Selling to the Reptile Brain

Post date: Jul 22, 2011 7:25:25 PM


Did you know that sales stem from the brain stem? They do, according to scientific research. Over the past 10 years, advertisers and scientists have teamed up to study consumers’ buying decisions and the results are revealing. The science, called neuromarketing, is now widely used by the world’s largest brands to directly reach the part of the brain that decides.

Neuromarketing is no stranger to controversy. Although some refer to it as evil manipulation, neuromarketing uses a scientific process to explain what motivates customers to buy and satisfy the rational, emotional and survival instincts residing in the “Old Brain” or “Reptilian Brain.”

That’s the part of the brain making the real decisions and it is also what Christophe Morin has been studying to predict consumer behavior. Christophe, the marketing guru of SalesBrain, wrote the bestselling guide to consumers, Neuromarketing, with company co-founder Patrick Renvoisè. Together they run SalesBrain, a consulting firm that’s worked with companies such as GE. In this interview with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, Christophe discusses how this science works and how it can help significantly improve your client communications, presentations and messaging.

FELDMAN: For those not familiar with neuromarketing, would you explain what it is and how it relates to sales? MORIN: Most books on sales and marketing tend to tell you the same ideas and tips. So, 10 years ago I decided to take a bold risk and look at the possibility of injecting more science into sales and marketing. I noticed that most of the books tell you the same thing: the key to close a deal is to make sure you’re targeting the right decision-maker. But I discovered that selling is not about targeting a person. Selling is about targeting an organ.

FELDMAN: That would be the brain, specifically the old brain, or the reptilian brain. From what I have read, you say that’s where a lot of the buying decisions are made in sales.

MORIN: That’s right. We have not one brain, but three. We have a thinking brain, which is the newest part of our brain, called the cortex. And we use it a lot to inform decisions, to compute, to create a rationale for a particular decision. But as sophisticated as the cortex is, we don’t really rely on the cortex to actually trigger a decision. Right underneath the cortex, we have what’s called the limbic system, which is known as the area where we develop a feeling. So this is where we have a gut sensation about a particular decision. And certainly we get a lot of information from our stomach, such as the quality of a decision. But that’s not where we trigger the decision. You have to go below the limbic system to an area called the reptilian complex, which includes the brain stem and the cerebellum. It’s also sometimes referred to as the “Old Brain.” Some people argue it could be as old as 500 million years. And in that structure—which connects straight to the spinal cord— you find functions that ensure our survival. This is where we control breathing, digestion, our capacity to stay alert. Attention is controlled in that area. These functions are happening below our level of consciousness. And to our own shock, we discovered that this area, as primitive as it may be, has control over our final decisions. So we are still triggering decision at the reptilian level, but we are rationalizing them after they’ve been produced below our level of consciousness.

FELDMAN: You talk about messages and communicating directly to this part of the brain. What are the best steps to get right into the reptilian brain, the real decision-maker?

MORIN: Part of step one was to identify the parts of the brain that are most critical in triggering the decision. Step two was, “OK, now what? Can we indeed develop a language to communicate to that reptilian brain?” It’s not about manipulation. This is about finding the way of communicating that is optimized for the brain. And if it’s optimized, it will actually contribute to create stronger and better relationships between people. So, we developed a language based on science to give you six grammar rules that you can use to create a sentence that the reptilian brain will understand. We call them stimuli because we know that these are biologically anchored in the way we respond. They’re not just ideas or suggestions. We know that if people use these six rules, or stimuli, they will trigger activity in the reptilian brain that will contribute to the acceleration of a decision process. The first rule is self-centeredness. It is no surprise that the reptilian brain is truly selfish. Only things that contribute to survival are of importance to the brain. So many times in sales you find that the sales person is talking about the company and about themselves. In those moments, it takes seconds for the reptilian brain to recognize that this person is not interested in its survival and shuts down. So, a very easy tip is to use the word “you.” Because whenever you use the word “you,” you are actually bringing in that self-centeredness, which is so critical to get immediate attention. The second stimulus, is to use a lot of contrast in the way you present a situation. Why? Because contrast is a signal of importance for the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is not interested in gray. The reptilian brain is interested in any event that could mark a sharp disruption. That’s why we’re such suckers for news that seems, intellectually speaking, unimportant. But because it is presented as the most important event by saying “Breaking news happening now... Developing story,” our reptilian brain gets a sense that it might disrupt our life. So, a selling message has to be disruptive— it has to break neutral. We receive 10,000 messages every single day. You cannot have a chance of getting reptilian attention if you are neutral. If you say, “Choose us, because we’re one of the leading providers of...,” it won’t have any effectiveness on the reptilian brain. It’s a neutral sentence. The third rule is what we call tangible, making the message concrete. The brain has a bias for speed and simplicity. At the level of the reptilian brain, energy consumption is a big deal. And energy conservation is essential to enhance survival. So we do not welcome complexity. We do not welcome having to kick-in our new brain to understand a message. We do not welcome a complicated illustration or a lot of text. We’re suckers for visuals. We’re suckers for touching and feeling an experience and drawing meaning from it. So, many of the best sales people know to minimize what they say and the explanation. They present a prop, an object or a visual right away in the conversation.

FELDMAN: Can’t you create a tangible sensation through the use of copy? If you’re telling a story, can’t that reach that part of the brain?

MORIN: I’m not suggesting that copy never works in sales, but we do not have at the reptilian level a desire to read. Reading is a brand new function we acquired about 6,000 years ago. At the level of the reptilian brain, we’re talking pre-verbal. So what you find in research around the effectiveness of text is, yes, if people get motivated by a visual or some event prior to the reading, then the words have the capacity to make us imagine, make us cry, make us be afraid and all of the sensations that are critical for a reptilian brain experience. But selling, for the most part, has to be conveyed pre-verbally. And we train people, from engineers at GE Healthcare to people who sell insurance, by helping them recognize the need to convince and clarify what it is that they can do for their prospects in seconds. Not in minutes. And certainly not by asking people to read a bunch of text.

FELDMAN: Yes, because that reptilian brain just wants to move real fast through images.

MORIN: That’s right. We have a bias, biologically speaking, for any action that will conserve energy. Some studies have demonstrated that if you ask people to read, they burn more calories than if they watch TV. Why do you think we’re such couch potato animals when we end up putting ourselves in front of the TV? Because it’s a more passive and yet more less energy-consuming activity than reading. Advertising and marketing spend a lot of money to reach people. Last I looked, it was $450 billion. It’s a lot of money but a lot of waste. In a world that is now bombarding us with thousands of messages per day, the brain has had a tendency to adjust by putting all of it into a big bucket called white noise. This is why you cannot succeed by whispering. Now, does that mean you need to be obnoxious? Does that mean you need to scream every single time you want to sell? I don’t think so. I think you have to work harder to create relevance and a contrast that will be significant and informative whenever you’re selling. In insurance, a lot of that is creating awareness a round the possibility that something might happen that could be truly devastating. You could call this fear-selling. But the truth is, most people don’t bu y insurance unless they connect emotionally with what it does, which is to avoid the worst. And yet, so much selling in insurance has moved into long explanation—a lot of text and smiley faces. You don’t typically sell insurance by just showing smiley faces. I’m sorry, but the evidence just doesn’t support that. Can you feature pain? Can you sell on fear? Of course you can. And there are ways to do it that do not compromise integrity. FELDMAN: What is the next stimulus?

MORIN: The fourth one is our pattern of attention, which follows a U-shaped curve. In other words, we are biologically paying attention at the beginning and at the end of any event. And we tend to forget everything in the middle. Now that is something that has been known for a while. That’s why we tend to hold our attention for a good trailer or a good ad if the beginning has a good grabber. And we will remember more if there is a good end, or at least an end that helps us capture the essence of an entire event. Why is our attention dropping in the middle? Well, again, it’s because we do not want to remember much. In fact, our brain is much more wired for us to forget, than it is for us to remember a great deal. This might strike you as something really strange. But if people have extraordinary memory, usually it’s at the cost of being normal in many of their functions. You’re familiar with the savant disorder, where some extreme forms of autism come with an extraordinary memory function. If you’re memorizing too much, you’re essentially pulling those neurons away from decoding facial expressions and engaging in social interaction . And that does not ultimately make for a balanced brain. So we are wired to place attention at the beginning and the end, which is why in selling, you cannot waste those first few seconds. And you have to find a hook that will captivate right away. At the same time, you have to repeat what’s important several times. And you have to close, again, in a way that encapsulates the entire information. You talked about story earlier. And the format of a story typically is based on a strong beginning and a strong end. That’s why stories work for our brain. That’s why using a story when you sell is so effective. Because it’s efficient for the brain. So I talk a lot about the fact that a strong narrative—a strong theme— is a way of helping the brain create a blueprint of a lot of information. The last two stimuli are really essential to the model, and are a big passion of mine. The fact that we’re mostly visual, the fifth grammar rule, is essential to the way we react as reptiles. We only understand the reality that the brain can perceive. And the visual sense is the most dominant and the most powerful sense we have. Most of our brain is involved at some level in visual processing. Some numbers I’ve seen are as high as 50 percent. At any given point in time, 50 percent of our entire brain energy is involved in some sort of visual processing. This means that when you sell, you have to integrate the fact that visual delivery is more important than auditory. It is more important than what you can write. And yet, particularly in business, so much information is delivered through slides that have lots of text and bullet points, through flow-charts that are impossible to understand in just a few seconds, through illustrations that are so abstract that you can’t begin to connect and identify the visual to something that you know exists for real. So we have an opportunity to maximize selling so much by just focusing on visual effectiveness. And one aspect of this that I am a big fan of is how you use this power, not just when you are selling insurance, but when you’re trying to convince people to change their behavior.

FELDMAN: But what if you sell something that’s not a visual, like insurance, since it’s not a tangible product?

MORIN: Right, but their aspect of what happens if they don’t buy insurance can be conveyed visually. It’s the family missing one member who has passed away. It’s the house being flooded. It’s all those images that actually convey in just a few seconds what no text will explain to you in minutes. I’m also talking about the physical presence of people. The way they’re smiling. The way they’re moving. All of this is processed and decoded visually. Studies have shown that the way you move your body is more important than what you say and how you say it. All of that participates in visual delivery, not just images of potential casualties. The last piece, and the wrapper of it all, is the importance of emotions. We know that emotions are important when you sell. But very few people understand, biologically speaking, what emotions are. Emotions are chemicals that are used by our brain to trigger, literally trigger, more motivation, more movement and more memory. Now, think about it. The word itself—emotion— gives you a clue. No motion happens without those chemicals. So, emotion is not an option. Emotion is the glue of your message. When you sell— whether it’s face to face, digital or print advertising—if you’re not able to trigger an emotion, none of this is going to happen. No motion. No motivation. No decision. No memory. It so happens that there are eight basic core emotions. Some are positive. Some are negative. As humans, we experience more negative emotions than we experience positive emotions. Why? Because it is better for our survival to amplify the negative than it is to look at just the positive. So why does fear-selling work so well? Because we place our attention more rapidly, more urgently, on anything that represents a fear, because it can ultimately help us survive. There are a lot of studies on the effectiveness of these different emotions. I tell my client, “Look, I’m not asking you to use only fear. I’m saying that you need to trigger an emotional cocktail of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins to help your clients trigger a decision.” So, by the time you look at the six rules, you have the language that is typically used by the best sales people without even their awareness. But they can be used by others who want to improve their effectiveness.

FELDMAN: Does having too many choices frustrate the reptilian brain?

MORIN: The effective sales message builds on a maximum of three claims. In sales, people have a tendency to say, “Hey, here are 10 or 15 reasons why you should buy from us.” Well, the problem is the brain does not have the capacity, or the desire, to hold 10 pieces of information. So, research shows that you have to limit your talking points, your benefits, to a maximum of three. And you have to sharpen those three so as to create contrast, so as to suggest we’re the only company that can offer you ABC. That will be a condition of attention that is central to your effectiveness. I say three, but that’s typically in the context of a business to business. In business to consumer, I say don’t even bother to use more than one maybe two. And make it so powerful, so special, that it will do the pulling for you. It will grab the attention and hopefully give enough juice to the rest of the brain to engage. Make them easy to remember. Using an acronym will help you do so. Having rhyming on your claims can help you do so. There are all kinds of techniques that have been known for decades. They’re generally referred to as pneumonic techniques that are on the surface sort of childish. But they work. So don’t let your “new” brain censor or judge how simple your message is if it’s going to be effective for the reptilian brain. In the context of a fully flushed out value proposition, I think it’s OK to go all the way to three. But in the context of a promo or even a headline, usually you don’t have more than one point. That’s why headlines suck us into the story. They typically don’t have three points in a headline.

FELDMAN: What makes a good headline?

MORIN: Few words. Easy words. And word plays are very effective. We actually have an emotional response to a word play, because we are happy that we’ve discovered the double entendre of something. It’s rewarding our narcissism in many ways. And it creates a little jolt of endorphins. You know, when we laugh, humor is an emotion. And usually it’s because of these tiny little moments where our brain is having a little bit of an epiphany.

FELDMAN: How do you know when you have connected with the reptilian brain and can move on to the next step?

MORIN: It’s typically when people are switching from the emotional phase to the rational phase. It’s when people are starting to ask more pointed questions that appear as if they are logical and rational buyers. Typically, it signals that they have actually received the motivation to rationalize. And now what appears to be a logical buy is in fact a buy that has reached the point of rationalization. We are just fundamentally not designed to be rational buyers. We’re emotional buyers. But we love to rationalize. And we continue to believe that we indeed have the capacity to be logical buyers. That’s sort of the fallacy that you find in all of the research I’ve done.

FELDMAN: So, people want to believe that they’re rational buyers...

MORIN: But they’re not. The reptilian brain has already made the decision.