The Surprising Thing That Helps You Sell


As a marketer, one of the most frequently asked questions I get are "how can I sell more?" My answer is "first, tell me how they buy." (It's not usually well received.)

Most people (that includes you and me!) make about 10,000 decisions a day with a significant percentage being buying decisions. (Don't believe me? Try not to buy anything for 2 days.) We're led to believe that decision making is a rational process and that emotion hinders the process of sound judgment. A philosopher way ahead of his time (Spock, Star Trek) once said, "Discard emotion. Acquire logic." Logic, of course, leads us to the best choices and the best solutions.  But what really goes on when we (and other consumers like us) are making decisions?

To find out, you have to look deep into your consumer's eyes, beyond their retina and into their orbitofrontal cortex. Thanks to Antoine Bechara, neuroscience expert and Professor at USC, we know that this orbitofrontal cortext is the region of our brain active in the decision-making process - a region that's completely separate from the emotion-ridden limbic system. Think of reason and emotion as two horses pulling a chariot in opposite directions (thanks, Plato.). But then, Bechara and his colleague, Antonio Damasio (also a Professor at USC), met Elliot. And everything changed.


Who's Elliot? Elliot is a well-paid accountant at a very successful corporation. He's happily married, an active member of his church, lives in a beautiful house in the suburbs. All in all, he's the epitome of the American Dream come to life - smart and successful. That is, until, doctors find a knot in his brain. The tumor is located in the orbitofrontal cortex and even though it's benign, it's growth will eventually compress brain tissue and prove fatal. Luckily, the doctors catch it in time and surgically remove the tumor as well as the damaged tissue surrounding it.

Elliot recovers seamlessly, acing all the post-op assessments, even scoring 97th percentile on the IQ test. He continues to be in the top 3% of people with the highest IQ. He returns to life as usual... to his work, to his wife. But soon, things begin falling apart. Elliot is fired, his wife files for divorce, he remarries but that also ends in divorce. He starts a business but not only does it fail, it leaves him in debt. Elliot soon loses his house. Even Elliot's friends have trouble finding the smart and successful man they once knew in this new Elliot. He's been replaced by a lone man struggling to pay his bills.

Baffled, doctors try to figure out what is happening to this once high functioning individual. His memory, perceptual, learning, language and mathematical abilities all appear intact. And then, conversation after conversation with Elliot and his friends, Damasio realizes two very strange things.

1. Elliot is almost robotic. He has no emotions. Whether he's chatting about the weather or his divorce, he remains stoic and completely unaffected. 

2. Elliot has trouble making simple decisions. He analyzes and analyzes every single aspect and tiniest detail, spending hours and hours until he reaches a final conclusion on whether to sign a contract with a blue pen or a black pen... or which cereal to buy... or what song to listen to. When deciding what to eat for lunch, Elliot carefully considers each restaurant's menu, seating and lighting, and then actually drives to each one to see how busy it is. And he still can't decide!

What is going on?

In a special place within the orbitofrontal cortex, neurons fire up and connect with the limbic system (this the emotional region). When it comes time to make a decision, neurons take the feelings from the limbic system and integrate them with the decision-making processes in the orbitofrontal cortex (the logic region). When the damaged tissue in Elliot's brain was removed, this connection went with it. 

Elliot's case uncovered a huge finding. A brain that can't feel can't make up it's mind. This discovery opened up a whole new field of study that impacts everything from neuroscience to economics to psychology. Today, the influential role of emotion in consumer decision-making behavior is well-documented.


Elliot's case isn't the only one that highlights the powerful role emotions play in marketing and growth. Below is a list of 4 vital discoveries that show us why brands need to pay attention to consumer emotions to grow:

  • fMRI images of the brain show that when evaluating brands, consumers primarily use personal feelings and experiences rather than data.
  • research shows that emotional response to an ad has far greater influence on a consumer’s intent to purchase than an ad’s content – by a factor of 3-to-1 for television commercials and 2-to-1 for print ads.
  • Advertising Research Foundation concluded that the emotion of “likeability” is the measure most predictive of whether an ad will increase a brand’s sales.
  • studies reveal that positive emotions associated with a brand have far more influence on consumer loyalty than other judgments based on a brand’s attributes.


The key to the consumer's wallet isn't in their rationale, but, rather, in their emotions. To sell, you have to move people, to connect with their emotions, to build a relationship.

And up next, we'll cover just that: what it takes to move people...