How to make more people care about what you do by hacking the brain

A woman in her fifties is walking past her favourite gelateria and decides to buy two big scoops of strawberry ice cream, when she realises that they only have vanilla.

After walking over to the store next door, vanilla is all she can find in the ice cream section. And further down the street the nice man with the ice cream cart happily tells her vanilla is the only flavour he’s selling now. What is going on?

Imagine if you were only allowed vanilla ice cream for the rest of your life. Forget about chocolate, pistachio and chocolate chip. You can get how many scoops you like – every single one of them will taste vanilla. Your interest in ice cream would probably decrease. Sure, vanilla lovers would be in heaven, but the majority would be moderately interested in ice cream after a while.

Vanilla is Index 100 in the ice cream world. Always available as a reference value for all other flavours, a standard. Being the ice cream norm makes it unengaging. We are not very fond of the neutral – the neutral is not exciting. Few would argue that their absolute dream car is a Honda. Or think Billy’s bookshelf is the best-looking piece of furniture available.

What makes us engaged?

Feelings have always been the secret sauce of engagement – we need to feel to care. Most marketers and click bate news outlets are talking about sensations and emotions in every second sentence. But the truth is: engagement doesn’t have to come from conscious feelings. We can game a large part of how someone feels about something by understanding the brain.

While part of how we think about the world is a conscious or semi-conscious thought process – “she was nice” or “cute dog” would probably both fall into this category – a lot of how the mental processes about how we perceive the world is unconscious. Also, our brain is sluggish. We are taking every single shortcut we can find, saving lots of energy over time. 

One of the shortcuts we are using to understand the world is associations. 

Concepts with shared attributes activate partly the same parts of our brains, and therefore we unconsciously link them together. This concept is called “networks of association”. Since I’m not a neuroscientist (and we don’t have all day), I won’t try to explain this further. Instead, you should read some of Drew Westen’s work in political psychology to get more insight.

The important things to understand before you keep reading are:

  1. Our brain works partly by associating things with one another
  2. This is an unconscious process

Why are networks of associations relevant in marketing?

Getting people to feel used to be about making them upset or happy or sad. Now you might start to realise there’s another very effective way. You can make your audience feel in line with your goals without them even knowing – only because of how you package your message. If you create your message with the brain in mind, you can piggyback on neuroscience to get people engaged.

Packaging a message is more than just the wrapping paper (even though everyone knows that the outside is at least as important as the inside when it comes to gifts) on a pair of socks or the big white box that arrives from Net-A-Porter. It includes everything from the colour on your dress at an important meeting to product names. Packaging is everything that makes you perceive something a certain way.

  • Compare how you feel about the environment with your reactions towards the air we breathe and the water we drink. Any difference?
  • Or compare your thoughts about the unemployed with your thoughts about the people who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Any difference?

The two cases above are good examples of how the packaging of “the same” message or idea can differ significantly in how it makes us feel.

To get the outcome you want, you need to actively control the associations you activate in the brains of your audience. And this isn’t just about pairing things with known positives. Some things that you might think are neutral objects have positive associations, and others have negative.

The nine most common associations to “immigrants”, when tested among Americans*, consists of five positive and four negative connections:

  • + Opportunity
  • + Better Life
  • + Nation of Immigrants
  • + Hard Working
  • + American Dream
  • – Law Breakers
  • – Government Benefits
  • – Don’t speak English
  • – Don’t pay taxes

*Westen & Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner, 2008 Handbook for Progressive Messaging

Some cases where the network of association matter

The fact that someone named “network neutrality” and tried to get people excited is, therefore, a little bit sad. Few people will be enthusiastic by the neutral. When we talk about network neutrality, the patterns activated in our neural networks are very similar to when we are talking about vanilla ice cream or a boring car. It’s the same with something like gay rights, no one gets excited by “rights”.

Instead, some brilliant packing of activism is the concept of “pro-life” created by the American conservatives. The term “pro-life” activates the same, or similar, neural networks in our brains as when we think about positive stuff. This activation has nothing to do with our feelings towards abortion (yet), but because the term “pro-life” creates positive associations in our brains. Few sane human beings want to be “anti-life”. (Therefore, the opponents have started to rebrand this group as “anti-choice” or “anti-free choice”).

The packaging above becomes even more interesting because the groups that are pro-life are also the groups advocating weapons – a tool commonly used to end lives. Instead, they are using freedom as their main argument. Because who wants to be against freedom?

Being pro-life and pro-gun are positions are rhetorically incompatible, something American conservatives ignore. The naming is purely communicative, and most Americans don’t give this a single thought.

Republicans are brilliant at packing politics in a way that makes people’s minds instinctively feel the way they want. Did you know that Obama Care and The Affordable Care Act are the same? The first name is the packaging by the Republicans (to make sure people don’t fancy it), and the other one is the “correct” name. Interestingly, politicians talk very little about what this initiative could be about: “a family doctor for everyone”.

There are two lessons to learn in this – one about net-neutrality and one about engagement.

Lesson 1. When we talk about network neutrality, we must stop talking about the importance of a neutral internet, and start talking about the importance of the free internet. Because that is the core idea in net-neutrality. (Your internet service provider should not be allowed to choose which traffic is prioritised, or charge different rates on traffic to different websites.)

Lesson 2. What we call things do matter. This statement is not just about good copywriting – it’s about good brainwashing. You impact someone’s feelings towards an object or idea purely by how you name it you will undoubtedly have an advantage when people then start to think about what you are saying.

If you want to get people excited, don’t talk about it with vanilla ice-cream language. If your goal is to make people angry, name it and talk about it in words that are close to anger in the neural networks of the audience. The same goes for happiness, fear and every other feeling.

How do you find out what the networks of your audience look like?

I usually start by looking at social media behaviour. Tweets, Instagram hashtags, Reddit content and Facebook groups are a variety of sources to mine. If I’m lucky, I can add focus groups to the mix, having the opportunity to listen to people talk about a topic uncovers a lot of the underlying emotions and associations.

The next step is trial and error. Always spend time analysing the results from your messaging. Did people react as you intended? What was the response? Do this over and over again, and you will become a messaging machine.

And once again. This is about so much more than good copywriting. Although a copywriter with analytical skill will probably have an advantage.


Don’t serve vanilla. And if vanilla is the only ice-cream you’ve got, at least add some topping.