tests Cola drinkers preferred Pepsi to Coke. Coke panicked as their research found the same thing. So in 1985 New Coke launched made from a sweeter formula. But the backlash was instant and grew. Coke finally admitted defeat when a new restaurant owner proudly gave the President of Coke the old bottle saying, “It’s the real thing. It’s a real Coke!!!”

It was one of the greatest marketing flops of the 20th Century. “Because” as Malcolm Gladwell stated, “in the real world no one ever drinks Coca Cola blind.”

Brand loves trump product likes.

  • We taste with our eyes.
  • We hear only what we believe.
  • We see through the eyes of others.

For over 3000 years our greatest thinkers have believed that reason is at the root of all our decisions. Descartes reasoned proudly, “I think, therefore I am”. Plato argued that, like the small ruling elite of the empire, the smallest part of the soul- logic- should rule our decisions (dispelling the spirit and the appetite). In Adland marketers have built solid research foundation on the basis that we use reason to decide what to buy. We ask people in surveys to rank their agreement to, “I recycle”, “I enjoy spending time with my children”, “I try to follow a healthy lifestyle,” through to factors of why we buy “Most ethical”, “Cheapest”, “Fastest”.

But today neuroscience has confirmed what Don Draper always knew:

“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. Its freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

Emotions are at the heart of all our decisions

Well, actually they the brain and the gut of all our decisions too. Neuron cells work on patterns and expectations. Met expectations give us a warm feeling. If something doesn't fit, we get a cold feeling. To the extent that;

“Every decision is awash with feeling.”

Jonah Leher “The Decisive Moment”

And yet we are the worst witnesses to our own behaviour articulating inaccurate reflective opinions about our feelings. Kahneman demonstrated that the brain is made of two systems; System 1 is automatic, fast and unconscious (reading this article in your mother tongue) compared to System 2 which is controlled, effortful, slow and self aware (consider reading this article in a foreign language). When asked why we buy, essentially we are asking people to use system 2 to explain how they do system 1 behaviour.

Reason justifies our behaviour. It doesn't explain it.

Zenith Optimedia ran a study to prove this. They asked respondents When purchasing spirits, do you think you would be more likely to buy a brand if it sponsored a TV programme?’ 73% claimed it would make no difference at all. And yet respondents rated the brand higher when they thought it was sponsoring a programme, 47% thought the brand was appealing (v.s. 38% who thought there was no sponsor) and 34% would recommend the brand (v.s. 24%).

Emotions have also been proven to be behind hard business results. In the Marketing in the Era of Accountability (2006) Les Binet and Peter Field ranked the business affects (e.g. sales, market share and profit) as well as intermediate affects, (e.g. brand awareness, brand fame, brand differentiation) by campaigns that were predominately emotional (delivering messages of “Fame” or “Emotional Involvement”) or rational (“Persuasion” or “Information” messaging). They found that “Fame” campaigns were almost universally more successful in driving the best scores for both the rational and emotional factors. The figures below outline the best scores for Fame v.s. the worst scores Persuasion.

  • Sales 58% v.s. 46%
  • Profit 39% v.s. 13%
  • Price Sensitivity 8% v.s. 3%
  • Brand Awareness 58% v.s. 33%
  • Brand Differentiation 29% v.s. 12%
  • Brand Image 18% v.s. 8%

This isn't a surprise when we look at the most successful campaigns over the years. This ad from TFL celebrates the great brands who have advertised with them all of them tapping into emotional needs. “It won’t let you down.” “Take Care. “ Believe in Better.” These are the emotional promises we wrap around our products and services when we ask people to buy.


Research from Newsworks last year broke down customer journeys into long, medium and short terms journeys and they found that long and medium journeys begin with a high concern rather than confidence in making the right decision. Even after purchase for long journeys they saw 33% were still concerned that they may have made the wrong decision. This is a journey of fear rather than joy.

To tap into the deeper motivations of why people do what they do is to ask, what will make them happy at this moment in time. What is the safest route to happiness.

There are tricks within research to reveal the codes of happiness, quantitative methods such as measuring the emotional values throughout a purchase- linked closely to the default tricks outlined in behaviour economics- semiotics, implicit testing, as well as qualitative methods such as regressive storytelling and priming and blogging to reveal and articulate why we make the decisions that we do.

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