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Ethical neuromarketing between emotional resonance and responsibility

CSR

06/07/2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has paved the way for marketing that speaks to consumers’ underlying needs

The iceberg analogy

Are we rational beings? Yes, or at least we are for around 15% of our decisions. If you think this percentage is low, just think of what the neuromarketing expert Martin Lindstrom (his books include “Buyology for a Coronavirus World”) says about human behaviour being similar to an iceberg: the tip of the iceberg protruding above the sea represents decisions taken rationally while the enormous mass submerged below the surface is our irrational and instinctive needs. This is why, as neuromarketing experts have asserted for two decades, appealing to this large part of our human soul can be a winning strategy. 

Understanding our deepest instincts

Before trying to understand how neuromarketing can help companies reimagine themselves in this period of profound crisis, we need to grasp its fundamentals. Conceived in the early 2000s as a merging of marketing and neuroscience, neuromarketing applies neuroscience to the study of the human brain’s response to marketing stimuli.
Assuming that, as we have seen above, many of our decisions are taken unconsciously and instinctively rather than rationally and consciously, it is limiting to ask people to explain the real reasons behind their decisions. Therefore, we needed to find a way to “enter” into the human brain to understand its working.

Only a tiny percentage of our decision-making process is guided by rational processes: this is why we need to dig deeper into our conscious to understand our actions.

Neuromarketing does this in the literal sense of the word: its uses methods like the EEG (which records our brain’s electrical activity), MRI (which shows blood flows within the brain) as well as biological tracking instruments such as eye trackers (which track eye movements) and other devices to obtain a clear picture of our behaviour and reactions to certain stimuli.

Fears and reassurance

If we can start to understand the emotional sub-stratum of our decision-making processes by studying our underlying reactions to specific stimuli, we can then determine the basic forces that drive our behaviourand, ultimately, our needs. Behind our external persona of highly-evolved, highly-connected, highly-rational beings, we are actually still driven by our connection to the animal world.
Empathy, the need for protection, the need for interaction and relationships and above all fear: the fear of change, of the unknown, of illness and death, of loneliness, rejection and exclusion by our fellow men. These are the key drivers of our behaviour, that encourage us to maintain a balance (or, more precisely, to strive to restore a precarious balance) or to dedicate time to look inwards to find a new balance in times of severe crisis.

The fact that we are living in a period of global crisis cannot be denied: the Covid-19 pandemic is not only on the scale of other international financial crises in financial terms but it has swept away our certainties and routines in a manner comparable only with global conflicts. Our response, as we have seen, is to panic: we all remember the supermarket shelves emptied of basic necessities such as long-life food, toilet paper and yeast for bread, while goods related to other areas of our life languished on both physical and virtual store shelves.
This behaviour was in no way rational or necessary, there was no reason to believe that supplies would become scarce or that we needed to stock up for the long term. Just as the tentative attempts by companies to stimulate consumption by lowering prices have not had any effect. Why? Because that was not what people needed.

Finding our new normal

If I am feeling panicky, I need to feel safe. I need to feel protected and part of a community that both understands and welcomes me. Everything that made up my life up until the outbreak of the pandemic is now a source of danger or uncertainty: meeting up, social engagements, going to the cinema, doing the shopping, putting away the shopping or shaking a friend’s hand.
In just a few days, all those actions that were completely routine and made up nearly our entire lives became not just dangerous but potentially deadly. This is why we needed reassurance, someone to tell us that they understood what we were feeling and who would protect and be there for us. And this is why we have turned to (and will probably continue to do so) those companies able to provide us with this reassurance.

Emotional resonance and responsibility

Neuromarketing can help put companies back on track, to understand how important it is to really listen to consumers where listening means learning to enter into contact with and interpret their hidden needs, so that companies can adapt to them and step up accordingly.
Understanding consumers’ emotional resonance does not mean exploiting their weaknesses or deepest instincts to manipulate them to do what a company wants. On the contrary, it means that the company has to shoulder its responsibilities in society, a potentially limitless commitment

Understanding consumers’ emotional resonance does not mean exploiting their weaknesses but to take on their hidden needs

When we talk about a consumer’s need for protection, this can mean protection now and in the future, protecting an individual, their loved ones, their community and, by extension, the entire world. Therefore, once again, a company’s resilience is inextricably intertwined with corporate social responsibility: the two ethical facets of the modern company.