11th April 2017

Marketing, the Brain and an Axe

by Craig Hall, Managing Director

Abaraham Lincoln was quoted as saying,

Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first 4 sharpening the axe.”

Are we spending too much time blunt axe swinging and not sharpening enough?

It struck me recently how few of us marketers manage to carve the time to focus on one of the biggest challenges we face – to connect with the minds of our audience.  This may seem like a little slap in the face… but let me explain…

I recently attended a seminar by [1]Michael Nicholas on consumer decision making.  It struck me again, how much of our behavior is driven by our subconscious.  That the rational processes of our ‘new’ (evolutionarily) and slower brain (neocortex) doesn’t drive behavior.  This was equally supported by [2]Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, that it’s the limbic & reptilian older brain areas that have us act the way we do.  These areas have no capacity for language.

Isn’t it interesting that we ASK people in research for their rational drivers, when in fact it’s the subconscious process that drives things (not always but sometimes, depending on context)?  What they are telling you probably won’t change their behavior if you provided what they said they wanted.

The history of marketing has propelled us at a point where the creative talent, communication channels, technical ability and/or new tools at our disposal provide a bewildering selection upon which to draw.  We live in an environment that has never been ’noisier’ and our brain function has not developed at a similar pace to help us filter this.

We can cover what we do with a plethora of activity and strategizing to navigate this environment but at a fundamental biological level, as I’ve mentioned, are we getting through and connecting in a way that changes decisions?

Jack Tries and Al Trout in their seminal book ‘Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind’ (first published in 1980) argue that the (positioning) battle occurs  in the 1” square (metaphorical not actual)  area of your mind set aside for the category you are considering.

“The basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.” Al Ries

The battle is in the mind.  Use any tool you like.  Just be aware of where the battle is taking place… it’s not an easy battle ground to map and navigate via.

Our non-conscious minds are processing the noise around us and influencing how we react to certain stimuli as a result.  Words like ‘resonate’ and ‘emotional connection’ get bandied about in my marketing world.  Easy to say and extremely difficult to do if you have little idea how to test what you are about to thrust upon your audience…

But never fear, science is on hand to provide help…

Neuro Design, as a discipline, comes some way to helping marketers get our heads around this challenge (pun intended).  Darren Bridger in his book (cunningly called ‘Neuro Design’) draws our attention to the fact that if you want to design buildings, furniture or products, you look closely at the proportions and movement of the human form.  If you want to position, (web/packaging/ad) designs and implement marketing activity that influences at a subconscious level then you need to have appropriate understanding.

We as marketers generally don’t.

Implicit testing is one, reaction based, methodology to allow certain elements of any marketing communications piece to be effectively tested.

Will marketers stick their heads above the parapet and argue, from scientific background, that a creative route/style (perhaps followed for months/years) was not of value … turn to 90 degrees and head to more fertile pastures (creatively)?  For some organizations, this is a political struggle and a brave step too far.


The importance of co-creation has been widely discussed in recent years to help brands to change and innovate in accordance with the consumers’ desires.  More so, with the increasing rise of social media and other direct communication channels between brand and consumer the potential for co-creation is becoming an easier task for brands.  But co-creation is not always about opportunities for companies to innovate and provide products and services desired by the consumer.  It is also an opportunity for brands to increase the “connection” I mentioned earlier.  If consumers are not aware of, or feel they play a central part in a brand then this opportunity is lost.

Research conducted on Generation Y, by one of Teviots’ planning team, identified that there is no significant evidence which suggests that this consumer believe (on a conscious level) that they play a part in a brands growth and development.  The research showed that the relationship between brand and consumer was a conscious principle on the part of the brand but a subconscious principle on the part of the consumer.  This disparity is fine, or it would be, if marketers were aware of, or were willing to understand further the effect of the subconscious on the consumers’ behavior.

This understanding of the consumers subconscious was only recognized by:

  • Understanding the background of the consumer in context
  • Defining the consumers conscious journey
  • And asking the right questions…at the right time.

This might sound simple, but in practice, this requires initial research and significant planning and piloting to ensure the results achieved are of value.

How well do you know your consumers and their conscious & subconscious behaviors?

Are you able to build your communications and your content to the optimum effective level or are you burning money on the “just get it done” mentality?

More importantly, how sharp is your axe?

Teviot can help you sharpen it…..



[1] His book ‘Little Black Book of Decision Making’ out in Aug is on pre-order

[2] a TED must watch for any marketer

Craig Hall, Managing Director

Marketing, the Brain and an Axe