Unconscious Branding

How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing

What Costco And The Church Have In Common

Are companies and religions hypnotizing us?

When you think of hypnosis you might imagine a strange man dangling a watch or someone clucking like a chicken on stage to the delight of bemused spectators. But environmental hypnosis is a very real everyday phenomenon. It happens a lot more than you think, like when you’re captivated by a great movie, or even when you’re shopping for groceries or attending Sunday Mass. Costco and historically the Catholic Church have both been massively successful at building loyal followings, in part because the have created environments conducive to hypnotic suggestions.

According to George John Kappas, the director of HMI College of Hypnotherapy, “A hypnotic modality is anything that attempts to control or modify behavior by affecting our belief system.” Therefore, effective efforts at religion, teaching, and even marketing and advertising are by definition hypnotic modalities. The goal of every communication, whether one is being offered the eternal salvation of God or the benefit of using a stronger and more absorbent paper towel, is the acceptance of a suggestion.

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I have I have written a new book called Unconscious Branding, www.unconsciousbranding.com

It explains the many hidden ways in which marketers influence us in seven key steps:

1) Interrupt the Pattern, 2) Create Comfort, 3) Lead the Imagination, 4) Shift the Feeling, 5) Satisfy the Critical Mind, 6) Change the Associations, and 7) Take Action.

Today’s post is about Step 4: Shift the Feeling.

We now know thanks to the work of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio that emotions are actually the substrate of our ability to reason and make decisions. Our conscious rational thought processes are closely integrated and dependent on our unconscious emotional systems. As the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor says, “Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think.”

In other words, our emotions influence our thinking much more than our thinking influences our emotions. We have “free won’t” as opposed to “free will”. We can apply the brakes of rational restraint to resist our emotional impulses. But what happens when your rational “thinking” mind is overloaded. Our seat of conscious cognitive thought, the prefrontal cortex, is metabolically expensive. It is easily taxed because it requires a great deal of energy but has very limited capacity.

So the most important ingredient in the process of environmental hypnosis is overload of feeling and sensory information. We need to be overwhelmed with sensational feelings to gain access to the reactive, unconscious part of the mind. When the conscious mind is preoccupied with information input from the environment, we lose our ability to critically filter the message. We thereby default to the unconscious, which faithfully responds to these emotions in the form of visceral and physical reactions. We don’t choose our emotions. They often choose for us. If you don’t create this deeper level of experience, the message will be dealt with only logically. It will fail to effect the belief system of the subject and thus have little or no effect on behavior.

This critical ingredient, overload of feeling, is what distinguishes the Catholic Church from other religious institutions. During Catholic mass, there is a deluge of emotional and sensory stimulation that moves people toward the goals and visions of the captivating mission of the church.

Let’s deconstruct how the church maximizes the impact on each of the five senses. There is the inundation of entrancing visuals: the full spectrum of colorful light emanating from the stained glass windows, the abundant flickering candles, the intricately elaborate and ornate architecture, and the beautiful artwork. There are ample and pervasive sounds: the colossal bell summoning the congregation to mass, the deep bellow of the organ, the many melodic voices of the choir, the singing of worshippers in unison, the rhythmic chanting of hymns, and the hypnotic cadence of the priest’s patter. There are the tactile and kinesthetic experiences: the repetitive rituals as you shift your body from sitting on the hard, wood seats to standing at attention, to kneeling, to the ceremonial holding of hands. There is the feel of the leather-bound bibles or textured vinyl covers. And the reverberation of the organ throughout the building coalesces the auditory with the kinesthetic. There is the distinct experience of receiving the consecrated elements of the Holy Communion: the taste of the bread and the flavor of the wine, both symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. And there is the olfactory, the smell of the billowing wafts of smoke from the thurible as it swings back and forth, emanating incense throughout the chapel.

It is impossible not to experience this ceremony without succumbing to the feeling of sensory overload, which, of course, is no accident since this is the crucial ingredient to change beliefs. This very real experience overwhelms the limits of the conscious mind, producing the enraptured state that denies the brain access to rational resistance, opening our unconscious and emotional mind to new suggestions, new beliefs, and new behaviors.

Costco, which many may think of as a value-driven rational brand, succeeds where others don’t because they turn shopping trips into real life adventures, or what Senior Vice President of Costco Jeff Long calls “treasure hunts.” The Costco stores induce a trancelike sensory overload, overwhelming customers with the immense square footage of the retail environment, aisles upon aisles of brand variety and bulk product offerings. Costco strategically places popular fresh items in the back of the store and intentionally doesn’t put signs up to show where the products are, forcing shoppers to wander the store instead. This turns the mundane task of product purchase into an exciting expedition of discovery and delight and overload of sensory information. Which is why it is no surprise that not only are Costco shoppers loyal evangelists of the brand they tend to load up their shopping carts with large amounts of merchandise on each of their visits, the so-called Costco effect.

This is not indictment of the church or Costco, simply an observation of one of the reasons they have been so successful. For many people a belief God and the mission of church has helped them lead much more meaningful and fulfilling lives. And Costco has revolutionized retailing by making quality merchandise attainable to the masses. Understanding the ways in which you become influenced simply empowers you to make better choices, so you can choose your own faith or resist the temptation of that five-gallon tub of mayonnaise.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing and applies unconscious behaviorism, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology to business. more...

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