Tapping the Triggers of the Unconscious Mind

If 90% of our thoughts are driven by our unconscious mind, why do marketers keep targeting the other 10%?

Marketers have always targeted consumers’ conscious mind when it comes to closing the quick sale. “Limited time offer.” “Prices well below wholesale.” “Only two left at this price.” “Free. Free. Free.” We all know the drill, and we’re all too familiar with the many calls to action designed to get us to spend our money and spend it fast. 

The problem with all of these supposedly tried-and-true marketing appeals is that they appeal to our conscious mind. Numerous research studies show that this method only drives about 10% of our thoughts and behavior. Our unconscious mind drives our attitudes, perceptions, judgment, reactions, fears, and joys, as well as motivates our behavior in ways we will never comprehend. In fact, our conscious and unconscious minds are worlds apart when it comes to describing our own values and behaviors.

Consider the following findings from research recently conducted by advertising agency Y&R with Joel Weinberger, psychologist and professor at Adelphi University, among adults in Brazil, China, and the U.S. When asked about their three top life values, the majority of participants consciously listed the following:

1. Helpfulness
2. Choosing our own path
3. Meaning in life

When researchers tapped into their unconscious thought waves to identify top values, this is what they discovered:

1. Maintaining security
2. Sexual fulfillment
3. Honoring tradition

Even more interesting is that participants consciously listed sexual fulfillment as the 14th out of 16 top driving values; however, the unconscious mind rated it among the top two. Helpfulness was ranked 16th out of 16 unconsciously, but ranked number one by the conscious mind.

What does this tell us about ourselves? A lot.

For one, we consumers hold onto an ideal of what we “wanna be” versus what we really are. This often compromises what we think versus what we actually do. It also tells us that we marketers cannot ignore the theories about our unconscious drivers from psychologists such as Freud and Jung. Like most species on this planet, we’re programmed for survival. Our needs for security and safety are unconsciously behind many of our choices and actions, and we most often don’t realize it. Here’s just one example:

A few years ago a group of researchers conducted the “Iowa Gambling Task Study” to assess decision-making processes and intuition. Participants were given four decks of cards and a substantial amount of money. They were then told to play a game that could increase or decrease the money given to them. Two decks of cards were “bad” decks and caused participants to lose more money than the other decks. They were hooked up to stress monitors to help reveal unconscious reactions to the task at hand. Participants showed signs of stress associated with the bad decks after playing just 10 turns of the game, according to the study. However, it took closer to 50 turns for their conscious minds to catch up and figure out which desks were bad. 

Some pretty powerful implications for marketers can be drawn from the “Iowa Gambling Task Study.”  Here are two:

  • For one, our unconscious mind draws conclusions about our environment quickly, which results in feelings of stress, intimidation, negativity, or just the opposite. When our survival instinct senses danger, it influences how our conscious mind reacts to a given situation or message. It’s important to determine what feelings or moods you’re creating with your branding and messaging, as well as what fears or anticipations you might be stirring up, good and bad.
  • Intuition is based on memories from past experiences. In the study, that memory is based on losing money in the game. In life negative memories, associations, or feelings can be conjured up by images, colors, and other non-verbal and passive impressions. Again, what memories might be associated with your product? If you’re selling car insurance, are your prospects immediately reminded of an unfulfilled claim? Or did a bad customer service experience fuel distrust of insurance companies in general?

If we want to engage consumers with our messages and motivate them to act on them, we need to create the right reactions within the unconscious mind. We need to consider the powerful influences of even seemingly small choices, like colors, fonts, and imagery associated with our brands. Once we do this, we increase our chances of engaging the conscious mind and securing the desired behavior.

Jeanette McMurtry, principal of e4marketing, is an authority on psychology-based marketing, speaking at business events worldwide. She is a Back by Popular Demand trainer, speaker, and course instructor for the DMA.
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