The CMO Show: Tim Ash on neuromarketing and targeting the ‘right’ side

by The CMO Show

Did you know that for a marketer to plant the seed of an idea into one’s brain, all they need to do is design a message that’s easily consumed by the subconscious brain? 

The way marketers craft their messages perplexes Tim Ash. Marketers continue to target the logical or left side of the brain – the part that’s “literally asleep 95% of the time,” he says. Does this mean we’re all missing big-brain opportunities to influence our audiences?

In this episode of The CMO Show, we take a look under the hood of the human brain to explore the neurological side of marketing with Tim Ash, CEO of SiteTuners and cognitive scientist.

“Right now we’re designing things that are too complicated and require us to use our conscious brains to process them,” Tim says. “[It] takes a huge laborious effort to make those kind of rational decisions… The rational part of the brain doesn’t even get woken up most of the time.”

A strong believer in the role of conditioning to effect change in our selves, Tim also delves deep into the role of social inclusion and environment in shaping customer behaviour.

“There’s no such thing as a permanent sense of self, and your environment, and the conditioning propaganda, whatever you want to call it, has a very strong influence on us. We think of ourselves as active agents and we decide what we do, we decide when we change our own beliefs, and in fact that’s not even the case.”

Tune in to discover why humans are the herdiest of animals, how to avoid confusing brands for products, and what negativity bias truly means for opportunistic marketers.

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Mark Jones (MJ)

Jeanne-Vida Douglas (JVD)
Tim Ash (TA)

JVD: Tim, welcome to the CMO Show.

TA: Thank you, my pleasure to be here.

JVD: So let’s cut to the chase. What do we use to make decisions? What do we actually base our decisions on?

TA: Well, let’s go back a billion years. Essentially there are three brains now we carry in our heads, and each one is an evolutionary band aid on the one that came before. A billion years ago, we all had this lump at the end of a spine, and that’s our reptilian brain we shared with snakes, with lizards, with dinosaurs, with chickens. It’s essentially there as automatic reflexes to keep us out of trouble and help us survive. Most of us aren’t highly evolved Zen masters so we don’t think of keeping our heart beating while we sleep or breathing and things like that. That’s handled automatically by that part of the brain, it also squirts adrenaline and things like that when danger is upon us. Essentially, it’s auto-pilot survival mode.

Then a couple hundred million years ago, we developed the mammalian part of the brain which added this very important concept of memory and carrying past information around. It wasn’t just automatic, it might be based on what we liked or what we didn’t like, and if there was a strong affinity or aversion, we’d remember that, it had to be memorable.
And then on top of that is this new part of the brain or the neo-cortex, which is especially well developed in people, and that’s there primarily to manage social relationships, our standing in the tribe, update who’s allied with whom and so on. As a by-product of that, we got language, we got the ability to defer gratification, very laboriously reason through complex decisions and so on. Mainly, it’s there for our social tribe and keeping that updated.

JVD: The interesting thing about this is that those impulse-based decisions, the decisions that are basically flight and fight, happen much more quickly than decisions that we actually have to think about, an emotional reaction, whether we like or dislike something, do we have to commit that to memory. They happen more quickly than those rational decisions, do I actually have to think through this process?

TA: Well just to kind of talk about that a little bit, there is actually no such thing as a rational decision. What I mean by that is it’s been shown that this new reasoning part of the brain can help us provide the information, give us more accurate assessments of things, but it doesn’t actually do the deciding. It’s the emotional mammalian mid-brain that does any kind of deciding. So in effect, if you ask someone to choose something, you’ll see that part of the brain light up. Then if you ask them to describe why they chose it, the rational part of the brain comes up with the rationalisation after the fact, it didn’t do the deciding, though.

JVD: So we don’t actually use reason in any way for decision making?

TA: No, I didn’t quite say that, but the decision is made initially by the pre-conscious or subconscious part of the brain, and it only then comes into our consciousness for us to think about it. I know that sounds freaky, but that’s the way it works.

MJ: The reason why I’m laughing is because it’s almost like our brain is playing tricks with us in that context. You think you’re making a decision based on being a clever person, but there’s actually some underlying factors that your brain hasn’t let you in on.

TA: It gets worse than that. Actually what we think of as our sense of self, there’s essentially, and I’m oversimplifying here, the neuroscientists held this down in a lot more detail, but there’s kind of a Trojan horse, a backdoor, which allows other people to essentially shape our belief systems, because again, we’re very highly social animals and we need to cooperate. There’s no such thing as a permanent sense of self, and your environment, and the conditioning propaganda, whatever you want to call it, has a very strong influence on us. But again, we think of ourselves as active agents and we decide what we do, we decide when we change our own beliefs, and in fact that’s not even the case.

MJ: Give us a sense of where this all came from, your passion for the subject. Human decision making is a pretty broad canvas, isn’t it?

TA: It is, I actually attended the University of California San Diego and studied both computer engineering and cognitive science, which was in the psychology department at the time, so you could say that I studied the software and the wetware. [Laughter] I’ve always wanted to combine those, and internet marketing allows you to do that because everything is quantifiable which is great, but there’s also a lot of psychology and neuro marketing in it. It’s a combination of the soft and hard sciences, which I really enjoy.

MJ: So Tim, can I ask, what’s been the big thing that you’ve discovered? Where are you at in your journey on this?

TA: The brain is the last frontier and we’re just now peeling back all of those kind of cognitive biases and shortcuts that our mind makes and bringing that in through the practical work, in our case, of influencing people in marketing, but it’s used for a lot of things like public policy and a lot of other fields as well.

JVD: So how can marketers actually go about applying some of these ideas into the way they construct messages?

TA: Well, the main insight is that right now we’re designing things that are too complicated and require us to use our conscious brains to process them. Those, as we talked about, are easily fatigued, takes a huge laborious effort to make those kind of rational decisions. If I ask you, what’s 14 times 17, you’re going to have to grind it out without a calculator, and yet the rest of your brain, the pre-conscious part, is taking in billions of bits of information about colours and smells and thoughts and your relationship to other people and how your body’s positioned in space and processing that automatically, effortlessly, all day long. The rational part of the brain doesn’t even get woken up most of the time. If we design systems for that rational part and it’s literally asleep 95% of the time, that’s not going to be very effective.

MJ: Sounds like a big vote for user experience.

TA: Yes, and for taking advantage of well-known biases. These aren’t going to work in every situation, and some of them are competing and dependent on the context that we’re in so they’re going to be kind of opposing each other on occasion. Going with what we’ve always done, the default assumption, remembering things at the very beginning and very end of lists, or linear experiences, liking huge contrasts where the choice is obvious, all of those are mental shortcuts that we take every day.

JVD: Can we dig a bit deeper than the mammalian mind then and go into that reptilian brain? One thing that I’ve come across previously and that I’m fascinated by is this idea of negativity bias, which really is the fact that we respond very quickly without even knowing that we’re responding to something that we’re fearful of or something that we find disgusting, or something that is a very negative message, something that inspires fear or disgust.

TA: Yeah.

JVD: I’m wondering from a marketer’s point of view, how you assess the best path to travel when it comes to tapping into these underlying, and as you mentioned before, often conflicting responses.

TA: So one thing to understand is that our needs are very situational, there’s no monolithic person walking around. If I’m hungry, I’ll respond to a fast food restaurant sign. If I’m in a room full of people in tuxedos, I’ll be more inclined to want to buy a Rolls-Royce and so on. It’s very highly situational. Having said that, you’re absolutely right, people respond to pain a lot more than they do to pleasure. Winning the lottery is a lot less immediate or gratifying than not burning my hand on a hot stove. There’s generally considered to be about a two-to-one bias in the negative direction.

So I would say that the mistake that many marketers make is that they ignore that negativity bias and don’t use it. In fact we’ve heard from many clients when we try to make effective online campaigns for them and website experiences that, “Well, that’s off-brand for us. We don’t want to go negative or say mean things, or rub salt into the wound,” when in fact, that’s exactly what they should be doing.

MJ: Yeah, disruption and if you like, challenging messages, they talk about being brave or calling out the obvious negative aspect of your product to get people’s attention. VW’s famous lemon campaign back in the day comes to mind.

JVD: Radical honesty, another one of my favourites.

MJ: What I would like to do is test this idea with you that I’ve been working on, and it’s the concept of a belief moment. Because as we think about the traditional consumer journey, we move from a place of un-belief to belief in a brand or a product, and that can take place if you like throughout the purchase and post-purchase cycle. I’ll use an example, you might have bought a Toyota or something. I didn’t really believe in Toyotas, I thought they weren’t… you might have thought to yourself, “These cars are rubbish,” and then you ended up buying one for whatever reasons. Some months later you’re driving it, and actually these things are really good.

You know, we go through a belief cycle, but there are moments along that journey that really sort of trigger us and push us along that path. The concept is that if you think about the brain, going back to this totality of our brain, when we process stories, the whole entire brain lights up, as opposed to just, you know, small segments of it. Belief moments can actually come about as these stories really engage, and as we really lock into somebody, and that could be a speech, or it could be a video, it could be anything, right? I’m interested in your perspective on that, and maybe how you’ve seen the power of story influencing this belief journey.

TA: There’s a lot there to unpack, so I’m going to try to do it in pieces.

MJ: I did just give you a big mouthful.

TA: Yeah, so the first thing is brands, I think we shouldn’t confuse brands with products. The Toyota, you bought a specific model, you’re driving it, you’re having a hands-on experience with it, but the Toyota brand generally stands for reliability, it’s functional, it’s not super exciting. Whereas if I said Ferrari, you’d have a very different association. That activates excitement, enjoyment, adventure. Whereas if I said Volvo, you’d probably think safety, security, and things like that.

TA: So the example I use is if I say, “The new hot sports coupe from… BMW,” that works. If I say, “Volvo”, it doesn’t work, because one is very, the brand is the frame in which we experience the specific product or offer, it’s the part that’s acting on our unconscious. Even though Volvos actually produce some fantastic sports coupes over the years, no one’s buying them.

JVD: This is why it’s so important I guess for brands to understand how people already conceive of them and where they position them, so they can understand whether or not they’re actually moving people into a new way of thinking about them, or they’re trying to remain in sync with the understanding that already exists.

TA: Yeah, exactly, that’s a really key point you made, which is that the brand promise lives in people’s heads, it’s whatever they believe the brand to be. It’s not, “Oh, let’s have a new logo, and we just repositioned everything by renaming our company.” That’s total bullshit. In some cases, generations of people will have to die to change their perception of your brand, if it’s really a long standing one.

JVD: That’s funny, because every time I think about my own product choices, invariably they’re things that have been suggested to me by my mother.

MJ: I’m interested to know from your perspective, how do we change our beliefs, and what role do marketers play in that? What have you discovered?

TA: I think that Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” came up with this idea of memes many decades ago. He was saying all life, like a gene, at the basic level reproduces, and it has to be able to spread without being modified, right, without distortion, without copying errors, if you will. If you think of ideas that go from mind to mind to mind, a meme is a very similar thing.

500 years ago, the meme was that the world was flat. Now we have a meme that says the world is round. 500 years ago, it was that world was at the centre of the universe, now we know it’s just some insignificant little planet around an insignificant sun around an insignificant galaxy at the edge of whatever, the Big Bang. So memes are also spread and they’re reinforced by common beliefs. The idea of money, for example, relatively new yet it spread all over the world and kind of taken root and taken over. We believe these ideas because they’re reinforced by large groups of people around us, but that doesn’t make them reality. In fact, only 10% of the world’s money is sitting in bank accounts or gold bullion, the rest is by agreement, something we just kind of gloss over and accept as an idea of money.

MJ: This is kind of deep philosophical stuff, but are you suggesting that maybe we’re just operating at too simplistic a level?

TA: Well, I think that the way to think about ideas and changing ideas in people’s heads is largely mediated through the fact that we’re the most social of all animals. Robin Dunbar many years ago came up with the idea that the neocortex, the new brain, is there primarily to manage our close ties or social relationships, and by seeing the size of that new brain in different species, we could predict the size of their typical social groups. For human beings, that number is about 150, we’re the herdiest of all animals. We’re incredibly social, in fact one of the worst things you can do to a human being is put him in solitary confinement or ostracise them or to banish them from the group, that’s akin to death pretty much.

MJ: You’re off the island.

TA: Yeah, exactly. The way that ideas get mediated, again, is by watching and learning the cultural norms of the people around you. If you want to infect somebody with a different belief or a behaviour, you have to essentially make it seem like everybody’s doing it.

JVD: So do we then wrap these kind of rational outcomes that we’re aiming at in a kind of mammalian emotion or in a reptilian response that we’re trying to engage?

TA: Well, I guess it depends on, for example in the US, as you may know, we just had an election.

TA: One of the things that we know about it is it had one of the lowest presidential election turnouts in many decades. This is always something that voter registration drives try to correct, but they say, “Why nobody’s registering to vote, so you should register to vote.” That kind of logic is the rational logic, “Have your voice count, nobody’s registering to vote, you should go correct that problem.” That doesn’t work. In fact, what we need to say, “Why look, the vast majority of people are registering to vote, so you should do it too.” It’s a matter of following the herd and the safety of the herd. So if we want to encourage a behaviour, we want to point out the prevalence of it and amplify it. If we want to discourage a behaviour, we want to show how few people do it.

TA: Having said that, you were talking about this notion of belief moments and how to change…

MJ: Yes.

TA: …behaviour towards a brand, I think that there’s some key things there that we found from behavioural economics, and that is that most of the time we’re on auto-pilot and we will do the habitual default thing, but you can interrupt people. So habit happens more if it’s a well-known thing and we interact with it often. Thinking and straining and trying to – and making a different decision, coming to a different conclusion happens when we deal with infrequent events that are not in our normal context.

So there are interruptible moments, and you’re less – you’re more likely to get someone to change their behaviour if it’s happening in a new situation. If I drive home, I’m going to drive home the same way, and I’m going to tune out most stuff, but if I’m on a trip on a vacation, I’ll look at everything around me because it’s just so fascinating, and I might take an alternative route for that reason, because I notice something else that normally I tune out. The interruptible moments are the ones where people are in an unfamiliar context, and you have a short window to kind of shake them out of their normal default habits in those situations.

JVD: The other fascinating thing about that insight is that we’d focus as marketers often on trigger points around purchase decisions and things like that, but what it actually suggests is that there are kind of trigger phases in people’s lives, moving house, starting a new school, starting a new job.

TA: Yes, that’s when you’re most susceptible, exactly, life events. In the US we have for medical insurance what’s called open enrolment, it happens in two weeks and right around November every year, but they also allow you to change circumstances for life events. You got divorced, you had a medical issue come up, you lost your job, those kinds of maybe not necessarily voluntary times, sometimes they’re voluntary, or involuntary events, those are great opportunities to get people to switch.

JVD: That’s actually a fascinating insight.

MJ: Yeah, and in fact there’s entire industries built around that idea. It’s been a fantastic conversation.

MJ: Okay, well the first one. Let’s get going. What are you grateful for?

TA: I’m grateful that my family is healthy.

JVD: Do you like rain?

TA: No, that’s why I live in San Diego, California.

MJ: In the movie of your life, who would play you?

TA: Well, you know, Brad Pitt, he’s a little taller, but what the hell.

JVD: With a shaved head. What’s your greatest career fail?

TA: My greatest career fail was hanging onto employees too long out of personal loyalty.

MJ: Beach or mountain?

TA: Beach, again I’m in San Diego for a reason.

JVD: Best ever career advice.

TA: Best ever career advice? Don’t listen to other people.

MJ: Summer or winter?

TA: Again, I think summer. All these San Diego default things are there for a reason. I was born in Moscow, I’ve had my share of winters, no thanks.

JVD: Who is your hero?

TA: I think it was my dad. I have a long way to go to live up to what he was able to do.

MJ: If you weren’t a marketer, you’d be a…

TA: Probably some other kind of evangelist, teaching and spreading my idea viruses around.

MJ: Nice.

JVD: Chocolate or strawberry?

TA: That’s a tough one. Can’t decide. Since I have some dark chocolate here with me at the office, I guess I’ll have to go with chocolate.

MJ: What did you have for breakfast?

TA: What did I have for breakfast? Three eggs sunny-side up and a cucumber.

JVD: What would you rather have had?

TA: No, I have what I want, that’s why it’s stocked in my fridge.

MJ: What was the last conversation with your parents?

TA: A couple of days ago with my mum, just to check in on her.

JVD: Scrunch or fold?

TA: Excuse me?

MJ: Scrunch or fold?

TA: I don’t even know what that means, that’s an Aussie-ism.

MJ: It is an Aussie thing, so, you know, handkerchiefs in your pocket.

JVD: It’s actually referring to toilet paper.

MJ: Yeah, I was trying to be polite.

TA: Oh, you use toilet paper?

MJ: Well we’re not…

TA: Why do you think I shake with my right hand?

JVD: I think you just activated my reptilian brain there. If you could change one thing about the marketing industry, what would it be?

TA: I think it’s actually this bias against rational stuff, I wish people would wake up to the neuro marketing side of things.

MJ: Can you ride a bike?

TA: Yes I can, and a skateboard, and a pair of skis.

JVD: What’s your greatest frustration…

MJ: Nice.

JVD: Touch, taste, hearing, sight, or smell, which would you sacrifice to save the rest?

TA: Wow, well we’re so dominant on vision, I’d probably have to do with that. Although I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure in my life from touch.

MJ: Dogs or cats?

TA: Cats, I have two and they’re wonderful members of our family.

JVD: Favourite book.

TA: For fiction, it would have to be Dune, fantastic science-fiction book, and for non-fiction, Sapiens. A very recent read, changed my whole outlook on life.

JVD: An interesting combination there, too.

MJ: If you had to change your name, what would you change it to?

TA: I did, how about we go backwards? I changed it from Timur Alexsandrovic Astarkevicov.

JVD: To Tim Ash, fabulous. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

TA: It’s my pleasure.

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