Imagine that you are standing in the beer aisle in a supermarket. You want to pick a lager among a whole range of similar looking brands.

One name stands out to you. You may remember drinking it when you went to Croatia that summer. You drank beer at the beach. You had an amazing time. Nothing ever tasted better and more refreshing.

This may be an active memory and you actually picture yourself at the beach. More often than not, you’d already have put the six pack into your basket, not knowing why you picked it over the others.

A flawless, rational decision or one driven by how you felt?

Economists have long assumed people to have an unlimited availability of time, knowledge and cognitive resource to make flawless logical decisions, entirely disembodied from emotion.

This has shaped how we’ve marketed brands and products to consumers over the past decades. Neuroscientists, like Antonio Damasio, have been proposing that emotions do however play a fundamental role in our everyday decisions, allowing us to make quick, rational choices in complex situations.

As Damasio famously stated:

We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.

To return to the example of the beer you drank in Croatia last summer, the sun, the beach, the holiday feeling - all those are positive associations, so-called somatic markers, that your brain had stored alongside the memory of ‘having a beer at the beach’.

In his somatic marker hypothesis, Damasio proposes that every memory that is encoded and stored in the brain is filed away alongside visceral information relating to the emotional content of that episode - a ‘somatic marker’.

When the memory is recalled, so is the way we felt and this serves as shorthand for incorporating remembered associations into the process of rational decision-making. After all, the purpose of memory is not to remember the past but to better predict the future.

However, when marketers communicate to customers as thinking machines rather than connecting emotionally with feeling machines, we run the risk to be talking to the wrong part of the brain. We tend to communicate to the rider, not the elephant in the decision-making process.

The elephant represents the limbic brain, one of the oldest parts of the brain in evolutionary terms; it is emotional and driven by instinct.

The rider represents the ‘newer’ neocortex, the seat of conscious and rational thought; he is in control of the elephant. The neocortex is largely driven by emotional inputs from limbic areas.

In other words: Should elephant and rider disagree on which direction to go, the elephant will always win due to its power and size. For elephant and rider to move in harmony, the rider wants to motivate not force the elephant through emotional appeals.

But how do marketers communicate to the elephant, the limbic brain?

There’s neuroscientific evidence that we respond better to visual stimuli than the written word and emotionally connect with brands when there’s a story that we can follow. But it goes beyond that.

Simon Sinek uses The Golden Circle to explain his theory:

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. 

Sinek argues that most brands communicate from the outside of the circle inwards, starting with what they do and proceeding to explain how they do it. They are communicating to the neocortex; our rider.

Our brains can understand vast amounts of information including benefits and discounts, but that doesn’t necessarily make us buy the product. Conversely, brands that start off with the heart of the Golden Circle and talk about why they do what they do, are capable of striking a chord with the limbic brain and establishing an emotional connection with the elephant. 

Neuromarketing isn’t an exact science. There’s no prescriptive formula you can follow.

However, by recognising our customers as “feeling machines that think”, we name the elephant in the room and can work with neuromarketing to help develop a deeper understanding of our customers and create digital experiences that resonate with them.


Published 1 August, 2013 by Guy Reason

Guy Reason is Strategy Executive at Essence and a guest blogger on Econsultancy. 

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Comments (8)

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James Gadsby Peet

James Gadsby Peet, Senior Digital Services Manager at Cancer Research UK

The difficulty is that each of those emotional experiences / responses vary so massively from individual to individual that it's near impossible for marketeers to leverage them.

As such a tried and tested business approach is to go for the lowest common denominator - or logic, or the why or whatever you want to call it - with a dash of emotion wherever possible

Not disagreeing that we shouldn't look to generate an emotional response wherever possible, it's just incredibly difficult to do on a significant scale

almost 5 years ago


Ken Abbott

Interesting article, thanks.
To add to the discussion (or start one), I believe that in B2B purchase decisions there are often several people involved, including Purchashing agents and budget minders. This leads to a much more rational decision, and in fact that is what businesses want. So while you may be able to attract initial interest in B2B marketing through this approach, the rational will determine the sale.

almost 5 years ago


Nea Barman

The Golden Circle also explained in TED by Simon Sinek - relesed 2009

almost 5 years ago


Phil Barden

Guys, marketers and agencies need to let go of the 'stone age' thinking about rational vs emotional - but it's difficult because we all have a cognitive bias, called the Semmelweiss Reflex, that rejects new information that contradicts our existing paradigms and beliefs.

NO decision is purely rational or purely emotional. This is now proven by different fields of science. Our decisions are driven by neuro-psychological 'goals' and emotions are the gauge by which we're aware of the extent to which we're meeting our goals (or not). These goals are universal motivators of human behaviour.

We have two systems of mental processes; a fast, intuitive, automatic and associative implicit system and a slow, reflective, effortful explicit system. BOTH systems are involved in choices and decisions but the implicit system is dominant and usually prevails because it's more efficient for the brain (burns less energy than the explicit system). Ken's point about B2B buying decisions simply means that more information is required by the explicit system. However, the explicit system normally post-rationalises what the implicit system has already decided.

If anyone's interested they can find out more in 'Decoded. The Science Behind Why We Buy. I wrote this book having spent 25 years as a marketer and now 5 years working with 'decision scienctists'.

almost 5 years ago



There´s a networked wisdom of metaphors out there (at least in Occident) just to convey that perhaps the emotional is the blind spot of the rational. I humbly think we need to depart from the conduit metaphor of Shanon & Weaver and start embracing that one of Gregory Bateson. And if you ask me what in hell does emotion has to do with communication then perhaps you are ready for an intro in tantra + marketing, --better read Humberto Maturana´s The tree of knowledge.

almost 5 years ago


Hilton Barbour

Emotion vs Rational. Quick Thinking vs Slow. Art vs Science. B2B is rational, B2C is emotional. Surely there's no reader who believes any of these options are an either/or option. Having worked with Coca-Cola and IBM I suggest you use your best judgement based on the situation you face as a marketer. One increasing reality is that the notion of product differentiation is outmoded. So very few products and brands are truly differentiated. Parity is the norm in every category - even technology where advancements are quickly copied or leapfrogged. Where Sinek's approach has merit is finding how brands are DISTINCTIVE, versus Differentiated. That often lies within the values of a company. The reason the company was started in the first place. The reason why Coke equates itself with Happiness and IBM with making the planet smarter. Find those distinctive values in your brand should be our real task.

almost 5 years ago


Joy Matthews

Whether its selling beer or getting your client to say 'yes' after that mtg - connecting on a 'human' level (ie more than just logic) plays a huge part. "Yes: clients want a firm that delivers, but clients know that more than one firm can help... what they’re trying to decide is whether they want to work with YOU".

See rest of article here -

almost 5 years ago


Mark Myhre

Hostility is a negative attitude directed at the patient because the family feels that the disorder is controllable and that the patient is choosing not to get better. Problems in the family are often blamed on the patient and the patient has trouble problem solving in the family.

almost 5 years ago

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