Secret life of customers

Behavioural science and the not-so-secret life of customers


We live in disruptive times, which can make understanding customers and their behaviours seem particularly problematic. Yet behavioural science reveals that much of consumer behaviour is actually durable and predictable. 

9th Sep 2022

While there appears to be no end in sight to the tumult of the retail landscape, behavioural science reveals that much of consumer behaviour is actually durable and predictable. 

I often tell the story of how I discovered this after many years in market research. Around 2011, I met my now teammate, T. Sigi Hale PhD when he was running a neuroscience lab at UCLA. As we exchanged pleasantries, I introduced myself:

“We help companies figure out what people want, and how to position their products to solve problems in their consumers’ lives. We try to help companies figure out the WHY behind everyday behaviours.”

Sigi responded with: “Really? Companies are interested in that?”

Me: “Yes.”

Sigi: “And they pay money for this understanding?”

Me “YES.”

Sigi: “Well we (neuroscientists) understand why people do things. It’s just a matter of measuring which of the durable, predictable factors is present in a given context.” (like a category of food or beverage, for example).


And while behaviour is relatively well understood in academic circles, it becomes murkier in the context of marketing science – particularly in light of the fact that people are unable to recognise the true causes of even their own behaviours.

After all, if insights professionals listened purely to the narratives consumers provide, we’d believe that all behaviour is measured and rational, and price is the only barrier to purchase. And, even as that’s what research respondents THINK they think, there’s far more which underlies human behaviour.

Not-so-secret after all

So really the ‘secrets’ of consumer behaviour aren’t secrets so much as hidden truths – but truths nonetheless.

The first lesson that behavioural science teaches (neuroscience, to be specific) is the importance of CONTEXT. So often in marketing circles, we ponder “why consumers do or don’t do certain things.” 

Think about the role of context in your own behaviour: imagine someone asking you “why did you eat xyz for dinner?”

  • Are you at home with your family?
  • Are you out with your college friends?
  • Are you on-the-road solo for business?

The point is, the CONTEXT is a crucial element in diagnosing your behaviour, but much of traditional market research overlooks its role.

Back to the contexts of consumer behaviour…

  • Why do people drink cola A vs. B?
  • Why do people eat lunch food for breakfast?
  • Why do people spend $25 to get a $8 cheeseburger delivered?

Pondering these questions in the macro sense is not only vague, it’s also inaccurate to the way in which people actually make decisions. Instead, marketers should consider three specific contexts, which actually line up directly with the way brands and retailers activate insights:

Before they shop

This is all about creating intent. And there are some key insights as to the ways brands and retailers can stand out from the noise within digital media by targeting shopper psychology.

The gist is this: don’t just follow eyeballs; match psychology.

Based on neuroscience, we know that a person will engage with a social medium driven by one of four motivations:

1. To learn and gather knowledge

gather knowledge
2. To connect and relate to peers

Connect to peers

3. To explore and take a ‘mental vacation’

To explore

4. To brag

To brag

If your target audience is on Instagram to BRAG, for example, and your content tries to help them learn or connect, it will fail to attract attention, and therefore certainly fail to influence behaviour. 

The unlock is to evaluate not only WHERE your audience is (after all, that’s pretty simple), but WHY they’re there, and how your brand can help fuel that emotional goal – and earn coveted attention and consideration in the process.

While shopping 

This is the time to trigger purchase by targeting what really drives shopping behaviour ‘between the ears’ in order to dramatically simplify omnichannel strategy.

Every brand and retailer attempts to capture shopper attention and to influence purchase behaviour. But a formula to achieve this remains elusive. 

Once again, neuroscience provides the means by which to focus in-store (bricks) / on-site (ecommerce) activation based on what will capture the brain’s natural attention. And it relates to the two durable means by which consumers shop: mission vs. ambient.

Mission shoppers:

  • Shop with a list.
  • Which they make well ahead of shopping.
  • And favour bricks-and-mortar.

Once their decisions are made and listed, shopping becomes a mission to complete as efficiently as possible. Their ‘mental attention’ is focused on verbal communication – words and numbers as the simple means by which to quickly locate the products / brands in their mission shop, and move on.

Ambient shoppers:

  • Shop without a list.
  • Follow the store plan-o-gram or digital taxonomy to be reminded of what they need, making discoveries along the way.
  • And often show more enthusiasm for ecommerce shopping experiences.

For these shoppers, the decision is in-play all through the point of purchase. They rely on their five senses to identify familiar favorite brands, and make new and exciting discoveries throughout shopping. Since their attention is sensory-forward, words and numbers blend into the background, with shapes, colors, motion, scents, and sounds capturing interest, and translating to purchase behaviour.

To summarise, as you craft your in-shop activation, ponder whether your core audience are ‘thinkers’ or ‘feelers.’

When using

Providing a good product is key. But, particularly in the current inflationary environment, promotions and shopper loyalty programmes can be supercharged to drive dramatic increases in loyalty.

As much as insights pros, brand marketers, and retailers know this, many discussions of late exclude the core truth of consumer behaviour: people don’t buy products; they buy ways to make themselves FEEL BETTER. 

During the Covid lockdowns of 2020 products flew off shelves without the need for promotion (particularly price promotion); c-suites everywhere pondered whether it was a unique ‘reset moment’ for the CPG industry to wean itself from the decades-long convention of heavy promotion.

That rallying cry has faded amidst inflationary pricing pressure, but shrewd managers will recognise that promotional activation remains a key strategic tool at their disposal, and a prime opportunity to differentiate.

Specifically, brands that focus promotions on consumer experience, rather than price dealing, are going to win. It’s a simple equation (and one corroborated by years of longitudinal data from our neuroscience-backed database). Think of it like this: 

  1. Consumers are feeling stress at particularly potent levels (pandemic, inflation, social unrest, etc., etc.).
  2. Everyday consumables brands are simple ways they can exert a bit of control over helping themselves feel better.
  3. Fear of disappointment, and pursuit of worthwhile experiences far outpaces mere price considerations (per our longitudinal database).

Therefore, the role of promotions is not to “race to the bottom” on price, but rather to elevate and amplify worthwhile experiences. 

Sprite’s Live from the Label campaign is a prime example. 


Consumers aren’t in need of ‘cheaper Sprite’; they’re in need of unique experiences that help them feel better. 

Whether before, during, or after shopping, step back and reflect as to whether you’re matching not just the actions, but also the psychology of your audience – and reap the brand-growing benefits throughout your strategic activation.


Hunter Thurman is president of Alpha-Diver, the market research firm that applies neuroscience to more deeply understand marketplace behavior. The firm’s neuroscientists and strategists work with leading brands, retailers and the Wall Street analyst community to explain, measure, and predict consumer behavior. Clients include: McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg’s, among dozens more.


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