Marketing managers have difficult jobs. They are expected to be psychologists, storytellers, salespeople, and fortune tellers. Engineers and product developers don’t understand why their fantastic products aren’t selling and blame marketing for not communicating how terrific they are. Unfortunately, having the best product or solution is often not enough because consumers typically don’t make purchase decisions rationally. They do so emotionally.

Subconscious Decision Making

Evolutionary psychologists are fond of saying, “You can take man out of the Stone Age, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of man.” Our senses of perception evolved to keep us alive. Most decisions are made quickly at a subconscious level since spending too much time on decision making usually led to poor outcomes for our ancestors. It’s generally better to jump at the sight of a stick in the grass on the off chance that it’s a venomous snake than not to react at all. This split-second decision making may not get all the facts straight, but again, it works well in keeping us alive.

Most purchase decisions are made by the same parts of the brain that make us jump when we see snakes (or sticks), but we don’t realize it. Once a purchase decision is made, our rational minds step in to justify the emotional decision and convince us we made it rationally.

Consumer behavior studies demonstrate that objectively irrelevant information influences consumer decisions. What is irrelevant, however, is subjective. Adding or removing an inconsequential product feature may, in fact, be what is driving purchase behavior, and not a bad case of FOMO, as we may have assumed.

Consumers themselves are often unaware these “inconsequential” factors are influencing them. 

Measuring Emotions

Gamblers often scan their opponents’ faces and bodies for a “tell,” a physical manifestation of their thoughts. Seasoned market researchers also look for “tells” in responses to their questions.

They measure something, question it, re-question it, and try to find more evidence by identifying supporting behavior or responses.

I was first made aware of subconscious motivations in purchase behavior while copy testing ads for one of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the world. Over the course of eight years, I reviewed well over 1,000 ads and noticed some interesting trends. Ads that featured babies, sex, nostalgia, comedy, or dramatic tension scored higher for purchase intent over those that conveyed reliable information. The fascinating thing was that we didn’t ask about purchase intent directly. It was measured under the guise of a “fun activity,” and the ads themselves were unobtrusively played while participants were viewing other content.

When asked specifically about an emotionally salient ad, respondents would sometimes say that it was offensive because of sexual content or another factor. Still, their passively measured purchase intent increased regardless.

Click Data is Great … Until it Isn’t

With so much of our purchasing behavior moving online, we are now able to measure more purchase-related actions than ever before. New algorithms can predict what we’re going to buy next. While impressive, they work great until they don’t. The algorithms break down when consumers are faced with novel situations that don’t follow established patterns. Enter COVID-19 and the subsequent economic recession. When this happens, consumer research steps in to understand why behavior is or isn’t occurring. The answers don’t always make sense rationally, and consumer choices may be based on incorrect information. But, even when they’re wrong, the customers are always right.