Selling has become tougher. Consumers are more sophisticated and competition more aggressive. We now use multiple touch points and we’ve become immune to age-old models of closing.

In this new age of cynicism, how can marketers cut through and deliver more valuable, immersive experiences and what research techniques should underpin these?

Consider this, just 5% of the brain represents what we consciously process and traditional market research can access. What we subconsciously process accounts for the remaining 95%.   

So, if our subconscious is smarter and faster than our conscious mind, why doesn’t more of today’s user experience and communications planning seek to tap into subconscious emotions?


The industry talks a good game about delivering ‘immersive’ user experiences, yet so often falls back on the more obvious rational triggers and cues traditional market research points us towards.

The field of neuro-marketing is not new, however, its application in marketing appears still to be restricted to the fields of traditional communications. Deloitte estimates that 10% of prime time TV ads have been developed using neuro tests in the past decade, with advertisers measuring facial movement, brain waves, heart rate, skin response, body movement and even respiration to score responses to messaging. 

Gemma Calvert, a former Oxford University neurologist, claims neuro-marketing has “completely changed our understanding of the brain”. Calvert has used these techniques to help brands such as GMTV prove that memory encoding, recall, comprehension and attention to advertising was highest in the morning.

Similarly, media agency PHD understands how different messages presented via different media formats stimulate the brain to different degrees.

Other neuro studies have found a number of different results; that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a tang of cleaning liquid in the air, are attracted to specific food types on the basis of smell, get more competitive when a briefcase is in sight and more cooperative when they see words such as “dependable” and “support”, all without being aware.

So, how can our industry use these findings to deliver more immersive experiences?

Firstly, let’s explore what a truly immersive user experience should look and feel like.

Successful immersive experiences are dis­tinctly pas­sive, characterised by welcoming environ­ments that invite passer-bys to step in and explore products at their own pace, rather than scream­ing at them to do so.

Visitors are discreetly persuaded to take a proac­tive first step, usually involving the exchange of information, and start the kind of fluid relationship marketers dream about.

Think of or Nike Town in London or New York, is there really a difference between how Nike+, NikeID or Fuel Band is accessed in either space? Not really. Neither environment shouts about price, it’s all about immersing you in Nike and allowing you to explore and play. 

Similarly, cosmetics brand Shiseido’s Tokyo retail outlet offers fully interactive digital cosmetic mirrors where browsers can scan a product barcode to “mirror” the product on their face. This allows shoppers to try varying shades of mascara or eyeliner from different angles, effectively transforming a shop into a dressing table.


In Chicago, Lego has created an interactive shop window that uses Microsoft Kinect motion-sensing cameras, to transform a child into a projected Lego mini-figure. A dragon then appears and the child, acting as the Lego character, must feed it virtual apples.

In fact, Lego has gone beyond in-store entertainment, the brand now uses augmented reality to bring over 500 boxed toys to life when held up to a screen, enabling shoppers to experience 3D visuals of what they are about to buy., a US-based social music listening and discovery service, allows users to create music ‘listening rooms’. Users create their own playlist (by selecting or uploading tracks) and invite others to join and become co-DJs.

Rooms can be selected based on musical interest, interaction with others, sharing playlists and getting a personalised avatar that bobs to music. 

Disney was able to create a uniquely immersive online storytelling experience for the launch of the Tron Legacy digital comic book in 2011, using HTML 5 and Internet Explorer 9 features.

The goal was to upgrade the comic book reading experience, whilst remaining faithful to the linear timeline. Retaining the left to right action of progressing through the comic kept the feel of a traditional reading experience without the interruption of page turning.

Characters in the story moved in and out of the foreground and interactive panels allowed users to pull up synopses of the story.

These brands have all used subconscious and visceral cues to involve the user in the experience through entertainment and involvement. They are all about inspiring the user and making the product experiences and demonstrations tangible and putting control in the hands of the customer, on their terms.

Thinking ‘total brain’

To truly immerse consumers we need to think about building ‘total brain’ experiences, not just catering for the conscious.

Thinking ‘total brain’ is about going beyond the obvious, coercive methods of conscious brain marketing and their reliance on over-applied Cialdinian principles of scarcity (buy before the offer ends, BOGOF), reciprocity and social proof (experts and consumers say we’re the best, our features are superior).

Marketers should be starting to establish subtler cues to activate the subconscious brain.

Practical steps

Digital strategists need access to wider neuro-marketing driven data sets in order to translate implicit, subconscious responses to stimuli into explicit interface design elements and cues.   

It is no longer enough to rule multi-faceted design routes in or out. Understanding reactions to specific elements, assets and messages at a granular level will be critical if we want to win customers over in the long term.

Our vision should be to present user interfaces to different personas that are rooted in a combination of self-reported (conscious brain) and subconscious preferences.   

How should brands go about this?

There are a number of factors that need to be considered:

  • Test a broad range of stimuli and move beyond the binary, yes/no outcomes associated with standard website design concept validation. Understanding the ‘why’ behind decisions and behaviours to allow you to respond to data with truly informed creative solutions. 

  • If you can’t deliver a sensory cue in a computer-mediated environment, how can you simulate it to bring users closer to your product, despite not being able to touch it? What sort of audio-visual, interactive, linguistic and spatial cues could change the dial? And critically, how can you deliver a multi-sensory experience that converts effectively? 

  • Determine where research budgets can be apportioned to understanding the subconscious – think ‘customer research’ not ‘digital research’, and think beyond the web – what can online learn from offline and offline from online? How will these translate insights into a differentiated experience? 

  • Consider your current user interface design capability. Can your team or agency think beyond the constraints of standard user interface praxis or do you need to train creative teams to think about designing for second, third and fourth screens? 

  • Don’t throw out proven experiential techniques or tried and trusted ways to attract and convert users. Augment, test and evolve your model.

Delivering an immersive experience isn’t about abandoning the sales process, it’s about developing a new, multi-dimensional and sensory vernacular that helps us earn extended access and therein, value from consumers.  

It is a journey not a destination, what will your starting point be?

Phrenology image (s) credit: ideonexus on Flickr