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Five intuitive marketing principles marketers can start using today

February 3, 2020 0 Comments

In a recent article promoting my new book, Intuitive Marketing, I outlined some common mistakes marketers make when they try too hard to persuade consumers to buy their products and brands. That advice was necessarily negative—it described what not to do. Now I’d like to consider the opposite question: what are some positive ways marketers can influence consumers constructively, beyond simply avoiding traditional marketing mistakes?

Here is five intuitive marketing principles that marketers can begin applying today to build relationships with consumers that do not disrupt and annoy, but identify and align with the deeper wants, needs, and goals of consumers as they struggle to navigate our increasingly marketing-saturated world.


Marketers collect a lot of data. Much of it is based on asking people what they think. Brain science tells us this can be problematic because surveys and interviews reveal attitudes and beliefs that may come to mind when people are asked to think deliberatively about a product or brand, but may not be the thoughts and memories that play a causal role in real-world buying situations. What kinds of data should intuitive marketers pay attention to?

#1 Understand, measure, and track implicit associations over time

Brands live in people’s minds as interconnected nodes in long-term memory. These connections are both causes and effects of shopping and consuming behavior. They are often not consciously accessible and they do not always follow the rules of logic or reasoning. They are implicit associations that are learned through repeated experiences—multiple exposures to marketing, shopping, and consuming, often over years or even decades. They can be tracked and measured, but only indirectly, using implicit association techniques that are offered by many neuromarketing vendors.(1) Such techniques often yield surprising results when compared to the explicit associations people articulate consciously in survey responses and interviews.

Every experience we have with a person, place, or thing produces an “affective residue” that changes our implicit associations with that person, place, or thing, usually subtly but sometimes dramatically.

Because implicit associations get updated with every product and brand experience, it is necessary to measure and track them longitudinally. They are a roadmap to how consumers’ associations and expectations change over time and, most importantly to marketing practitioners, how and how much they change in response to marketing efforts—either positively or negatively.

Marketers need to track implicit associations not only for their own brands, but also for their competitors’ brands and their category as a whole. By triangulating these measures, it is possible to measure the success of current marketing efforts, identify messaging problems that need to be corrected, and plan future marketing campaigns that target emerging marketplace threats and opportunities.

#2 Find out when and where potential customers are in a state of aligned intent

Persuasion has a role in marketing and advertising, but it is most effective when a consumer is already in a state of aligned intent with a marketing message.(2) And this is most likely to occur when they are actively considering a purchase or seeking more information to make an informed choice.

Marketers should identify every touchpoint at which consumers might plausibly be in a state of aligned intent.

Once these touchpoints are identified, marketers need to design marketing messages that directly address how and why consumers are there. Aligned intent tends to be present in retail situations, both real-world and online. Packaging is also a good vehicle for aligned-intent marketing, because people tend to look at packaging when they’re trying to choose between alternatives. Especially in the online world, marketers have many ways to identify consumers who are most receptive to well-placed persuasive messages.

#3 Learn what reference points people use when considering your products and brands

From a marketer’s point of view, the most important insight of Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory (3) is a two-part idea: first, that consumers calculate gains and losses in terms of subjective reference points and, second, that framing can be used to set those reference points.

Marketers should think carefully about how they use reference points in their messaging, and how different reference points can lead to different choice outcomes.

There are four reference-point questions every marketer should be able to answer with regard to every product in their portfolio:

  • Should I present my product as enabling a gain or avoiding a loss?
  • Should I ask consumers to frame their choice in terms of past experiences, present circumstances, or future possibilities?
  • Do I want consumers to compare my product explicitly to competing products? And, if so, do I want them to think of my product as superior (enabling a gain), or of other products as inferior (avoiding a loss)?
  • Do I want to ask consumers to take a chance on something new (seeking risk), or do I want them to embrace the comfort of something familiar (avoiding risk)?

When marketers can successfully guide consumers to adopt a reference point that benefits their products or brands, they can significantly impact how choice options are processed and ultimately decided.


A major theme of Intuitive Marketing is that marketers, in their quest to attract attention and impart “reasons to buy,” , may in fact be creating a distracting and annoying marketplace that produces exactly the opposite effect from the one intended. When the goals of marketing are attention-grabbing and persuasion (both overt and covert), they can produce more resistance and negative association-building than positive attitude change. Brain science tells us that adopting different goals more aligned with the goals and interests of consumers can lead to more robust, longer-term benefits.

#4 Consider how your brand can help people pursue positive, aspirational, and identity-enhancing goals

All humans share two universal motivations. The first is aspiration. We want to be better and to do better tomorrow than today. The second is identity. We have a deep need to feel self-esteem, to feel good about ourselves, to believe that we are honorable, likable, desirable, and appreciated.(4) Rather than emphasizing threats to consumer status or self-image—common tactics in persuasive marketing—marketers should consider positioning their products and brands as partners and enablers of people’s ongoing efforts to achieve aspirational and self-affirmation goals.

How does your brand help consumers achieve autonomy, competence, or belonging?

Marketing that connects to aspirations and identity does not require diverting attention and does not impose motivations on consumers. It focuses on the motivations and goals consumers already have and provides a narrative as to how products and brands can help consumers achieve those goals.

Brands are powerful signifiers in our modern consumer-oriented and media-saturated world. What they signify has become as important, or perhaps even more important, than what they provide in terms of functionality. Brands that signify the aspirations and identities of their consumers seldom resort to the tactics and pressures of persuasive marketing. Instead, they present themselves as partners in consumers’ aspirational and identity-affirming pursuits—pursuits to improve one’s life, to be a better person, to be welcomed and accepted by others, and to do something good in the world.

#5 Deliver marketing in ways that provide small emotional rewards

Marketing and advertising messages can demand attention or they can earn it. Brain science finds that unwanted demands on attention can trigger resistance reactions that may thwart the intentions of marketers. In contrast, jokes, gags, puzzles, cute babies, cuddly pets and just plain nonsense are all potential sources of small emotional rewards that can draw audience attention voluntarily, even if (or perhaps because) they tend to involve only the flimsiest connections to the products or brands being advertised.

Small emotional rewards operate through both conscious and unconscious brain processes. On the one hand, they are consciously perceived. But the way in which they impact later consumer behavior is generally not accessible to conscious awareness. We recognize an emotional reward when we experience it, but we do not have visibility into how it translates into unconscious affective residue capable of shaping our later choices and behavior. That happens behind the scenes, so to speak, via the cognitive process of evaluative conditioning.(5)

The result of successfully and reliably delivering small emotional rewards is two-fold: a positive-uptick in the valence of the affective residue associated with the product or brand, and an increase in the salience of the product or brand in subsequent consumer choice situations.

The unconscious accumulation of small emotional rewards from repeated exposures to seemingly inconsequential but entertaining ads can create and strengthen the implicit associations that impact consumers’ habits, loyalties, and subsequent choices and actions—all without resorting to overt or covert persuasion.


Intuitive marketing is an alternative to traditional marketing that does not rely on overt or covert persuasion and does not require that consumers be treated as “patsies.” Unlike transactional persuasive marketing or covertly persuasive behavioral designs that focus on closing an immediate sale, intuitive marketing focuses on building long-term relationships through disciplined monitoring and managing of consumers’ associations and expectations as they experience multiple journeys through the consumer cycle of marketing, shopping, and consuming. It emphasizes influence as an alternative to persuasion and brings together a vast array of findings from brain science research to illustrate both the perils of persuasion as a marketing strategy and the promise of intuitive marketing as a better way to build lasting relationships with customers and consumers.

Marketers are not required to treat marketing as a zero-sum battle between buyers and sellers. For those who are uncomfortable with either the practical results or the ethical implications of transactional persuasive marketing, intuitive marketing is an alternative worth considering.

Image credit: Shopper stock images, DepositPhotos.  


(1) Implicit association tests are not without their methodological challenges and continue to be improved by researchers. Neuromarketers who offer implicit association testing need to keep up with the latest developments. See Meissner, Franziska, et al. “Predicting Behavior With Implicit Measures: Disillusioning Findings, Reasonable Explanations, and Sophisticated Solutions.” Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019).

(2) I have enthusiastically appropriated the term “aligned intent” from digital marketer Gordon Hotchkiss. See Hotchkiss, Gordon. “Aligned intent: A different ad engagement metric.” Out of My Gord blog, November 26, 2009. Available online at

(3) Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty.” Journal of Risk and uncertainty 5.4 (1992): 297-323.

(4) Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American psychologist 55.1 (2000).

(5) De Houwer, Jan. “Conditioning as a source of liking: There is nothing simple about it.” In Wanke, Michaela. Social psychology of consumer behavior. Psychology Press, 2008, pp. 151-166; Hütter, Mandy, and Steven Sweldens. “Implicit misattribution of evaluative responses: Contingency-unaware evaluative conditioning requires simultaneous stimulus presentations.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142.3 (2013): 638.

About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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