How people make decisions about which brands and products to buy still seems to be one of the great undiscovered secrets in our world of advertising, marketing and research. Despite electronic libraries full to the brim with information from focus groups, usage and attitude studies, tracking, observation and ethnographic studies, our understanding of how people make decisions remains elusive. In fact we appear to be less and less certain about how people really make decisions and even less confident about how we can influence the process.

In some ways, understanding consumer decision-making is far simpler than is generally believed. However, being able to influence what people will do in terms of buying, thinking, behaving in a given context, is infinitely more complex. It is only possible to influence an outcome when our feet are firmly grounded in reality and not in the fantasy that human beings are rational creatures in total control of their decision-making capabilities. What we need to do is to shift our thinking from describing human ‘doing’ to becoming more aware of what it means to be a human ‘being’.

The last five years have seen significant advances in understanding how human beings ‘work’ due to developments in many new and old sciences – brain scanning, cognitive experiments, genetic studies, foetal learning and patterning behaviour, physics, and so on. The knowledge no longer sits in separate scientific silos but is being shared and debated in more generalist and public domains.

We need to debate how this new knowledge challenges conventional models of thinking about consumer decision-making. If we remain closed to the debate, we will become proverbial dinosaurs in the eyes of new science.

Handed-down wisdom … and its failings
  1. Consumer decision-making is a conscious process

The conventional belief structure is something like this. Any decision, whether it is buying a chocolate bar, choosing to eat at Burger King rather than Pizza Hut, buying a new car or an insurance policy, is a conscious process. With the right questioning framework a person can be encouraged to recall deconstruct and then describe the components that led to the final decision, and be able to explain it all logically.

Not true, unfortunately.

There is a large body of evidence that teaches us that human beings process information received from outside the body – external stimuli – that are mediated through a complex set of internal communication transmitters (electric, chemical and hormonal). These transmission systems have been termed ‘the molecules of emotion’ (1). There is a continual feedback loop whereby the internal body–mind stasis mediates what we take in and process from the outside world, and vice versa.

What this means in practice is that most of our behaviour is unconscious, non-rational and influenced by primitive emotions. What we become conscious of is only a tiny percentage of what has been going on, and it is this fractional element that we can articulate in words.

‘Emotions constitute an integrated element of the seemingly most rational decision-making. Whenever thinking conflicts with emotions, emotions win’ (2). In simple terms, we absorb, react and ‘intend’ without knowing why or even being aware of the true drivers. Subsequently we use language (thought) to become conscious of it to ourselves or to explain it to others.

So what?

Over the course of our lives we learn trillions of facts – how to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly humans, how to shop in a supermarket, which holiday destination is popular nowadays, how to get from A to B, and so on. We also learn about brands. Every single experience is represented in our body–mind – not as a static photograph or video, but as dynamic and connected sets of neurones (including the patterning of the molecules of emotion).

Each of the 10,000 or so brands we have stored over a lifetime can be thought of as being emotionally anchored. We experience a positive, negative or neutral inclination towards it, away from it or indifferent to it.

It is this fact that lies at the heart of much brand decision-making. At the split second when we decide to buy one thing rather than another, emotional ‘intentionality’ determines the outcome. When asked ‘why’ in situations where the behaviour has just occurred, people often find it difficult to articulate a reason. They might say any of the following: ‘I always do’, ‘I like it’, ‘it suits me’, ‘it’s good value/good quality’, and so on. Further questions generate more answers. People can mention any number of positive (or negative) reasons to explain this unconscious predisposition towards or away from a brand

The point to grasp here is that if a brand is anchored positively, then that person tends to notice positive things about it – selective perception is at work. If the reverse occurs then negative selective perception prevails. No matter what Asda tells someone who is emotionally warm to Sainsbury’s, or how frequently it advertises or drops direct mail promotions through the door, this customer will only talk about its irritating advertising, inferior-quality goods, corporate greed, customers unlike me, and so on.

Many professionals in our business know this instinctively. Nike and Virgin are perennial examples of brands that hold a particular place in the hearts and minds of many people around the world. So when trying to deconstruct decision-making behaviour, the first thing to establish is whether or not the brand (or category, or product) is positively or negatively anchored – and this needs to be done through non-directive interviewing.

It is a felt and unarticulated response, not a rational one.

  1. Consumer decision-making consists of a series of steps – each causally related to the next

The old concept of causal steps to explain how advertising works (the AIDA model) is alive and well today – but has been transformed into the concept of ‘a customer journey’. A person moves through distinct passive and active phases or sequences depending on category and brand, for example:

  • emerging need
  • active consideration
  • researching
  • short-listing
  • purchase
  • post-purchase (3).

This modern version of AIDA holds that there are different kinds of brand touchpoint along a customer journey. If these are leveraged effectively – through appropriate communication messages and channels – a customer can be guided gently towards making the desired brand decision.

The authors acknowledge that not all customer journeys consist of the same steps and, within a single category, the journey of different segments of consumers/customers can be dissimilar.

If only it worked this way. Wouldn’t it be so much easier for marketing strategy and measurement? Unfortunately, it does not. It is over-simplified.

In real life a brand decision journey may be long or short; it may be aborted along the way, it may take a sudden shift in direction due to whim or fancy, it is often influenced by others (by trends and fashions) and it may not occur within a measurable window of time.

What often happens is that the decision is made first, and then a condensed series of stages unfold or happen simultaneously. For example, for long-haul holidays the destination is often chosen first (Cuba), followed by a quick search for evidence to support the decision, for example, internet research comparing Cuba to California.

Consider impulse decisions. Have you ever noticed your behaviour when buying a newspaper or magazine? Without even knowing it, you walk out with a packet of crisps or a Coke and a Mars bar. The only response you could possibly give to a market researcher at that minute is ‘because I felt like it’. Probed further, you might talk about habits, or feeling peckish or bored.

A great deal of human decision-making behaviour can be explained by two neuro-principles – heuristics and hard-wiring. 

Heuristics – rules of thumb

Human beings are so complex that if we had to think through (consciously) every single second of behaviour we would not be able to function at all. Certain behaviours are learned over time and become automatic and habitual, like brushing your teeth or driving the car. There is no active and logical thought process. It just happens.

Brand habits are built in the same way. This is called ‘heuristics’. A simpler phrase is ‘rules of thumb’; for example, when I am feeling low in energy I will buy a small Mars bar, if I can’t find a banana. Don’t ask me why – it just is like that. But if you insist, I can give you 20 reasons, to make you happy. Heuristics explain much of brand decision-making in FMCG categories.

Similar habitual behaviour can be observed in non- FMCG categories too. Heuristics are at work (rather than well thought-through and researched decision-making) when buying travel or car insurance. People decide first which brand to buy (heuristic) and then notice performance league tables or comparative interest rates or prices to justify brand choice.

Hardwiring – brand associations

Hardwiring is another component of decision making and is especially relevant for established brands that are attempting to reposition themselves because of undesirable consumer/customer perceptions, for example, Clarks shoes and Marks & Spencer. The common objective here is to provoke people to reconsider the brand for inclusion in a brand repertoire or consideration set.

Many established brands are hard-wired. Through consistency of messaging and constancy of support across channels, brand associations are reinforced. These associative connections between circuits and cells become physically joined together, so that as soon as one element of the ‘brand representation’ (pattern of associations) is triggered, many of the other associations are simultaneously set off, like the spread of ripples in a pond after a stone has been thrown into it.

Mars (‘a Mars a day helps you work rest and play’) and Coke (‘the real thing’) are deeply embedded as brand associative networks and memories. So is Cuba (sun, sea, Latin music, Castro) or California (sun, sea, Hollywood, the Pacific Highway), although these do not necessarily arise consciously at point of choice.

‘The more realistic we are about the way that human beings function, the more effective we can be. The way to do this is to work with and not against the neuro-principles’

Hardwiring explains the huge power of this kind of brand equity and its role in decision making. It also explains why it is so difficult to change the patterning (brand representations) of established brands. People resist new brand information if it contradicts the ‘old’ associations – hence Mars’ ‘pleasure you can’t measure’ has not yet been integrated into the brand.

So what? It is important to understand at both a category and a brand level whether or not hardwiring exists and the extent to which this might influence a decision. Successful brands work with hardwiring, not against it, as they have recognised that it is virtually impossible to undo physical connectivity. The way forward for brands (or categories) with hardwired pasts is to re-contextualise (rather than remove) the hardwired associations, just as Lucozade did all those years ago.

In conclusion

Consumer/customer decision-making is not that difficult to understand. What is far more complex is figuring out how to intervene so that we influence the final outcome.

It is my firm belief that the more realistic we are about the way that human beings function, the more effective we can be. The way to do this is to work with and not against the neuro-principles described in this article.

Emotional brand anchoring – it is easy to identify and then segment those people who are emotionally warm to the brand, even if they are not current users. This target group of people can help us understand which sets of brand associations (sensory, abstract, behavioural and learned) are most motivating and which are inhibiting the brand. This leads to strategies for communication, channel choice, purchase and consumption environments, new product/business development, and so on.

Heuristics – human beings are social animals that learn new behaviour. Think about mobile phones, texting, using the internet or drinking lattes. It is possible to create new habits by introducing relevant products and services that offer genuine value. Behaviour only becomes habitual, and brands operate as ‘rule of thumb’ solutions, when they solve a genuine problem or meet a real need. If there are only spurious differences between brands, the most popular brand remains in pole position and the remainder jostle for position, depending on promotions and pricing strategies.

Hardwiring is the most challenging concept to take on in the task of influencing decision making. Think about wiring a new house. It is relatively easy and is completed as the building is being con- structed. Now think of re-wiring an old house. It can be done, but is usually difficult, takes time, effort and money, and involves problem-solving. Old brands are far more difficult to re-wire. Success depends on working smartly within existing structures, rather than throwing everything out – unless one has an unlimited budget.

I recognise that this point of view may be unpalatable. Thinking differently is taxing and often involves having to enrol others in the effort. We all want an easier life and using models of thinking like ‘seven steps to decision-making’ or ‘five fundamentals that drive buying decisions’ gives us comfort.

But life isn’t like this … and who said that life is easy anyway?

  1. C Pert: Molecules of emotion: the science behind mind–body Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  2. G Franzen and M Bouwman: The mental world of brands. World Advertising Research Center,
  3. J Saunders (ed): The communications challenge – The Account Planning Group, 2004.