Marketing to the brain’s rational mode


What percentage of cars produced in the United States currently come with a manual gearshift? About 1 percent. It is logical. Why think if you don’t have to? This mindset is not unique to the automotive industry. It is directly analogous to how the brain works with regard to decision making.

The brain doesn’t want to think unless it has to make a decision. Unlike cars, humans have situations where we have to stop and ponder our steps in manual mode. Neuroscientist Daniel Kahneman called the manual mode System 2. It is paramount for marketers to understand System 2, its impact on consumer behavior and how to calibrate tactics accordingly.

Most of the time, the brain prefers to go with the flow. So it continues in automatic mode, which Kahneman calls System 1. System 1 is the fast, intuitive way to make decisions, the exact opposite of System 2.

But there are times when it is necessary to use the mental energy to take over manual control, and that is where System 2 is needed. It happens in real life all the time. Take this scenario for example. Let’s say you grew up speaking only one language, English, and you find yourself traveling to a non-English speaking country. Imagine meeting a local person who asks you something in their native language. The first few times you will automatically respond in English. Even if you are fluent in other languages, for the first few instances, the first response will probably be in English before you adjust over time.

This is because your brain prefers System 1 and is reluctant to switch to System 2. As a result, you have to pause, proactively decide to think deeply about something, and not just “go with the flow”. In other words, your System 1 should be overwritten by your slow and deliberate System 2.

Switching to System 2 isn’t as easy as it sounds. The switch isn’t automatic; it has to be done manually. You literally have to fend off the impulse to go along with System 1’s response. You have to fight the instinct to speak in your native language. Exercising control is like a salmon swimming upstream. Everything pushes you towards System 1, and you force yourself to go against it. Impulsive decision making is a result of System 1, and your armor against impulses is System 2.

For consumers, of course, certain purchases require analysis and thoughtful thought. This is where marketers need to optimize for System 2. In general, System 2 helps with purchases of large tickets or complex products that require multiple buy-ins. Think of shopping for auto insurance, a new home, office space, a cloud service for your employees, a new account software or CRM for your business. No one ever signs a $3 million SalesForce contract on a whim. As marketers, the first step is to review your products. Evaluate which of your products could be a System 2 product.

Then evaluate the communication around said products. Does the communication speak with the reactive, fast and emotional System 1? Or does the communication speak to the rational, deliberate and logical System 2? It should be the last. The goal of System 2 products is to bring them to market by slowing down the consumer. Therefore, marketing tactics must provide objective reasons to justify the purchase. Typical forms of System 2 marketing include white papers, reviews, testimonials, case studies, etc.

Unlike a car’s stick-shift transmission, marketers can’t get out of a manual mode. Instead, they must speak the language of logic, reason, and analysis to bring the consumer to a purchase.


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