business marketing

Business Marketing Psychology: Is Your Message Relevant?

In marketing, we always say that your message needs to be relevant to your intended audience. If it’s not relevant, nobody you want to sell to is even going to watch or read your advertisements, let alone buy from you. Business marketing psychology shows us why.

The New Car Phenomenon

Do you remember the last time you bought a new car? You probably had never noticed the specific make and model that you chose before. But what happened after you drove it off the lot?

You probably started seeing it EVERYWHERE!

What the heck is going on? Why does this happen? It’s called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon—also known as the New Car Phenomenon—and it happens because something that was not relevant to you previously has suddenly become relevant.

The brain receives thousands of stimuli at a given time. It’s one of the greediest organs in the body because it needs lots of energy to function in a useful way (sugar crash, anyone?). It needs glucose. But it can’t use energy for every single stimulus that it encounters or else we’d be nothing more than bowls of jelly on the floor. In order to keep us upright and productive, the brain has developed a mechanism that filters out anything that isn’t relevant. Think of it as the brain’s spam filter.

Here’s what happens.

You buy a new car, and suddenly you see it all the time. Because the make and model you chose is now relevant, you begin to notice it when you see it. These cars didn’t magically pop into existence—they were always there. Your brain just didn’t have any reason to register them.

The same thing happens when you learn new words. You notice these things because you’ve become invested in them, if not financially, then emotionally.

Pretty interesting, right?

Your business marketing psychology needs to be relevant, too.


The New Car Phenomenon actually helped me in my research recently. Because I’m Canadian, anything having to do with Canada or that takes place in Canada is at least a little relevant to me, which is why I took an interest in the following fascinating little piece of information. My spam filter didn’t block this one.

A study conducted in Canada a few years ago looked at the attention span of humans. What the research uncovered was that the human attention span is now down to about eight seconds.

Do you know what the attention span of a goldfish is? Nine seconds.

We have an attention span that is less than that of a goldfish! It’s a little sad, when you think about it (I blame our mobile devices), but when we think about it from a marketing perspective it’s pretty useful.

Let’s think about what the implications are for marketing.

Is Your Business Marketing Psychology Attractive to a Goldfish?

We know that Google will penalize your website if it takes longer than three seconds to load. One-Mississippi-Two-Mississippi-Three-Mississippi, done. Not still loading, it all needs to be there.

How much time now remains to catch the attention of someone browsing your site? Five seconds. If you don’t have engaging content or media, they’re going to click away. How do we know what will keep them on the site?

If you ask them, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you.

You Show Your Audience What They Want

When he was still alive, Steve Jobs said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” A focus group would never in a MILLION years be able to come up with an iPhone. Sometimes we have to innovate and lead our target audience to an idea, something that they never knew they wanted or needed.

And as it turns out, what people want is sort of out of their control.

Business Marketing Psychology and the Subconscious

There’s a wonderful book that I highly recommend by Martin Lindstrom called Buyology. In the book, Martin tries and does a good job of explaining why we buy the things we do—it turns out our shopping habits are predictable. He documents some scientific studies that he carried out that give us some compelling answers to these questions, and one of those studies looked at how effective warning labels on cigarettes were at deterring smokers.

In Canada, if you’re a smoker, when you go to buy a pack of cigarettes, you see not only the little bit of text that warns against the damaging effects of tobacco but also a picture of a diseased, blackened lung or some other disgusting picture.

My first thought when I see one of these pictures? Ewww, gross.

One would think that everyone would have the same reaction, and sure, everyone might say that the picture is not a pretty one, but there seems to be something else going on inside the brain.

The study that Martin writes about in his book looked at how the brain processes these images. Using a functional MRI machine to measure which parts of the brain react to different images, the study was able to show that the warning label pictures were doing the opposite of what they were intended to do. Each participant was hooked up to the MRI and shown a series of photographs, including some advertisements. As can be expected, when shown a picture of someone smoking, the pleasure center lit up.


But what do you think happened when it was time to show the picture of the diseased, black lung? The pleasure center lit up then, as well.

Marketing and the Subconscious

It seems counterintuitive that a logical, smart person would have such a reaction. However, these results demonstrated what we already knew. After these images became mandatory on cigarette packaging, smoking rates didn’t go down. People were still smoking.

Through this study, we now know that the way that about 85 percent of how we react to a given message is subconscious. We’re not only logical beings—we are also emotional beings.

What this means is that some of the things that many people believe about marketing is not true. Sex doesn’t sell. Scent, on the other hand, can be a powerful marketing tool, and here’s why.

You may not realize it, but many large companies use your sense of smell to attract you as a customer. You can probably tell the difference between the smell of Starbucks coffee and another brand. Lowe’s doesn’t actually cut any timber inside their stores, yet it always smells like freshly cut wood. This is branding and marketing at their most primordial, and it’s effective because of the way our brains are built.

Catching Attention and Triggering Emotion

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s idea of the triune brain demonstrates why. In this model, the brain is divided into three sections: the brain stem, the limbic brain, the neocortex.

The neocortex is the decision-making part of the brain. This is where people make their buying decisions. But in order to reach a potential customer’s neocortex without going into the spam filter, your message must first make it past the other two parts of the brain.

The brain stem controls things like our survival instinct and our sense of smell. This is essentially the “gatekeeper” that our marketing message must get past in order to capture the attention of the customer. What companies that use scent branding understand is that the sense of smell is processed through the oldest part of our brain, speaking in terms of evolution. To animals, humans included, certain scents can signal a dangerous or welcoming presence.

The limbic brain controls our emotions. If our marketing message catches the attention of our brain stem, we must then make sure that it triggers an emotional response. Using emotionally charged language and images in attention-grabbing marketing will make sure that your message gets to your customer’s decision-making neocortex.