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July 15, 2019

How our subconscious dictates purchase decisions

by Kristy Castleton
subconscious decision making

During the neuromarketing revolution of the 1990s-early 2000s, a number of game-changing discoveries were made as neuroscientists and marketers joined forces. One of the most astonishing was the realisation that consumers make purchase decisions subconsciously. In fact, neuromarketing godfather Gerald Zaltman asserts in his book How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market that 95% of all cognition is done in the subconscious mind. Armed with this new found knowledge, marketers tore up their conscious-focused campaigns, which targeted just 5% of the brain. Well, that’s what you would have thought…


The difference between the conscious and the subconscious


Sigmund Freud was one of the first to talk about the subconscious when describing impulses and associations that were not accessible to consciousness. He divided the mind into three parts: the conscious (10% of the mind), directing focus in the here and now. The preconscious (50-60% of the mind) – or subsconscious – organising all the things you weren’t thinking about and the unconscious (30-40% of the mind), the vault of memories waiting to be raided by the subconscious at opportune moments. 

Next on the scene was Carl Jung. Carl maintained that the subconscious was like a store cupboard for all useful memories, experiences and feelings, which was necessary to “make room in our conscious minds for new impressions and ideas”. We couldn’t possibly be conscious of everything we experienced as otherwise “our minds would become impossibly cluttered.”


In practice

Picture your daily commute into work, for instance. You leave your house, walk down the street, cross over the road and STOP – did you lock the front door? Of course you did, you just did it subconsciously. Habit and routine – from breathing to commuting – are often done without realising it. Think about how many times you’ve driven somewhere and you don’t have any memory of changing gear afterwards, despite having done it countless times. 

The difference between them, though, is not centered on awareness (the subconscious is acutely aware of a whole host of things) but focus. Think of it as the engine room that keeps you going while your conscious focuses on the task at hand. 


How does the subconscious relate to purchasing decisions?

How does this relate to purchasing, I hear you ask? Well, the subconscious is the guardian of memory, habits, behaviours and emotions and is tasked with delivering them when the conscious mind demands it. Bend down to tie your shoelace – the conscious calls on the subconscious to show you how it’s done. Bend down to choose a chocolate bar – the subconscious will inform your conscious of which one you like the most; the one that evoked positive emotions in the past. 

Sometimes these decisions are referred to as ‘gut feelings’ or ‘impulse buys’, but they are far from being irrational whims. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s our subconscious giving us a rational nod in the right direction. 

According to Robert Heath, the author Seducing the Subconscious, “when it comes to a purchase choice in which there is very little to choose between two brands, we will intuitively choose the one we favour. And because we don’t remember how we formed the attitudes and markers that created this intuitive feeling, we can’t easily prevent it from influencing us.”


What does this mean for marketing?

The obvious take-away is to stop targeting the conscious mind and start targeting these ‘attitudes and markers’ that Heath refers to. Marketers should focus on positive memory-making that will influence purchasing decisions down the line. They need to devise campaigns that intrigue and excite the subconscious, but so many of them don’t. 

At Rebel & Soul, we know that emotions dictate decision-making and so all of our tailored neuroexperiences are designed to charm the conscious, while captivating the subconscious. Zaltman would be proud. 


Download our Definitive Guide to Neuroexperience to learn more.

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