How to Read A Consumer’s Subconscious Mind

Lee Anna McGuire
Sep 6 · 8 min read
Illustration and movement by Joe Chisenall

A famed French mathematician and physicist of the 19th century, Henri Poincaré, was a big believer in the “creativity” of the subconscious mind. He even wrote a book about it that inspired works by Einstein and Picasso. Legend has it, Poincaré had been relentlessly attempting to solve a complex math problem for quite some time to no avail. Must have been a doozie. So, he decided to give his brain a break — disconnect from all thought of it. Weeks later he was mindlessly stepping onto a cable car when the solution appeared to him. Divine intervention? No. Subconscious intervention.

Your brain learns from every experience you’ve had and stores all that information in your episodic memory. In Poincaré’s case, the details of each math problem he’d ever solved were stored in his subconscious somewhere. While he rested, his subconscious was ruminating on all of the information it could possibly grab. And it found the answer, and said, “HEY! Conscious! Here ya go.”

The science behind decision-making

Poincaré’s theories about the subconscious mind working while we aren’t aware of it isn’t just interesting conjecture. It turns out to be real science. For decades, neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying the brain and how it affects the way we draw conclusions. Why we make the choices we do. And as an advertising writer myself, the results of this research are big potatoes.

Illustration by Joe Chisenall

The temporal lobe of your brain controls emotional responses to situations, and neuroscientists report that when the temporal lobe is damaged, people are incapable of making decisions. Hm

All of the most “logical” people out there are shaking their heads.

No no, I make semantic decisions based on facts and research.

Actions versus perception

In an interview for the Harvard Business School publication, Working Knowledge, Harvard Professor, Gerland Zaltman reveals an interesting point of view on the dissonance between what a consumer wants to portray versus what their behaviors actually reveal.

When asked about his statement that “95 percent of all cognition occurs in the subconscious mind” he said, “Many consumers report handling competing brands and comparing prices at the point of purchase. However, observations of these same consumers often reveal that they don’t even look at alternatives to the chosen brand.”

So, we tell researchers we compare brands, but in reality, we don’t. We go with our gut, and we don’t want to admit it.

Because I can

The very first Diet Coke I ever had was at my best friend’s house after a long, droning day of junior high school. My health-conscious family didn’t allow soda in the house. So when I was at her house, and soda was free game? I was all over it. And boy, it did not disappoint. I was hooked. For life, unfortunately. And not just because it’s addictive.

Illustration by Joe Chisenall

Today, when posed with roughly 30 soda options in a Quickie Mart, I still automatically reach for the Diet Coke. Someone even recently asked me, “Why not Diet Pepsi?” I’ve had them both and like them both, and honestly, it’s not a taste preference. They’re equally terrible for me and delicious. Their bottle branding is even similar. Yet, I choose Diet Coke. Why?

That darn emotional connection in my subconscious. Their recent ads make a home run hit out of my rationale here. Their new tagline is, “Because I can.” It takes me back to a time of my life when so few of my decisions were my own, and that Diet Coke tasted like sweet, sweet freedom. Today, the Diet Coke customer base is in fear of the health risks connected with Diet Coke. The brand has pinpointed exactly what we’re afraid of and proverbially said, don’t sweat it.

In their 2018 commercial, Lillian Jacobs says, “Life is short…Just do you, whatever that is. And if you’re in the mood for a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.”

And ya know what? Each time I go into a store and guiltily buy one, I think, “I’m an adult. I’m relatively healthy. I can have it if I want. One won’t hurt me.” I wish I was kidding.

I may be an advertiser, but I’m a consumer too. I come with emotional bias when making consumer decisions.

Emotions drive conversions

Research shows that the emotional responses in your brain have a strong influence on crucial cognitive processes that help you make decisions — perception, learning, memory, reasoning, problem-solving, and the most influenced of them all? Attention. That means you will focus more of your attention on a decision that connects with you emotionally. That’s why I keep going back to the trusty Diet Coke instead of reaching for a Pepsi.

You will focus more of your attention on a decision that connects with you emotionally.

Learn to reach the subconscious of consumers

If consumers are acting on instinct, how do we, as advertisers, give people what they already know they want? How do we read people’s minds? Fundamentally, it’s about finding your audience and learning about them. What will get their attention? While you can’t read minds, you can study behaviors. After all, our actions come straight out of our subconscious.

Harvard professor, Gerland Zaltman goes on in his interview with the Working Knowledge to say that one-on-one interviews with consumers, rather than focus groups, tend to produce more accurate results.

“Many researchers tell us that one-on-one interviews are superior to focus groups,” he said. “There is now a lot of evidence that personal interviews yield deep insights that can’t be obtained from focus groups.”

Illustration by Joe Chisenall

According to Zaltman, there are several ways to learn the truth about what’s behind a consumer’s behavior. Of course, take some of his suggestions with a grain of non-Harvard-funded salt. Most of us don’t have the resources to make conclusions based on some of the methods he’s suggesting.

1. Compare a consumer’s stated beliefs with their actual behavior. Do they align?

2. Study their physiological response. Compare their unconscious physical reactions to what the consumer says when asked a question directly. They could contradict.

3. Study the metaphors consumers use to express their thoughts and feelings in a one-on-one interview. There may be hidden meanings behind them.

It makes total sense. We feel far more obligated to tell the truth when we’re speaking directly to someone. In a group? Peer pressure exists, and we tend to fall in line with the opinions of others. We’re looking for acceptance — to be part of the group’s mentality. One-on-one? We have to rely on our own thoughts and instincts.

Turn interview insights into usable consumer data

Once you have truthful responses from one-on-one interviews, you can formulate and conduct surveys that matter. “The results of such interviews can be used to design more comprehensive surveys. And properly designed surveys, when subjected to careful statistical analyses, can yield further insights into unconscious consumer thinking,” Zaltman said.

Where I work, we don’t have a Harvard professor studying physiological responses to consumer questions or a neuroscientist on staff plugging people’s temporal lobes up for monitoring. But we do have a business intelligence (BI) team who studies data and develops thorough conclusions. They’re the scientists of advertising that the 1960s-era “Madmen” wish they had. After our BI team interviews consumers and brand experts, they use tools like Quantcast (among others) to drill down into who the faces are behind the word “audience” and gather foundational research from places like the 4A’s.

Illustration by Joe Chisenall

Try basic social listening

But there are other simpler ways to learn about consumers. What do they do when no one is looking? Remember when Donald Trump was elected President? No one predicted that. But someone, a lot of someones, voted for him in those booths. Dark social is an emerging resource to tap into, but basic social media listening is an invaluable (and cheap) tool. Find the private groups where your target market hangs out, and see what they’re talking about, day in and day out. Follow your competitors and the brands your audience enjoys. What makes them similar? Something that connects with them emotionally, no doubt.

Consumers stick to what they know

For people like me who have built a history with a brand like Diet Coke, it’s hard to let go of what we already know. Because, like it or not, the memories and emotional connections that live in the subconscious exist to help humans make decisions and draw conclusions. It can’t pull from information it’s never seen. And if 95 percent of my decisions are made subconsciously, the odds of me picking a new random brand of soda at the Quickie Mart? Pretty slim.

Diet Coke was smart. They knew I was one of those loyal customers they didn’t want to lose to “health risks”, so they studied how to speak to me. What was I thinking? I was thinking, I shouldn’t have a Diet Coke. But they validated the little devil on my shoulder, “It’s not soo bad.”

There is no magical mind-reading wand. In order to understand what’s going on inside your market’s mind (subconscious or not), you have to do the work — you have to study them. Smart brands are doing it all day every day. Because as consumers, we evolve and age, as do our concerns. The only way to know what your consumers are thinking is to study them. Whether you only have the budget to do some basic social listening or the ability to conduct one-on-one interviews with consumers, there is no excuse for assumptions these days. Consumers already know what they like. And they actually want you to read their minds and give them what they want. So go do it.


Full-service advertising agency with offices in Birmingham, Nashville, and Mobile.

Lee Anna McGuire

Written by

Connecting with people through writing. Whether it’s a song, a blog, or a headline, the goal is always the same — understand the person you’re talking to.


Full-service advertising agency with offices in Birmingham, Nashville, and Mobile.

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