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Unpicking a marketing maze: we talk to neuro-marketing master Max Wiggins about what our brains seek

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

Modern digital marketing has become a bit of a jungle. The question is: what cuts through those overgrown roots competing for our attention?

Understood. caught up with Max Wiggins - Neuroscience Researcher and innovation lead at VERJ, the hub of behavioural science at LAB Group - to discuss what truly resonates with us, and the importance of feeling understood in the sprawl of the digital universe.

- Hi Max - what can the human mind tell us about our online experiences?

From what we know about Neuroscience and Psychology, most of the decisions we make in life are based on unconscious factors – ones we have no realisation of.

However, people then come up with conscious post-hoc articulations for whatever reason they may be unconsciously attracted to something. In reality, it’s probably based on a number of unconscious reasons that aren’t taken into account by the individual at all.

For example: when you’re drawn to different products on an online search, you may pick an item and think “I like this because…I really need this new pair of running shorts because it’s getting towards running season”.

I think the benefit of understanding the human mind in relation to a digital experience is that it affords one a greater awareness of what might be sticky or attractive at that unconscious level of the digital market.

- So, what is it we humans naturally attend to when exploring the digital universe?

Generally, we’re attracted to things that are salient to us as individuals, things we identify with and understand. Extremely relevant content is the most engaging.

As a result, in the digital experience, personalised information and content is highly desired. If it’s hyper-personalised and matches the traits and characteristics of its audience, people are much more likely to engage with it. It’s fresh, it stands out to people on an individual level.

It can be hard to design a brand or advert that appeals to everyone but there are certain things you can do. Utilising the preference of self-referencing is one. I saw a great example of this on the tube advertising once; a large pink oster by Open University read “if you’re standing here, you could be studying here.

It’s a false logic principle because of course it applies to everyone that’s there to scan it. But it plants the idea by referencing the individual. It was found that this simple campaign led to an increase in 110,000 new enquiries.

Super-personalised content is the way forward. More and more, there’s a wrestle for digital attention and there’s so many ads and info. It’s going to be increasingly important to cut through the noise and have fresh, clean stimuli, more white space. In the future that’s the stuff that’s going to stand out. More content that makes you think a bit. Fresh, novel. Not just something bombarding you with information that overloads your attention.

- Is it important to feel understood as an individual when interacting with the digital marketing world?

100%. The aim of everything that research and insight companies do is to understand the customer as clearly as possible. If you understand them as clearly as possible, you can understand people’s drives, motivations, beliefs, narratives of thought - and as a result you can provide them with a digital experience that best addresses their needs.

If you do that, you can help them get from A to B as quickly and easily as possible. This leads to an increase in brand affinity because you’re helping people get what they want. You’re helping them get the products they want and as a result it becomes a more complete experience for each individual.

- What kind of visual and verbal language resonates with us as consumers?

There are a few principals that come to mind. Vibrant, bright colours are obviously more attractive than muted tones. Human imagery is particularly powerful at conveying emotion and making you feel emotion.

We know from research on mirror neuron system that if we see someone smile, we start to feel happy ourselves, on a neurological level. When we see someone cry, we undoubtedly tend to feel sad, too.

From a verbal or written point of view, it depends a lot on what industry you’re in, and what type of audience you have. With written or verbal content, it’s important to think about VAK: Visual, Audio and Kinaesthetic. You want to try and target all of them. It means you can say things in three ways; “I see what you did there”, “I hear what you’re saying” or “I feel like I understand you” are a VAK way of saying the same thing. Trying to match that to your audience is important because people tend to have a preference. It often pertains to learning style and which you use more easily to pick things up, though you can obviously switch between.

A good test is asking someone what their office is like. Whether it’s “gorgeous views with big windows”, “bustling with people running about everywhere” or “it’s lovely - you can hear the birds”, their answer may hint towards their natural attendance.

- Can neuroscience tell us anything about the future of digital branding?

Neuroscience tells us why, at a biological level, we do the things we do, and what we’re attracted to. Psychology can explain what influences those decisions.

Thinking about the future of digital, I believe it’ll be based more around psychological and sociological factors. It’s all about cultural change and what’s happening in the current zeitgeist. Recently, we had the rise of social media and then more recently amazon prime and now tik-tok; where you can immeditely gratified whether it's by a constant stream of video content or next-day delivery. Instagram introduced reels where you can continuously watch ten-second clips. I think the current generation and the current experiences are changing towards an ever-more immediate, quickfire form of content. It can be seen in marketing styles and website styles everywhere.

However, when something reaches a threshold, it tends to revert and rebel, recede in the opposite direction. There’ll be a fight for more space, a cleaner experience because we’re overloaded with information. There’s an ever-increasing competition over the senses in the digital world. Companies may start to tone that down in the future.

In general, you want to avoid what’s known as choice paralysis. From a psychological point of view, we know that a choice from one of a possible five is easier and makes a consumer happier than a choice of one from twenty-seven. It’s the paradox of choice, one to bear in mind for the future. There could be a revolutionary shift that goes against our instant-content culture. It’s important to comprehend the current Zeitgeist and truly understand what people are thinking and feeling - particularly in this moment – about the world. How can that be communicated back to a worldwide audience?

Everyone has the ability now to produce a website and make them look great, but it’ll be the considered, comprehending, thoughts and ideas of creative design that win in the long run. It’s a lot more competitive now than it ever has been and that’s why personalised interactions are so key. They can provide that edge and take the strain off the customer’s strenuous search for something like-minded.

Max Wiggins is the Innovation and Research lead at VERJ: the hub of behavioural science at LAB Group, reshaping and optimising approaches to the digital world with research, strategy, and human-centred creativity.

To find out more about LAB, visit their website at for more information.



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