The Five Biggest Myths of Consumer Psychology

“It’s boring. There’s no way that will catch people’s attention.”

This was said by a senior marketer at a very large consumer brand, reacting to an idea from its’ advertising agency. This marketer assumed, as most do, that for an ad to work, it must pull people away from what they are doing and capture their conscious, undivided attention.

But science shows that this may not be true.

Marketers often think they understand the consumer brain just because they have a brain of their own. But our conscious experience doesn’t tell the whole story. While we may think we have a sense for how our minds work, this is really a misleading illusion, rather than reality.

So while it’s tempting to think we need to gain conscious attention, make memorable ads, and tug at our consumers’ heart strings, research in consumer psychology shows that the real picture is more complicated than it seems. Below are five of the most common myths and misconceptions marketers make when it comes to how the consumer mind works.

Myth #1: To get our message to break through, we need to gain conscious attention.

It seems obvious that for an ad to work, it must grab the attention of the viewer. Much of the world of advertising is built around this idea. The whole point of a “creative idea” is an attempt to pull a consumer’s conscious, focused attention towards the message.

But research is showing attention works at different levels, not just the conscious. Dr. Robert Heath, a professor of advertising at the University of Bath, UK, has researched and written extensively about this. He has shown that consumers can be influenced by ads even when they are barely paying attention to them. He goes further to show how conscious, focused attention can backfire because it makes consumers more aware that they are being marketed to. This can cause their defenses to go up and they end up mentally arguing against the ad and message.

The human brain is metabolically expensive to operate, so it tries to save energy whenever possible. When it comes to marketing, the brain doesn’t feel it needs to pay attention, so it rarely does. This means most marketing is consumed in a passive state. But ads can actually be very effective at these low levels of attention, when consumers’ guards are down. It turns out that through a process called low-involvement processing, our nonconscious mind often picks out things in our environment, like marketing messages, and processes them at a low level. It has even been shown that stimuli processed in this way can be more durable and longer lasting in our memory than consciously focused messages.

This is especially true upon repeated viewings, where associations from ads become tightly linked to a brand through repetition. It is similar to the mere-exposure effect — the more consumers see an ad, the more familiar it becomes and the more they like the brand (up to a point), even if they are not aware of having been exposed to it before.

Rather than trying to gain focused conscious attention, it is wise to study how your ads and communications work at low levels of attention — what seeps in and is picked up by the unconscious — since this affects buying behavior. To do this, think more about the style, tone, and feel of your advertising and communications, rather than just the conscious message you’re trying to get across. If someone were to drive by your billboard, or scroll past your online ad, they would likely forget the conscious message, but this research shows that they unconsciously pick up on certain cues from the ad and associates them with your brand. What might seem like small insignificant elements of an ad — the fonts, colors, imagery, models, and more — all communicate a powerful story about your brand’s personality and values to the unconscious mind, whether the conscious mind is paying attention or not.

Myth #2: For marketing to work, it must be remembered.

It also seems obvious that for marketing messages to be effective, they must be consciously remembered. But while our memories may seem like we’re looking something up in a mental file cabinet, this is more of an illusion than what is actually happening. Instead, when we remember something, we reconstruct it in the moment. This reconstruction is built from a vast network of associations linked to the idea we’re trying to recall. Interestingly, neuroscientists believe memories also exist as a network of neuronal connections physically in the brain. And as we learn and experience new things, these neural networks physically change in the brain. These changes in the brain influence how we see the world, how we remember things, and even how we act.

Every interaction someone has with your brand will influence this web of associations with it in their mind, shaping and changing their neural networks and their feelings towards the brand. This will happen whether they consciously recall the brand interaction or not.

So rather than trying to plant a single explicit memory in the consumer’s mind — a file in the non-existent filing cabinet — your goal should be to shape and mold the network of associations (and corresponding neural networks) connected to your brand. Many of these associations will likely be unconscious, but they still help shape the feeling, and therefore the behavior, towards your brand.

For example, Ketel One vodka was able to differentiate itself in the crowded premium vodka market by making it feel more masculine than other options. It didn’t do this by directly saying it’s more masculine, but instead imbued masculinity into every part of the brand, from its bottle design, to its fonts, imagery, casting in its ads, etc. This all made the brand feel more masculine, even if consumers couldn’t conscious recall why.

Myth #3: We need to elicit emotions to build an emotional connection.

The marketing world has become obsessed with emotions. It seems every ad these days tries to tug at the heartstrings with a touching story. While it is true that consumers are not rational machines making perfect choices based on function and facts, this interpretation of emotions is far too literal.

Emotions exist to get us to take an action. They give us feelings that cause us to move or change behaviors that evolutionarily helped us survive. These feelings can be very subtle and even unconscious, but can still exert powerful influence consumers’ behavior today.

So rather than trying to elicit direct emotions, you can create emotional connections and feelings for your brand more subtly through the tone and personality of your brand’s behaviors and communications. For example, Apple rarely creates directly emotional ads, but rather tells a function-focused story about their products and benefits in a way that imbues the brand with positive emotional personality traits. Their ads often feel beautiful and elegant, creative and modern, cool and stylish. They don’t say these things directly, they just act that way and our unconscious gets the message. In this way, the ads imbue emotion and feeling into their brand, and build an emotional connection with their consumers that makes them feel positively towards it, which makes them more likely to buy. All that, without any tears.

Myth #4: Consumers can tell you what they want.

This myth still pervades much of market research today. It seems plausible that if we want to know what our target customers are thinking about a new product idea, design, or advertising campaign, we just ask them.

But this assumes we have conscious access to why consumers do what they do. In reality, their conscious minds are often coming up with rational justifications for their actions, which actually came from unconscious motives inaccessible to their conscious minds. These conscious justifications may be related to the real reason they do something, but the actions may also be misleading. We must take what consumers say about their behaviors, why they like or dislike something, with a very large grain of salt.

The most infamous example of this is what happened with the launch of New Coke in 1985. When The Coca-Cola Company tested a new formulation to replace classic Coca-Cola, the new product won in blind taste tests, and was preferred in focus groups and surveys. Consumers overwhelmingly said they would buy it if it replaced classic Coca-Cola. However, when it launched there was a huge backlash, causing the company to pull New Coke from the market and bring back its classic formula after only three months. What consumers said in the research was clearly not what they wanted in the end.

Modern market researchers are looking to neuromarketing techniques to bypass the conscious mind and go directly into the brain and unconscious. Also, many projective techniques can be used to mine the unconscious in simpler, qualitative ways. However you do it, it’s important to make sure you’re not just taking what your consumers say at face value. You need to read between the lines of what they say, and try to piece together what might really be motivating their actions. Often, they may not even be aware of why themselves.

Myth #5: Consumers make rational decisions.

If you’re a regular reader of this space, it may not come as a surprise that we humans do not act in ways that make rational sense. While the recent flurry of popular books related to behavioral sciences have been bringing this idea to the mainstream, it will likely take a while until this myth is fully removed from our minds.

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but often we are influenced by biases that we are not aware of. Over time the brain has evolved many shortcuts, called heuristics, that helped us survive throughout evolution by allowing us to make quick, efficient decisions. Today they often mislead us in the modern world. For example, the anchoring bias causes us to shift our perception of how much something should cost based on the first number we hear. Or take our confirmation bias that causes us to only seek out and acknowledge information that already fits with our existing ideas.

These and many more biases mean consumers do not always act in a rational way, but instead are pushed and pulled by natural human tendencies. This means you must always look at how your consumers actually behave, not how you think they should behave in a perfect, rational world.

Smarter marketing vs. manipulation

This kind of thinking may come across as manipulation; that you are somehow tricking consumers into buying by preying on their unconscious minds. However, I don’t believe this is the case for a number of reasons. Firstly, tricking consumers may result in a first sale, but then the product must deliver some kind of benefit to keep people coming back. Marketing can only do so much.

Secondly, consumers can override their unconscious impulses through conscious deliberation. While this takes effort and may not happen all the time, eventually consumers would catch on to devious marketing tricks.

Lastly, I don’t think marketers want to be unethical. Sure, they want to sell more, but I don’t think their goal is to do it by tricking people. Marketing works best when you truly believe you have something to offer consumers that will make their lives better in some way. By having a better understanding of your consumer’s mind and brain, you ask better questions, and build brands that provide real value to the consumer. In the future, however, there may be a need for increased regulations around marketing as we learn more about how the brain works and how it can be manipulated.

As we saw with the senior marketer that thought ads must capture consumers’ conscious attention to work, these myths and many others are still deeply ingrained in much of the business world today. Hopefully, as brain and behavioral science become more mainstream and accessible, these misconceptions will start to dissipate. But for now, most of us still assume we understand how brains work, just because we have one.

Daryl Weber is a branding consultant and author of Brand Seduction: How Neuroscience Can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands.