Intuitive Consumer 101

The authors of Neuromarketing for Dummies are interviewed about the intuitive consumer

Q: Welcome Steve, Andrew, and Peter. Let's begin with the obvious question. You guys introduce the term intuitive consumer in your book. What's it all about? Do we really need yet another catch-phrase to describe consumers?

Steve: Well, there has always been this idea of the rational consumer, from classical economics. With the new understanding of nonconscious processes coming out of the brain sciences, that model doesn't apply very well anymore. But what do we replace it with? One choice is the irrational consumer, but that just sounds like consumers are crazy.  Or the "unthinking" consumer?  Or the "unconscious consumer"? Again, consumers aren't zombies, and they certainly are conscious, even if they make many of their decisions nonconsciously. We think there is some real value in thinking about consumers as "intuitive" decision makers, because an intuitive decision is often a perfectly good one, you just can't say exactly where it came from, or what prompted it. 

Andrew: The decision may be just fine, but if you ask the consumer why they chose what they chose, they'll come up will all kinds of reasons that probably have nothing to do with the real underlying processes that went on in their brains.

Steve: Right, and that's a big problem for marketers and market researchers. It's not that the decisions are crazy, or random, or "programmed" by marketing or advertising, it's that people don't have access to why they did what they did. So if you ask them, they tend to give you bad information.

Peter: And what we saw in all the brain science literature was that lots of mechanisms underlie intuitive decisions, like priming, processing fluency, and familiarity. They just operate below the threshold of conscious awareness, so surveys and questionnaires are going to miss them. But other methods have been developed to measure them, and that's where neuromarketing comes in.

Steve: Another reason we like the term "intuitive consumer" is because it doesn't carry the connotation that the consumer is somehow helpless or at the mercy of marketing and advertising. If you call the consumer "irrational" or "nonlogical," that has the implication that they're weak or helpless in the face of marketing. But one of the most interesting things we found was that some of these nonconscious processes actually protect us from being too gullible or easily influenced by persuasive messaging. Some people worry a lot about marketers activating a "buy button" in consumers' brains, but the intuitive consumer comes equipped with a pretty big "don't buy button" as well, so marketers need to understand that.

Andrew: Marketers shouldn't get too complacent. The intuitive consumer is no push-over!

Q: So you're saying the more we learn about how intuitive consumers make decisions, the harder marketing gets?

All: Exactly!

Q: What parts of the book did each of you find personally most interesting?

Andrew: The sections on ethics and policy implications.

Peter: How neuromarketing insights can improve brand management and shopping experiences.

Steve: The technology and application chapters, figuring out which approaches work best for different research needs.

Q: Tell me how the idea of the intuitive consumer is relevant to each of those areas.

Andrew: A lot of ethical concerns about neuromarketing revolve around the idea of consumer vulnerability. If consumers are vulnerable to marketing appeals they literally can't resist, they may need to be protected from that. But we found no evidence that people can be forced to do something against their will by super-compelling marketing messages. It's true that people often do things they later regret, but nonconscious processes in our brains seem to be there to help us get what we want, not what others want us to want. So we found the idea of a "buy button" in the brain to be more science-fiction than science-fact. Intuitive consumers can be influenced in lots of ways, but they can't be programmed like robots.

Peter: Thinking of consumers as intuitive decision makers really helped us understand the role of brands in purchase decisions and shopping behavior. We found that intuitive consumers are "cognitive misers" who are fully capable of deep, deliberative thinking, but prefer taking the intuitive route if they can. We discovered an important fact, not just about intuitive consumers, but about human brains in general: deep thinking is exhaustive, and our brains have evolved to prefer shortcuts and easy decisions whenever possible. So brands are a great shortcut for decision-making. Popular brands make products familiar, and our brains are naturally attracted to familiar things. Once we saw how intuitive consumers processed brands, we were able to connect a lot of implications about why leading brands are so powerful, but also about how upstart brands can grab leadership, and how brands can increase their effectiveness in a shopping environment.

Steve: The key implication of the intuitive consumer model for matching neuromarketing technologies to business applications is that you have to focus on measuring actual decisions, not just passive brain reactions to ads and marketing displays. Intuitive consumers reveal their nonconscious processing in the decisions they make and the actions they take. If you can't tie a brain measure to a decision, you don't know what to do with it. That's why we took the somewhat unusual step of putting behavioral economics inside our definition of neuromarketing. Behavioral economics is all about decision-making and how people's decisions are influenced by the context they are in. Choices happen in the brain, of course, but they are triggered by the situation the decision-maker is in. We think neuromarketing is going to evolve toward better methods for combining brain measures and decision measures to provide real insights about intuitive consumers in their natural habitats.

Q: So how would you summarize the essence of the intuitive consumer model?

All: We'd point you to our Neuromarketing for Dummies Cheat Sheet, located here.

Q: Is this a real interview?

All: Are you kidding? We only wish we were this articulate in real life.