Working with the Lazy Brain

Working with the Lazy Brain

It’s easy to overestimate the work ethic of the brain. Sure, it’s capable of doing some amazing things – but, mostly, it would rather watch cat videos.

The brain has a built-in tendency to avoid wasting energy because the brain burns glucose like there’s no tomorrow. When you’re doing nothing – just lying on the couch, breathing, digesting, and keeping a steady temperature, the brain accounts for about 20% of the energy being consumed. But when the brain really fires up, it’s shovelling glucose into the furnace at an alarming rate.

It’s been reported that elite chess players (some serious thinkers) burn as much as 6000 calories a day – just sitting there – playing games! And that’s an interesting rabbit hole to do down if you’re interested in the brain – or chess.

https://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/27593253/why-grandmasters-magnus-carlsen-fabiano-caruana-lose-weight-playing-chess

To avoid massive energy waste, the brain picks its battles. It will burn the energy if it must. But, if it knows a shortcut, it will take the quicker route every time. This preference for energy conservation works in conjunction with the need for speed. A shortcut will give a “best guess” answer with lightning speed. With a little more input and a little more thought, the brain can confirm it was a good guess or make some modification.

From a marketing point of view, it’s important to understand that the brain is no workaholic. Complicated messaging that prosecutes logical argument could be a waste of time and effort, not to mention money.  But finding the right “shortcut” can not only convey the desired message but achieve other key functions, like cut-through and stickability, as well.

Photo courtesy: Quora

A simple “shortcut” example is the widespread use of blue colours and graphics of icy mountains to convey the natural purity of bottled water. Another is displaying a product, including the non-blue bottled water, on a background of green plants and a fresh mountain stream to convey the product’s environmental friendliness. Abuse of this technique, labelled greenwashing, became so popular for a while it was overdone and backfired with the negative publicity.

If the message is the most critical part of marketing, a more complex shortcut can secure the other two crucial elements for advertising – cut-through and stickability. While the brain loves novelty it also loves familiarity. The safety of the known and familiar can avoid triggering a threat response when a sales pitch is made. A shortcut that can bring all these values together might become the centrepiece of a highly effective marketing campaign.

Where do we find these more complex shortcuts? My favourite shortcut source is what I call the POCK, or Pool of Common Knowledge. In that pool are every movie, TV show, comic strip character, proverb, and internet meme that you and most of the rest of the population have ever seen.  Choosing the right piece of common knowledge is just a matter of identifying the right message (conveying the primary benefit) and searching for a related piece of common knowledge.

Photo courtesy Nabilla Riverlink Estate

For instance, when Nabilla Riverlink Estate was selling its large blocks of land, the primary benefit was the enormous space, enabling the flexibility to build any type or size of house desired, as well as room for a pool and a large shed. This matched perfectly with the old saying about a large room being “big enough to swing a cat”. That piece of common knowledge gained cut-through and stickability with a picture of a fat ginger cat sitting on a child’s swing. The image of a cat on a swing became a shortcut for the estate itself and the Nabilla became known in the community as the Swing a Cat Estate. At all times, the shortcut was reinforcing the key benefit, without making the brain do all the work of piecing together a paragraph of advertising text. That allowed the brain to go back to watching cat videos – including the one about the large blocks of land.

NOTE: The fat old cat on the swing, called Meggs, was the hardest working cat in town, selling almost 500 blocks of land.


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