Who's in Charge Here?

We live most of our lives believing that, generally, our decisions determine our actions. However according to current brain research, it's actually the other way around. This recent understanding of our brain helps illuminate both marketing's oldest tricks and Transom's current approach to branding.

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Monkey on a boar
Illustration by Vincent Bachmann

It's happened to all of us. You open the fridge to find a healthy snack, and minutes later you're polishing off the ice cream. Most of us chalk it up to poor willpower, but the idea that we don't control our actions as much as we think—indeed that in many cases our actions actually precede our decisions—has been gaining traction in the scientific community.

More and more studies are showing that our habits, emotions, and even level of physical comfort influence our decision-making to a significant degree—much greater degree than we're generally aware of. We then invent reasons why we made this decision or that, even though 'we' may have had little to do with it. As the legendary pitch man Robin Wight says "what we are in fact is not rational creatures, but rationalizing creatures."

It’s not unlike a monkey perched on the back of a wild boar. The boar goes left, and the monkey thinks to itself “I went left because the path was smoother” except, it was actually the boar following the smell of some delicious mushrooms. Sometimes, the monkey may be able to influence the boar, but usually the boar goes where it wants. In fact much of the time, the monkey isn't even aware of the decisions the boar is making (see The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg for an examination of how habits shape nearly every corner of our lives).

The causal role of conscious thought has been vastly overrated, and what we are in fact is not rational creatures, but rationalizing creatures.

—Robin Wight

What does this have to do with Branding & Marketing?

Marketers have instinctively known what was really in charge of our buying decisions for some time. The girl in the bikini doesn't make the car go faster, but she does help it sell. Savvy marketers understand that stories which resonate with our instincts and emotions (See: The Power of Myth) are more powerful than stories full of facts and logic because they’re stories that speak directly to the boar.

The next time you write a marketing email, advertise an event, or write a product description, try taking the facts out of the equation. They are important, but they're not what our emotions care about. Instead determine what is the primary emotional offer you're making to the customer, and work outward from there. If you do it right, the monkey will think it was all their idea.

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