It’s been emotional: how emotions – and brands – are vital in making decisions

A bewilderment of cheeses

Image copyright K.Kendall

One of the things I find most infuriating in life is when people can’t make a decision. Many people I know, faced with a choice of what product to buy, for example, or what car to drive, seem to spend inordinate amounts of time gathering information, comparing reviews, weighing up pros and cons and seeking advice. And then still can’t decide once and for all which way to go.

So it was interesting to read of a case history in Cordelia Fine’s book, A Mind of its Own, of a man who really couldn’t make any decisions at all. Referred to as EVR, his decision-making was so bad that it actually tested his marriage to the limit. He wouldn’t just read reviews of restaurants, he would ‘begin with an exhaustive discussion of each restaurant’s seating plan, details of its menu, its atmosphere and management. Then ….drive-by inspections to see how busy each restaurant was.’ And even after all this, EVR couldn’t make a decision.

In EVR’s case, however, this behaviour was due the fact that his pre-frontal cortex had been damaged by a brain tumour. The pre-frontal cortex is the bit of the brain that regulates our emotions, and as the case of EVR shows, is vital in helping us make decisions. EVR’s powers of rational thought hadn’t been damaged at all by the tumour – but his emotional responses to the rational information were not functioning properly, and that prevented him from plumping for one restaurant over the other.

What this case shows us is how, in a crowded marketplace, brands can help nudge customers towards particular buying decisions. As discussed in a previous post, we may think that we are completely rational beings, always making decisions based on the best possible information, but in fact our emotions play a highly significant part in our decision making, from what to have for lunch to what car to buy.  And brands are particularly powerful in tapping into that emotional response.

Brands are all about how we feel about a product or company, rather than the particular rational attributes of that product. Cordelia Fine goes on to discuss how people form hunches about outcomes of gambling games and modify their behaviour accordingly, long before their rational mind has fully analysed the patterns it’s seeing. The business of brand building seeks to influence decisions at that hunch stage, long before the rational brain kicks in. That’s why we reach for the leading brand of cereal or yogurt, even though we know, deep down, that the supermarket own-brand tastes just the same. It’s why we find shopping in foreign countries so tiring and time-consuming, because we can’t rely on our emotional responses to brands to guide us to the products we want, but have to make a rational, information-based decision about every item. (Or we gravitate to the products that seem familiar – there’s a reason why Walkers crisps, despite being called Lays outside the UK, have strikingly similar packaging the world over.)

Your product might be the best on the market, from a rational point of view. It might have world-beating features and beat the competition into a cocked hat. But you need to engage with your customers’ emotional side, as well as their rational one, if you want to swing the majority of their buying decisions your way.