I like it, but I don’t know why

Marketing 2013-07-19

Ever had that gut feeling? When everything seems fine on the surface yet you have a gnawing sensation in your gut that it isn’t, or when you meet someone that seems friendly enough but for some reason they send alarm bells ringing. This is your unconscious mind at work, picking up on cues you aren’t consciously aware of.  Research shows that our unconscious minds can influence our conscious thoughts and decisions, and our bodies know what we want before we do. Marketing consultant Douglas Van Praet believes marketing research should be focused on understanding this, as unconscious minds are what sway consumer decisions.


How does it work? Historically, unconscious thought has been known as the source of dreams. However new insight has revealed it may be involved in decision-making, problem solving and critical thinking. The theory that most of the human mindoperates unconsciously was pioneered by Sigmund Freud, and an iceberg is used to visually represent his theory.


“The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.” Sigmund Freud (img. source: http://goo.gl/6zy15)


‘Implicit learning’, or learning without knowing, has been proven by cognitive research, which shows that individuals register and acquire more information than they can experience in their conscious minds.  This information is retained, and influences our cognitive thought processes.


An example of the power of unconscious association is given by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain. If you have an argument with someone whilst dining at a table with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and the next day you meet a man with a similar patterned shirt, your instinct will be that you don’t like this man. This is triggered by your unconscious mind, which overrides logic, or awareness. Similarly this can be applied to advertisements, where people are aware of the messages but not aware of how they are influenced by them. As Van Praet argues, it is absurd for someone to brush their teeth with toothpaste proven to whiten teeth, and then use a bright green mouthwash containing blue and yellow dyes. However the colour green is associated with a fresh and clean feeling, which prevails logic.  The failure of ‘Coke Clear’ and ‘Crystal Pepsi’ in the 1990s was attributed to colour associations, because people strongly associate the taste of cola with its rich brown colour. Positive and negative opinions on products are fabricated largely without logic or awareness, but with unconscious association.


As associations shift, so do markets. Steve Jobs famously said he didn’t believe in market research, as it wasn’t the consumer’s job to know what they wanted. In order to gain real creative breakthroughs, marketers must look to unconscious behaviour. A monk that achieves human agency does so through meditation and training his unconscious habits. Until we are all capable of such stuff, unconscious association will remain the seat of motivation, and is the key to understanding what people want.