What makes us so good at buying things and so bad at knowing why?

David Ogilvy has many timeless mic-drop quotes. This one’s my absolute favourite:

“The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

— David Ogilvy

I should warn you, I have a special place in my heart for user research (and cheeky quotes about it).

Here’s another one from Josh Kaufman:

“[C]ustomers want products that provide exceptional results instantly, every time, with absolutely no effort. Simultaneously, they want the offer to make them rich, famous, attractive, and eternally blissful.”

And he goes on to say:

“If you ask them what they’ll be willing to give up, they’ll say that everything is critically important, and they won’t be happy with less.”

This last one always gives me a good cackle.

It’s easy to harp about marketers jumping from trend to trend.

Believe me, I’ve done plenty of harping.

But compared to figuring out what people really want, it’s so much simpler to look for salvation in the latest ad format or a new technology to help us get through to the buyers.

That’s where Phil Barden’s book called “Decoded” comes in.

It’s a head-first dive into the world of decision science and consumer psychology.

Had it been up to pre-testing, Red Bull would’ve never happened.

This is a story I’ve been telling for years.

And will be telling for years to come.

Giving us a peek into the world of consumer research, Barden writes that during pre-testing for Red Bull “feedback like ‘yuk‘, ‘disgusting‘, ‘tastes like medicine‘, and ‘I would never drink this‘ were commonplace”.

Today Red Bull is synonymous with energy drinks and the brand sold 9.8 billion cans worldwide in 2021.

Barden explains getting people to buy a brand, despite their active dislike, is to anchor it in their minds.

Here’s how it works:

In an experiment, people were shown pictures of a pair of brands and asked to make a purchase decision.

The pictures with someone’s favourite brand got near-instant decisions.

The results of this study are the opposite of folklore about rational decision-making, as “the brain showed significantly less activity in areas involved in reflective thinking [ . . . ]. Instead, brain regions involved in intuitive decisions making were activated” (Barden, 2013).

“Thinking is to humans what swimming is to cats. They can do it but they’d prefer not to.”

— Daniel Kahneman

When our preference for a brand is strong enough, the decision to purchase is done automatically.

Scientists call it cortical relief.

What’s even cooler is that cortical relief only works for our top-choice brands.

The same study also found that brands ranking second or third on our mental shopping list don’t trigger the same response.

Being in the consideration set doesn’t make the cut, instead “this research indicates that the optimal target is to maximise the number of consumers for whom we are the number one brand.”

In case the message wasn’t already clear, Barden emphasizes that “no revenue is earned by the brand that was nearly bought!”

How we make all decisions in life.

In “Decoded” I enjoy how Barden uses insight from psychology, economics, and psychology to show how we make decisions in real life.

Bursting any bubbles I had about my handle on life in the process.

Building on Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s work, Barden explains how we make most decisions on autopilot.

In “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Kahneman introduced the two modes of thinking:

  • System 1 is the autopilot. It’s always working, gathers tons of information, and shapes how we perceive the world.
  • System 2 is the pilot. It only comes online when we run into a problem for which System 1 doesn’t have a quick answer.

The two systems fill an evolutionary purpose.

Barden explains that Reflective Thinking requires energy, so our brain is designed to automate most of life’s decisions to save energy for when we’re facing new problems or new experiences.

The autopilot evolved as an efficient mode of thinking to help us make quick decisions under threat.

Since, we no longer have to worry about getting ambushed by a sabre-toothed tiger in the supermarket, the autopilot has switched its attention to other responsibilities.

Your autopilot is your first teacher.

You get a little shocked the first time you fall off a bike.

Hello gravity!

But it happens a few more times, and you learn to hold on for dear life anytime you’re experiencing velocity.

Over time the process becomes automated and effortless to perform.

That’s how we learn, and the autopilot never stops learning.

It’s always gathering details about your surroundings, without any effort from you.

Although the autopilot is processing 11 million bits per second as you go about your day, it’s not the same as active memorising.

The autopilot learns through repetition and by organising tons of information into neural networks.

Everything ends up being connected with everything else.

That’s the feeling in your gut that you can’t quite explain. It’s why just the smell of freshly baked cookies can put you in a good mood.

Barden explains that it takes at least 10,000 hours of experience to build intuition.

That’s how we can make purchase decisions without thinking.

“Intuitive decision-making, as a process, is what enables a shopper to stand in front of a shelf and make purchase decisions in milliseconds.”

— Phil Barden, “Decoded”

Repetition builds intuition. And this intuition acts as a blueprint for all future decisions.

Barden calls it the frame that structures all our decisions.

He also explains that “it’s not only the signals from the outside world but also our own internal states that change our choices, decisions, and behaviour as well.”

And framing is when the two systems come together: “The autopilot provides the frame and the pilot focuses [ . . . ]. Together they create how we experience the world and build the basis for our decision making.”

Starbucks is a great example of this.

According to Barden, we’ve learnt to associate the urban interior, cool music, swanky ingredients, and Italian words on the menu with a little bit of indulgence.

That’s why he believes that buying coffee at Starbucks is like a ‘mini-vacation’ compared to a regular café.

And you get the same Starbucks experience no matter where you’re in the world.

Barden writes, “In China, Starbucks is not about a short holiday but rather a symbol for status and a visit indicates social wealth”.

Same signals, different meanings.

Instead of grabbing coffee to-go, the Chinese prefer to be seen sitting at a Starbucks and spend a lot more time at the café.

As a result, Starbucks has bigger stores in China to seat more people and compensate for the low volume of takeaway sales.

Barden believes brands are a frame that shape our perception and the experience of the products we buy.

He also reminds us that “brand and product are not antagonists, they are intertwined: brands provide the background which increases the perceived value of the product”.

A fresh perspective on planning.

“Our perception, and hence our product experience, is created mainly by the implicit processes in the autopilot.”

— Phil Barden, “Decoded”

Thinking of brand communication as a frame that can shape decisions gave me a fresh perspective on planning.

This frame builds brand equity.

Barden points out that “without the frame: there is only the product left and we all know that, particularly in mature markets, the quality at the product level hardly offers a [ . . . ] big enough difference, [ . . . ] as indicated by the success of private labels.”

The next big question I have is: knowing all of this, what do I do as a planner?

Barden explains that the “framing effect operates in areas of the brain whose functioning we do not consciously experience.”

And that’s why when someone asks me why I bought the new Apple Watch, all I can do is parrot the features Apple decided to print on the box and shout in the ads.

We may never find out why I bought that particular watch, but we’re not helpless as planners.

Barden advises that before brand messaging can build the right frame, it needs to be perceived by the autopilot.

And the best way for me to cut through to your autopilot is by building on what you already know.

Because facts have little effect on the autopilot.

Barden shares an experiment where people were asked to try two puddings.

One made to look like chocolate with tasteless food colouring.

And one served as a regular vanilla pudding.

The participants were then asked to describe the taste.

Most people described the brown pudding as chocolate-flavoured when in fact both puddings tasted exactly the same. Vanilla.

Perception is reality.

Like me, you might think that it’s easy to fool your eyes and taste buds.

So, in the next experiment Barden described, people who unknowingly drank decaffeinated coffee exhibited higher heart rates and other signs of having caffeine in their blood.

Barden explains that brand perception has the same effect: “the brand frame activates expectations, and these, in turn, influence the subjective, perceived product experience without us being aware of this influence.”

Because whatever you believe is true for you.

Repetition, framing, and implicit signals also affect our attitudes and motivations.

One such example of this is eating healthy.

Barden refers to a study that showed despite people explicitly declaring a preference for eating healthy, implicitly many still believe that the healthier a food is the worse it tastes.

He explains this as part of the reason why many healthy options at fast food restaurants fail to find enough customers to stay on the menu.

Using an example from the UK, Barden explains how perception about products in one category spill over into other categories.

He describes that years of advertising by instant coffee brands, telling consumers in the UK that granules taste better than powdered coffee, built the frame that granules taste better.

So when Unilever asked the general public about their preference for soups, consumers were confident that granulated soups taste better than powered ones.

Despite both products having an identical taste.

And the effect of our autopilot goes deeper still.

Barden refers to another experiment where some participants had to tell a lie.

Afterwards, they were given the choice to pick a soft drink, cookies or a disinfectant.

And guess what? The respondents who told a lie, chose the disinfectant more times than others.

Barden explains that even though the participants told a lie in a special circumstance (as a part of research) their autopilot still corrects the behaviour: using a disinfectant as a way to clean off the guilt.

My big takeaway.

After reading Phil Barden’s exploration of the science behind how we make decisions, my takeaway is this:

We’re virtually the only social species with incredibly specialised skills in consumption. We know so much more than what we’re consciously aware of.

All of us share that base knowledge somewhere inside of us.

The best way to access it is by paying attention to what people do and not just what they say.

All that’s left is ending this post with Barden’s advice on what this means for marketers:

“The enormous capacity of the autopilot provides us with a new and exciting opportunity to influence behaviour. Potentially all the signals that we send can increase the persuasiveness of our marketing activities.”

— Phil Barden, “Decoded”

About the Author

Hi! I’m Aliyar.

When your marketing investments aren’t driving growth, ping me