Fifty shades of blue: How brands should appeal to the subconscious in marketing

By Rosie Baker | 12 May 2014

Many of the decisions people make about everything, including what brands to buy, are made subconsciously. Brands are missing a trick by not tuning into these subconscious triggers and applying them to marketing to win over customers.

That's the view of an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

The reasons behind conscious decision making are just the tip of the iceberg. Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink, a book about how “unexpected forces” shape decision making, has made a career out of looking into how people make decisions based on sub-conscious cues and believes that brands and marketers are missing a trick.

The basic starting point for a marketer should be any point in the consumer journey where a decision needs to be made, either consciously or unconsciously, and figuring out how to influence that decision.

“There are things you might not expect to have any effect on you that have a huge impact. There is a waterline of conscious awareness and under that waterline you don't have any idea why you do something. We assume much of what we do is above that waterline, but we have it backwards. A lot of what goes on is below our conscious,” he said.

Brands could adopt much more of it in marketing to convince more people to buy their products and services with subtle messaging. While you'd never be able to map the subconscious exactly, he reckons with enough data points, marketers could get pretty close to predicting the outcome of a decision based on the subconscious cues provided.

Alter said the use of subconscious principles by brands is extremely varied with some companies, particularly in the US, open to it and savvy about its impact, and others much less so.

Examples include the fast food industry, which has learned the colours yellow and red encourage people to eat faster, so spend more - McDonald's being a case in point. The same is true with music. Faster music encourages people to spend more so some retailers integrate that with the music they play in-store. Likewise Google is reputed to have gone through more than fifty shades of blue before settling on the colour now used to present search results.

Alter told AdNews: “The holy grail of all of this is to make the path between learning about the brand and buying it as smooth and seamless as possible. It can include colour, names and all sorts of other things and cues.

“You as a marketer know your consumer is making a decision so you can figure out what colour, name, or trigger, would make it an easier decision. It can get very granular and it's a lack of knowledge that stops marketers from doing it - because it's overwhelming. I did a PHD and spent 10 years on it. You need to learn it but when people do that they become more sophisticated in applying it.”

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