The Neuroscience to Standing Out

The Neuroscience to Standing Out


The human attention—the ability to selectively concentrate on a discrete aspect of a current experience and the brain’s process of allocating resources to a certain stimuli—is limited. You can only really have 100% of your customers’ attention on a specific experience at one moment… One. Golden. Moment. Their perception, similarly, can only take a finite amount of information so much so that the human perceptual system constantly searches for meaning, structure, and interpretation in the data and environment you take in. With a limited conscious attention, humans constantly and unconsciously search for patterns in their environment. But how is this pattern-seeking orientation accomplished? That’s what you’re about to find out.

Since people can only take small amounts of information that’s given at the moment, the rest is assumed. Assuming divides sensory processing to two divergent streams. First is bottom-up processing, starting at the sensory input. When you spot a yellow cab right by the curb in the bustling city of New York, all the information about what you’re seeing in the moment is carried from the retina all the way to the brain’s visual cortex. In other words, bottom-up processing only processes the stimulus as it is — the way you see it. But what happens in the moment when you know you see the yellow cab, but it’s in between traffic so you’re not seeing the vehicle in its entirety? That’s where the other stream, top-down processing, comes into action. Top-down processing is perception driven by your ability to fill in the gaps without the need for conscious reasoning. It’s how you seek patterns. When you recognize the yellow cab in the midst of all the traffic, your brain applies what it already knows, what it expects to perceive, and voila, you fill in the gaps of what you see. Top-down processing is the coherent structure you associate the world with. Chairs, desks and cars are gravitated to the ground - this is a perception you've statistically learned because of the environment you’ve been exposed to all your life, therefore, there’s no need for you to process this bottom-up.

The secret to peacocking aka standing out and eliciting emotionally salient and memorable experiences for your customers is based on one obvious yet underrated premise: You surprise them.

The power of surprises has been undeniable, so much so that it has become a subscription-based e-commerce that startups have leveraged throughout the years. A perfect example of the surprise box model is BarkBox, a $20-a month subscription founded in 2011 that sends you thoughtfully curated box of toys, treats, and accessories for your best dog friend in the world. As of 2016, BarkBox has successful acquired more than 200,000 subscribers and generated $40 million in sales.

Other ways to surprise your customers: Zag when your competitors zig, and zag because unpredictability leads to stronger rewards.

REI, a co-operative dedicated to outdoor gear and outdoor-oriented vacations, started the #OptOutside: Will You Go Out With Me? campaign in 2015 with the belief that a “life outdoors is a life well-lived.” To make a dent in the crowded retail market and get people outside, REI violated every current and potential customer’s expectation by deciding to close on America’s biggest shopping day, Black Friday. After many features on the news, #OptOutside started trending in minutes. REI’s social media mentions rose 7,000% and earned over 6.7 billion PR impression in 24 hours. The responses were favorable and affirmative. Together with hundreds of State Parks opening their gates for free, more than 1.4 million people and 170 organizations chose to #OptOutside and follow REI’s lead to spend their day outdoors. Starting a tradition that’s as novel as this is a promising way to boost your brand association with your core value. For REI, it’s more than just an association to rebelling against America’s obsession with shopping on Black Friday. It’s choosing life outdoors.

Zag because unexpected events drive learning and engagement.

TransferWise, a London-based fintech startup known for its no-nonsense approach in money transfers and bank’s astronomical fees, shook the world of international finance. To emphasize that banks are exploiting people by charging huge hidden fees, educate potential customers, and engage current advocates, TransferWise did the unthinkable: it got real honest by being naked...literally. Over 100 protesters in London got naked to celebrate the end of hidden banks, because TransferWise got #Nothing2Hide. The spirit of celebrating TransferWise’s transparency has spread to New York City, where they got naked too.

What BarkBox, REI, and TransferWise have in common is their ability to use surprise to amplify what customers are feeling. Novelty is crack for the brain. Marketers creating content for advertising ask, what should we say in this TV, radio, print, online ad? while neuro-marketers ask what do our customers expect and how can we use that expectation to surprise?

Feed Your Brain

15Center founders Matt Johnson, PhD and Prince Ghuman are co-authors of Allure: The Neuroscience of Consumerism. To get early access, sign up here.

Together, they teach individuals and businesses how to ethically apply neuroscience to marketing via neuromarketing bootcamps to uncover consumer blind spots and help brands better engage with their customers. Get your ticket here.