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.