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East meets West: Marketing in multicultural Australia

What gives us our identity is not so much what we look like, as our past experiences. Past experiences accumulate over our lives, one event after another to create our memories that we can think about, replay in our mind’s eye and use as a basis for future decisions.

Evidence for memories as the custodian of our identity comes from a case study of a patient called ‘HM’ (Henry Molaison) that had the part of his brain’s hippocampus removed. The hippocampus is responsible for forming new memories from experiences. As a consequence, each day that passed, HM was less able to recognise himself in the mirror each morning, losing his identity more and more each day. 

Memory of an event don’t exist in isolation in the brain. Think of memory as two bodies of water, each dyed a different colour that meet at a specific point. The meeting point is clear and easy to identify. But soon, the two colours start to coalesce, becoming harder to see where the original meeting point was. The moment a memory is stored it seems colourful and realistic, but soon it mingles past experiences, expectation and the context in which the memory formed.

Context does not only change what we remember, it also influences how different cultures see the world in the first place. Studies by the renowned psychologist Richard Nisbett and others have shown that Westerners and Asians physically see the world differently. When participants’ eye movements are tracked as they look at pictures, the Asian participants tend to focus on the background, whereas Westerners focus on the foreground. Asians also tend to look holistically, for example, when they interpret their environment; what the different elements are in a scene and the relationships between the elements (e.g. ‘cow’ belong to ’grass’ rather than ‘chicken’ because ‘cows eat grass’). Westerners, on the other hand think in terms of categories (e.g. ‘cow’ belong to ’chicken’ rather than ‘grass’ as a cow and a chicken belong to the same category (animal). 


These ways of thinking is fundamental and have far-reaching consequences for how Australian businesses can be affected by culture. Australia finds itself in a unique situation in that it is seen as a developed, Western nation in close physical proximity to Asia markets. More than 1 in every 4 Australians are born overseas, many of which are Asian. In 2013, 20 percent of immigrants to Australia were from Asian descent.

So businesses have to ask themselves: do we only focus on the image of the car to attract customers’ attention, or do we pay more attention to the behaviour and experiences of the other family members as well? Do we consider the effect our decisions will have on our relationships with other employees in other divisions, or do we only focus on the people on whom it has an immediate effect?

However, not all decisions need to take culture into account. Some behaviour are part of ‘human universals’ – behaviour that holds over any culture all over the world. For example, when two different groups of people are asked whether they prefer to remove features on a car (reducing costs) or to add features on a basic model (increasing price), all participants, irrespective of culture, end with more features when they start with the high number of features than when they add features.

Culture is not simply an add-on to behaviour. People act and think the way they do first and foremost because of the societies they live in.



Nisbett, R., 2004. The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently… and why. Simon and Schuster.

Barden, P.P., 2013. Decoded: The science behind why we buy. John Wiley & Sons.

Schacter, D.L., 2002. The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Two Breakthroughs to watch in neuroscience

Optogenetics as the next frontier?

Astonishing inventions over the years have been seen by neuroscience over the years. From fMRI, PET and TMS and many more, they have transformed the way we came to understand the brain and its functioning.  The brain and mind has been called “the last frontier”. And there is so much more to know – because, even though scientists know what the brain consists of (nerve cells or ‘neurons’ and glia – which provide support functions for neurons), scientists do not yet know how they are all wired together. It’s little wonder, as there are about 86 billion neurons, each with about 10 000 connections. The possible neural connections is believed to be larger than the number of people in the universe!



To shed ‘light’ on this immense task in understanding the brain’s wiring diagram, Sir Francis Crick (the discoverer of the DNA molecule) expressed interest in the idea that light could be the answer.  In 2015, Karl Deissterof was awarded the Breakthrough Prize for his work on optogenetics.

Optogenetics work like this: scientists genetically modify neurons by injecting them with a virus that are specifically encoded with genes that are light-sensitive, so that the [ion] channels on the neurons that control the flow of electrons through the neurons – and therefore their functioning – open and close in response to light. Think about this: when red light for example is shone onto a neuron, it fires; but when it’s blue or green light, then nothing happens.

Last year (2015), scientists where able to combine optogenetics and fMRI (called ofMRI), to verify that the firing of local excitatory neurons is fully sufficient to trigger the complex signals detected by fMRI

Scientists were also able to excite dopamine (pleasure) neurons in the mouse brain. This research is highly relevant to illnesses related to pleasure/reward, such as depression.

Through optogenetic research, scientists showed that specific neurons together with other cells modulate a type of brain wave known as a gamma wave. Those waves in turn enhance the flow of information through cortical circuits.

The more scientist learn about the brain’s wiring diagram – or connectome – the more old theories will be confirmed or refuted and new discoveries will be made. I’d say the future is bright in this one…


To read more about optogenetics, click here

Plain Cigarette Packaging vs Branded Packaging: Can You Smell the Difference?

The South African Government is currently preparing a Draft Bill that will introduce plain packaging for all cigarette brands.  This means restricted use of brand images, promotions and logos.

Selling cigarettes is becoming increasingly difficult throughout the world as governments become convinced that smoking is associated with a variety of diseases, including heart disease, strokes and blindness.

The Neuro Against Smoking (NAS) research study, of which NMASA represented South African, aimed at investigating people’s implicit attitudes towards smoking. That is, what smokers’ subconscious attitudes were towards smoking. 


What are the consequences of plain packaging?

Apart from likely drops in profit due to less people lighting up a cigarette (which is what the government wants), for smokers it will be harder to distinguish between two or more competing brands. But surely one smoker should be able to ‘sniff out’ a Dunhill from a Gunston?

As Phil Barden mentions in Decoded, brands frame our expectations. That is, we experience what we expect to experience – because the brand provides the context that tells us as consumers what to expect. Perception is not only about neurons firing together to give us an experience, it is also our expectations that determine our experiences. If it’s expensive, it tastes better. If it’s Brand x, it will be better than Brand y.

Researchers are all too familiar with people’s expectations. In many research studies, people are given a normal sugar pill precisely to compare people’s expectations of what they think they are taking with the real McCoy.


Anyway, it remains to be seen which competing brand customer will light up next to.

System 2: Make Sure Thinking is Hard

In the previous post, I wrote about System 1 thinking and, when it is engaged (for example, because of repeated exposure, being in a good mood, etc.) marketing messages are more likely to feel true!

System 2, on the other hand is the opposite.  Whenever we deliberately think of something (such as calculating 18 x 124), we engage system 2.  It takes a lot of effort on the part of the brain to pay attention and do the necessary mental calculations.

Reducing customer effort for better customer service is a great idea. When customers know exactly where they can get the right application form, how to fill it out, where to send it when they have finished and who is taking ownership of the claim or query on the other line ensures that customers think about the whole process as little as possible.

But …

System 2 (i.e. mental effort) is also a great idea in the correct environment.

Many years ago researchers recruited students and asked them to solve puzzles that have been written in clear font, and those in a greyed-out font. Those that saw the puzzle clearly made more mistakes than those who saw the puzzles in the greyed-out condition.

System 2 is a tool to use because it required more effort. If you want consumers to pay attention to what you are saying, you should make it difficult for them. Some companies install their billboards upside or reverse the text. Not only is it a novel idea that engages potential customers (until everybody starts doing it), but it creates a memorable experience that cuts through the mass of advertising clutter.

System 1: Make Sure Thinking is Easy

If you have been following the other articles on our site, you might have picked up a theme: you have two minds inside your brain. This is fascinating, and has far-reaching consequences for neuromarketing. It influences the way context affects decisions.


The minds are called System 1 and System 2. System 1 thinking is fast, relies on intuition and runs on ‘autopilot’ without us having to think about it. Most of what we do depends on System 1, because we are not aware of most of what we do. System 2, on the other hand, is slow, deliberative and takes a lot of effort. Here, I will focus on System 1. (System 2 will be covered in the next post.)

What causes System 1 to be engaged?

  • Repeating information many times over
  • Clear display (bold text versus non-bold text)
  • Priming an idea
  • Being in a good mood


The consequences are even more interesting. Doing any of the above will lead to information feeling more familiar; names or information will feel as though it is more true (even if they are not at all true); it feels good (emotionally), and will feel effortless.


Sometimes marketers would want System 1 to be engaged, because we want consumers to process information faster and with less effort so as to pay attention and not lose interest. How can System 1 thinking be engaged?

  • Emphasising text by making important phrases bold or with a different colour


  • Repeating repeating a specific fact that is core to the company over and over will make consumers slowly ‘give in’ to the idea that it is, in fact, true. This idea also links with what is known as ‘ego depletion’; the fact that the more a person is asked to do something, the more likely they are to give in to the idea, because will power ‘strains’ under the constant pressure to say ‘no’.


  • Marketing on/ just before weekends, when consumers are more likely to be in a good mood and more likely believe what the company promotional material communicates


  • Text that rhyme is more easily processed that text that does not rhyme, because it is more easily processed by the brain and remembered. This is why companies that advertise their name or a telephone number in a rhyme is more easily remembered.


  • Even high-quality paper also plays a role. I think metaphors also play a role here, because the heavier an object is that we’re holding, the more weight (importance) we attach to it


* Did you spot the repeated ‘repeating’ word? Of course you did!

A NEW Year for NEWromarketing (neuromarketing)

Well hello 2016! May this be a year filled with high dopamine levels (expectations), happiness (serotonin), social alliances (oxytocin) and a numbing of physical pain (endorphins). This is the second year of NMASA’s existence and we hope that you will share it with us.


Some of the things that we look forward to as we look into crystal ball nr. 2016:


  1. Blog posts. Your conversations keeps the neuromarketing industry on its toes and the debates flowing.


  1. Seminars/workshops/conferences. We are exploring the possibility of bringing our members and people of industry together so that the collaboration between industry leaders and our members can join the international conversation.


  1. NMSBA Conference. The NMSBA (the world ‘body’ for neuromarketing is holding their annual conference in Dubai in April this year. Every year there are major advances made in terms of research methods, software developments and cost reductions for hardware. The most important findings are shared at the conference.


Our memberships are steadily rising and we value your inputs and interest in neuromarketing!


Throughout last year we received a number of enquiries about potential careers in neuromarketing. The NMSBA has written a great article outlining what to study to start a career in neuromarketing and what to do to get yourself on the right track if you already started in that direction. Also keep a lookout on our ‘careers in neuromarketing’ page.

May your your rational/emotional decisions give you endless delight for a life worth living this year



Summary of the 2015 Blog Posts

Since this is the last NMASA blog post for the first year of NMASA, I have thought it best to make a short summary of the blog posts.

I have emphasised over many posts the integrated role the body, brain and the environment play in influencing consumer decisions. In the post on free will I mentioned that all humans are born with knowledge already in their brains. The Bouba-Kiki phenomenon is evidence of this. The reason is (partly) because ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ from the moment a person is born. This results in one sense being able to be experienced in terms of another (e.g. we tend to say sunlight is louder than moonlight; sight influences sound). This ‘one thing in terms of another’ is also what metaphors are: talking of one thing in terms of another. We often talk as if Money is a River (e.g. cash flow; liquidity; throwing money in the water, etc.). The post Life as Art or Science explains more about metaphors, and how we experience life as a metaphor itself. Metaphors have many, many far-reaching implications for marketing, especially considering embodied cognition (the state of the body influences how we think). Campbell’s Soup gives a good example, whereby they showed a steaming pot on the packaging of one of their soup products. This made the soup seem hotter, even though it was obviously still the same temperature.

In the post on What consumers should be thinking about, I discussed habits, and how important it is for marketing. In another I mentioned how habits are the foundation of a sustainable exercise routine. The exact same principles can be applied to marketing. When consumers visit a website, they should know, intuitively where on the website they can find what. They should not have to think about it, since habits form part of the subconscious. Thinking should be reserved for other more engaging tasks, such as thinking about what type, size or model of product they want.

I hope that 2016 will be a prosperous year for you. There are exciting times ahead for neuromarketing with rapid improvements on many fronts in terms of the technology functionality and cost-effectiveness.


Remember to follow NMASA on Facebook and Twitter (@_nmasa)!

How Media Shapes Consumer Perception

The Texas Sharpshooter fallacy I first read about in You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. It tells the joke of a sharpshooter that shoots a couple of holes into a barn, finds some holes close to each other and then draws a bull’s eye around it. I do not know of a better example of how to explain the tendency we have to see ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ in reverse order. The shooter didn’t draw the bull’s eye and then shoot into the bull’s eye, but instead did it the other way around.

Just yesterday I saw an example of this on news channel CNN. It was a story about the scandals that have plagued sport in recent months, referring to the alleged FIFA corruption scandal and the Russian doping allegations. Apart from appearing close to each other in time and both part of the sport industry, the two event have more or less nothing in common with each other.

This tendency to connect events together in time or place after the fact also has another knock-on effect…

This tendency to connect events together in time or place after the fact also has another knock-on effect on how we perceive the world: the availability heuristic. Because you have just seen the two events connected to each other in time or place, it is now more available to think about (compared to other events) and hence create the perception in your mind that (in this example) doping in sport is more prevalent than it really is. The times where two holes (events) in a barn could not be connected together is simply not reported about.

This has implications for reputation management in organisations. Just as there was no possible link between Russian doping in athletics and corruption in soccer but was connected together by mutual ‘scandals’ and ‘sport’, a company that has had an untainted reputation for years, might be in the firing line when two of its competitors have done something wrong.  Consumers might label a whole category of products as better or worse depending on recent events in the media or experiences with similar products. For research, a knowledge of these past experiences can play a big difference in making accurate inferences.


Physics as a Window into Consumer Behaviour

(If you prefer to skip the physics, please skip to ‘Where Psychology Fits In”)

For decades and decades, physicists have struggled with a problem: unifying two fundamental laws of nature. The physical laws that govern the world of everyday matter (that we can see, for example, balls, houses and cats) and the word of the really small (atoms and even smaller particles). The eminent scientist Isaac Newton’s laws says that if you know where, for example, a ball’s location  is in space at a specific time (now, for example), and you know how fast it is travelling, you can know exactly where it will end up at some time in the future. If I know a ball is travelling at 5 kilometers per hour due south, then I can predict exactly where it will end up… and when it will arrive. Not so with the laws of the very small. If you know the location of a photon (the smallest particle light is made of), you cannot precisely calculate its speed. Similarly, if you know its speed, you cannot precisely determine its location. Very strange, but this has phenomenon has been shown to be true over and over again.

Imagine something really small such as a fly, and imagine something really large, such as a human being. How is it that a fly can climb walls gracefully and with little effort, while it takes superhuman strength for us to walk up a hill?

Well it turns out, there are advantages to be small and other advantages to be really ‘large’ as we humans are. The fly can take advantage of the electromagnetic force* to stick to seemingly smooth surfaces, whereas with larger objects the electromagnetic force is too small to have an effect. Gram for gram, an insect can pick up many times its body weight**. Also, insects can also fall from far greater heights than us human without injuring themselves, because their small mass reduces the force with which they hit the ground***.

The downside to being small is that your surface area increases exponentially relative to your volume. This means that the fly loses its body heat much faster than we as humans do. A Shrew, a tiny small mole-like mammal creature, has a heart beat at around  1511 beats/min, beating itself to death in just two years****. Smaller animals also have to eat a large percentage of their body weight just to maintain their body temperature. For the Hummingbird this is more than their own body weight every single day!


Where Psychology Fits in

Just as physics have different laws for the small and for the large, there are different ‘laws’ governing individuals than people as part of a social group. In isolation, people can take initiative and consistently meet deadlines. Whereas when they are in a group, they can fall prey to groupthink and social loafing. To conform to a group becomes the easy default option.  

In 1951 Solomon Asch showed the presence of conformity what is now seen as a classic experiment in social psychology. Asch showed participants three lines of varying length (see the figure below








The respondents had to say, out loud, which line is the most like the line on the left. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of them were actually associates of the experimenter, and deliberately gave wrong answers. 32% of the participants gave the same (clearly wrong) answer as the confederates…

Understanding the context within which behaviour takes place is crucial to make the right inferences

Understanding the context within which behaviour takes place is crucial to make the right inferences In isolation, people are often loss averse. We see losses as far greater than a gain of the same amount. But on the stock market with many thousands of people exhibiting their own, unique behaviour, those that are loss averse and those that are not more or less cancel each other out.

In the hospitality industry this dichotomy of individual/social behaviour is particularly interesting. The experimental psychologist Brian Wansink has shown that people eat around 27% more in the presence of other people than when they dine alone.

Understanding the context within which behaviour takes place is crucial to make the right inferences for behaviour. If you want to determine possible reasons for why a consumer behaved in a specific way, start with, for example, social influences (such as groupthink or social loafing). Then, look at the context (do consumers have a need for security because of fear in the environment? the need for  comfort? Or recognition (status)? Or just a good experience?). Finally, assume some past experiences (associations) by consumers that might trigger certain stereotypes, beliefs or attitudes. All these factors, while all having an influence on behaviour, do not all carry the same weight in different contexts. There are many more factors that can influence behaviour. At the very least it is crucial to understand that within a different context, different factors have different effects on consumers.

*You can demonstrate this by licking your finger and sticking a piece of paper to it

**A Rinoceros beetle can lift up to 850 times their own body weight

***As the surface area of an object doubles, the mass increases by eight times

****As things get bigger, they tend to live longer





Putting the Spotlight on Consumers

It never ceases to amaze me how little we know about the world (but also, how much we know more than, say, 50 years ago). We are still at the point where the more we know, the less we really know….


…and what we can see…

central vision makes up a mere 0.000001127% of all the energy and matter in the universe

A couple of years ago, scientists managed to capture the first light of the universe 380 000 years after the Big Bang by means of a spacecraft called WMAP . The problem is that if you reverse engineer the data that was captured, then it seems that only 4.9% of all matter  in the universe is visible matter. In other words, 95.1% of all matter in the universe science cannot explain (made up of dark matter and dark energy). Scientists have, however, known for many years that all all matter radiate different wavelengths of light (a.k.a. electromagnetism), which make up, for example, X-rays, Ultraviolet rays (e.g. from the sun), microwaves, radio waves etc. that they put on a spectrum, known as the electromagnetic spectrum. On a (logarithmic) scale of frequency, visible light is  just 2.3% of the whole electromagnetic spectrum. The image below from Wikipedia explains it quite nicely (click to enlarge):

Electromagnetic NMASA

Source: Wikipedia














Given that central vision is of the eye is 1/1000th of the whole visual field, is evident that we see very little. Then, at any given time, your central vision makes up a mere 0.000001127% of all the energy and matter in the universe!

In a previous article, I mentioned the ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment, where a person in a gorilla suit walks past basketball players in plain sight. Only a couple of participants who saw the video noticed the change – when they should all have noticed the change.


As consumers wonder around isles in retails stores or browse websites for something to buy, they will not see everything on a web page – not even the objects they look at! Central vision is more focused on high light conditions, whereas peripheral vision is better at picking up movement on the periphery (this is why flickering banner ads on websites are so distracting) and very low light conditions. If an error message flashes on the top of a screen while a user is busy filling out a form, the user will probably not notice, unless the page plays an audible sound or the message shakes visibly, or changes colour. Central/peripheral vision is good for a few things, but not everything all at once!

We are not only ‘blind’ physically, but can also be psychologically blind. Bandwidth is the term psychologists use to describe the availability of mental resources a person has at a given time. When something is scarce such as income, you become preoccupied with it, rather than focus on other things such as your health or your children that might require more attention. Eldar Sharif and  Sendhil Mullainathan, the two psychologist who studies this phenomenon of how scarcity influences how people make decisions,  also wrote a brilliant book about their findings. Their research has far-reaching implications for marketing.

Retail stores should make it easier for the low-income  customer segment to decide which products to buy by promoting, for example, bundled purchases (e.g. chopped mixed veggies for a stir fry), or ready-to-cook dinners with a starch, veg and meat in a single packet. In this way the focus is taken away from unhealthy foods and attention can be focused on other priorities.

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