Giveology: Does neuromarketing research have anything to teach nonprofits?

buycaptureI just got around to reading Buyology by Martin Lindstrom (one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2008) and although it’s aimed at peddlers of consumer goods and services, it’s a fascinating (if chilling) read. Mostly because it reveals how our buying decisions are manipulated by marketing techniques that reach us unconsciously—in ways we don’t see or understand.

I’m not talking about anything as straightforward as advertising. Scientists have now done enough research on the human brain to provide marketers with much less obvious ways of triggering a purchase. Armed with results of the largest neuromarketing study ever done—which this book summarizes—they can reach us before the rational part of our brains even kicks in.

I tried to get past my discomfort about the insidious way that marketers are using this new research to build brands and sell more, winnowing out a few insights that might be useful to nonprofits. Giveology, rather than buyology.

The eyes don’t have it (all)

Visual stimulation—while still very powerful—is only one path to getting people’s attention and helping them remember you. And that path is getting less powerful due to the saturation of visual stimuli in our lives. For a long time, marketers have relied on grabbing people by the eyes, but this new research shows that grabbing them by the ears or nose or fingertips is just as effective. More and more brand marketers are abandoning their obsession with logos and engaging in what the author calls “sensory branding.” That means playing to all the senses in order to cut through the clutter of experience and create memorable brands people feel passionate about.

Nonprofits don’t sell products, but we’re still trying to create a unique and rewarding experience for our supporters. Maybe we should try harder to appeal to all the senses in our communications work, not just the eyes. For instance, we could use audio more (podcasts), combine audio with visual more frequently (double whammy, and there’s certainly no shortage of tools out there), or write more vivid sensory descriptions in our copy. Think about how this might apply to special events, direct mail, even fund-raising premiums. Try to provide more than eye-candy.

I remember you wore red

Related to this is the importance of color. Research shows that color can increase brand recognition by up to 80%. When someone makes a subconscious judgment about an environment, a person, or a product within 90 seconds—60-80% of that assessment is based on color alone.

If first impressions depend so heavily on color, it’s probably worth it for nonprofits to more thoroughly explore the colors you’re going to use in your lobby and office spaces as well as in your print and electronic communications. Marlboro (not a role model!) has transformed entire bars into subliminal advertising through the use of red and white, and shapes that echo their packaging—no logo in site. OK, OK—no foundation or nonprofit is going to do that. But if color is this influential, it’s worth thinking about how and where it’s used, especially as part of an organizational identity. Information about the emotional meanings of color is available on the Web. For instance, here’s a primer about the emotional meaning of colors in Web design.

Me wanting what you have

One part of the book is devoted to mirror neurons, a part of the brain that often makes us unconsciously want to have what others have and imitate what they experience…despite ourselves. One example given is how we all thought Croc shoes were ugly when they first came out. But after seeing them on everyone else, lots of us have changed our “minds” about that and bought a pair.

If mirror neurons rule, then maybe the nonprofit sector should do a more compelling job of portraying the  passion of their supporters. Not just staid donor profiles, but fresh first-person storytelling that makes others want to experience the same joy of giving back. Show, don’t tell. Let supporters say it in their own words and their own way. This is where Facebook and other social media could make important contributions. Maybe we need to think of ideas in the same way— more exciting wOOts for practitioners who are succeeding with innovations that nonprofits or foundations would like to bring to scale. Might as well aim those mirror neurons at human behaviors that promote the common good rather than the common goods.

Rituals r us

One research finding was unexpected—that the human brain perceives strong brands in almost the same way it perceives strong religions–with the same passionate loyalty. In a fast-moving, unpreditable world, humans cling to things that make them feel in control. Rituals fulfill that need; they’re familiar and stable. They give us a sense of belonging, and have even been shown to have a positive effect on emotional health. Lindstrom cites examples of consumer brands that have built in rituals that make them stickier than other brands (a lime wedge in the neck of a Corona bottle; the slow pour of a Guinness, etc.)

It’s interesting to think about rituals in terms of the nonprofit sector. Are there ways we can better meet the human need for familiarity, stability, and belonging through our organizational practices and communications products? One area that may hold some potential is donor cultivation and relationship building. Are there other ways to use simple rituals to good effect—staff meetings, board meetings, special events, interactions with beneficiaries of our work?

If all of this seems far-fetched, it may be. But it’s also the future of consumer marketing—based on scientific research. It doesn’t hurt to contemplate ways that neuromarketing research might be used to help strengthen the nonprofit sector.

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3 Responses to “Giveology: Does neuromarketing research have anything to teach nonprofits?”

  1. Luise Says:

    This is a great article with interesting thoughts about the ways that marketing subconsciously affects us. I often think about buying decisions I’ve made, and how they could have been influenced by outside factors. It’s surprising to trace back the trigger to certain behaviors when you give it some thought!

    I also couldn’t agree more that this kind of marketing can and should be used more for the nonprofit sector. After all, our marketers and communicators are every bit as competent and creative as those in for-profits! Still, it’s important to stay on the path of offering meaningful information, products or services to audiences that we’ve researched carefully. The difference between charitable organizations and corporations, is that we truly shouldn’t have to manipulate our constituents to get what we want!

  2. doug Says:

    Very interesting article. I for one have succumed to the ritualistic lime wedge in my Corona. There is of course the question of morality in such marketing methods but it all comes down to, how well do you “really” know your customers/donors. To ignore what motivates them to buy (or donate) could be considered ignoring what they really want. And isn’t that what it’s all about anyway.


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