Leon Alexander, president of Eurisko
Leon Alexander, president of Eurisko

More businesses, marketers, advertisers and retailers have gotten far craftier, savvier and even more sinister. Today, thanks to all the sophisticated technologies they have at their disposal and the new research in the fields of consumer behavior, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, companies know much more about what makes us tick.

In my previous blogs on “How Consumers Think,” we focused on the way consumers think when they are visiting our salons. With that knowledge, this article is focused on how marketers use that knowledge to get us to buy their products or services. 

They scan our brains and uncover our deepest subconscious fears, dreams, vulnerabilities and desires. They mine the digital footprint we leave behind each time we swipe a loyalty card at the drugstore, charge something with a credit card or view a product online, and then they use the information to target us with offers tailored to our unique psychological profiles. They hijack information from our own computers, cell phones and even Facebook profiles and run it through sophisticated algorithms to predict who we are and what we might buy.

They know more than they ever have before about what inspires us, scares us, soothes us, seduces us, alleviates our guilt or makes us feel less alone and more connected to the scattered tribe. What makes us feel more confident, more beloved, more secure, more nostalgic, more spiritually fulfilled. And, they know far more about how to use all this information to obscure the truth, manipulate our minds and persuade us to buy.

The minute we’re born, we may already be biologically programmed to like the sounds and music we’re exposed to in utero. Shrewd marketers have begun to cook up all kinds of ways to capitalize on this. A few years ago, a major Asian shopping mall chain realized that since pregnant women spend a great deal of time shopping, the potential for ‘priming’ these women was significant. Pregnancy, after all, is one of the most primal emotional periods in a woman’s life. Between the hormonal changes and the nervous anticipation of brining another life into the world, it’s also one of the times that women are most vulnerable to suggestion. So, the shopping mall chain began experimenting with the unconscious power with smell and sounds. First, it began spraying Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder in every area of the mall where clothing was sold. Then, it infused the fragrance of cherry across areas of the mall where people could buy food or beverages. Then, it started playing soothing music from the era when these women were born in order to evoke positive memories from their own childhoods.

Not only were sales boosted, but to everyone’s surprise, a year later it had another far more unexpected result. The chain began to be inundated by letters from mothers attesting to the spellbinding effect the shopping center had on their now newborns. It turns out the moment they entered the mall, the babies calmed down.

Fear is a Powerful Emotion!

Counterintuitive though it sounds, there is a real biological basis behind our attraction to fear. Fear raises our adrenalin, creating that primal, instinctual (fight or flight) response. This, in turn, release epinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that produces, as many “adrenalin junkies” will attest to, a deeply satisfying sensation.

Our brains are hardwired to fear potential threats. We come into the world knowing how to be afraid, because our brains have evolved to deal with nature.  Fear is far more powerful than reason. It evolved to deal with nature. Fear is far more powerful than reason. It evolved as a mechanism to protect us from life-threatening situations. The fear centers are situated in the most ‘ancient’ (evolutionary) section of our brain, know as the reptilian brain, which goes back to when vertebrates were primarily in the oceans and were likely to survive if they had the neural capacities to evade “the bigger fish” sooner than their companions did.

When a threat is perceived, the body goes into automatic mode, redirecting blood to certain parts of the body and away from the brain. The respiratory response also decreases blood supply to the brain, literally making a person unable to think clearly. In other words, the loss of blood to a person’s brain can make him or her stupid, literally.

Most of us are scared about the economy, of losing our jobs, and of defaulting on our mortgages. We’re scared that our spouse or partner might leave us. We’re scared of loneliness and having no friends. We’re scared of sexual inadequacy. Of getting cancer. Of getting old and breaking a hip. Of death. We’re scared of driving and we’re scared of flying. We’re scared of terrorists and of global warming. We’re scared of the dark.

It’s these seemingly infinite fears, some planted in our minds by marketers and advertisers, others merely amplified by them, that drives us to buy triple moisturizing cream, teeth whitening strips and multi-vitamins. Not to mention gym membership and organic food and bottled water and humidifiers.


When we buy a morning paper, we bypass the one directly on top of the stack. Instead we pull out the one directly underneath it. Why? Because we imagine that the second one hasn’t been manhandled by fingertips with germs and is cleaner. When women visit the ladies room at a restaurant or store, only 5 percent enter the first stall. Why? Because they believe it’s less clean than the second or third one.

The point is that the illusion of cleanliness or freshness is a subtle but powerful persuader and marketers know it. It is tied to our universal fear of germs, which ties into our innate fear of disease and illness.

Does any of this make us healthier? No, not really. But it does make us less afraid of getting sick.

It all goes back to dopamine.

So how does a shopping addiction start? It all goes back to dopamine, that feel-good neurotransmitter our brain’s limbic system spurts our to give us a “high” or “rush” so pleasurable that we can’t help but repeat the behavior as soon as dopamine drops back to normal levels. The more we experience the object or behavior, of our addition, the greater the tolerance we build up, meaning we need more and more of the substance or the behavior to get back that dopamine high.

We have become addicted to our smartphones. When we receive a new e-mail or text, our brains release a shot of dopamine, and thus we learn to associate that pleasurable feeling with the act of checking our phones.

Hooked on Brands

How do we get hooked on brands? It happens in two stages. The first is known as the routine stage. This is when we use certain brands or products as part of our daily habits or rituals. The second stage is known as the dream stage, where we buy things not because we need them but because we allowed emotional signals about them to penetrate our brains. It’s usually when we have let our guard down, over the weekend, on a vacation. When the weekend approaches, we shed our routines like an unwanted skin and become more susceptible to the dream stage.

A habit formed in the dream stage, and then the habit is reinforced and permanently embedded in the routine stage, at which time we are unconsciously longing for the dream stage feelings we left behind at the beach or at the spa.

We all know a person that has to have her Starbucks in the morning before she can function. Not just any coffee, it has to be Starbucks. Or maybe you are the person!

We as consumers act in much the same way as birds and termites. We are wired with a collective consciousness in that we size up what those around us are doing and modify our own actions and behaviors accordingly.

Humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals. It takes a mere five percent of informed individuals to influence the direction of the crowd. The other 95 percent of us trail along without even being aware of it.

The beauty industry has evolved in technique, design, and business acumen. We will take a giant leap if we do what successful marketers outside our industry do before launching a new brand or service. They study the consumer and market to their emotions, needs and fears. If we emulate their proven practices, we will fulfill both a consumer need and create a seriously profitable retail business that complements our service business. Both fall under one umbrella, formulating “The Ultimate Consumer Location.”


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