Brain Atlas: The Loyalty Marketer’s Guide to Gray Matter


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Not all of us have the time to complete four years of medical school and then four more years of neurological residency just to understand how brain architecture influences likelihood to respond to your loyalty marketing initiatives. After interviewing a number of neuroscientists and neuromarketers, as well as spending copious hours poring through Wikipedia, I now know enough to be dangerous. Here’s a brief primer on the structure of your customers’ brains.

Neurons: Neurons, cells in the body that respond to and transmit electrical currents, are the fundamental building blocks of the brain. Neurons pass information to and from other neurons through chemical synapses that form connections between these brain cells. Neurons are classified by their core function: sensory neurons receive and transmit signals from the eyes, ears and other sense organs; motor neurons send and receive signals from the body’s muscles; inter-neurons form connections between these other types. The human brain may have as many as 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses.

Hemispheres: The brain is divided medially into two cerebral hemispheres connected by a mass of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. Although higher brain functions are actually distributed across the entire brain, lateralization of certain functions such as language has led popular psychologists to define the left brain hemisphere as the primary seat of logic and analytical reasoning, while the right brain is the seat of intuition, creativity and emotion. In other words, the left brain responds to hard benefits and the right brain to soft benefits. Could that be why successful loyalty value propositions combine both?

Neocortex: Part of the larger cerebral cortex, this evolutionarily young part of the brain is primarily what separates us from our primate cousins. It houses conscious thought and sensory perception, issues motor commands, conducts spatial reasoning, and enables human language. When marketers talk about self-actualization and personal fulfillment, this is the part of the brain they hope to engage. Without it, the chance to earn those aspirational rewards that appeal to our desire for unique experiences wouldn’t motivate customers to change their behavior. Companies like SalesBrain attempt to design sales messages that bypass neocortical activity and appeal directly to the older limbic system (see below).

Hippocampus: A pair of seahorse-shaped extensions of the older limbic system, the hippocampus seems to play a crucial role in creating long-term memories—those that can be articulated verbally as well as spatial memories such as those that help us remember how to drive home from the office. Neuromarketers look for activity in the hippocampus to tell them that a brand message or commercial will be retained by the subject. The positive, reinforcing brand experiences that accumulate in a customer’s memory, and which form the basis for long-term loyalty, begin here.

Ventral striatum: Located in the cerebral cortex, the ventral striatum is the brain’s equivalent of a drug addict. The striatum’s drug of choice is dopamine, a neural transmitter that floods the region when the brain receives a reward or perceives a novel or intense stimulus. Recent research suggests that dopamine levels are at their highest levels not when a person receives a reward, but rather at the moment of greatest anticipation of the reward to come. Dopamine-blocking experiments, for example, have shown that lack of dopamine doesn’t decrease your pleasure at receiving a reward, but rather decreases your desire to work for it. Loyalty marketers might do well to send communications to members when they near redemption levels—such messages will flood the member’s striatum with dopamine and give her the warm-and-fuzzies for your brand.

Amygdala: Along with the hippocampus, the amygdala forms part of the limbic system—the most ancient part of the human brain and central nervous system. Neuroscientists have closely related the amygdala to fear and loathing responses in human subjects—experiments in which, for instance, subjects are shown pictures of frightened faces elicit strong responses in the region. More recent research has concluded that the amygdala plays a crucial role in forming emotional memories—events that incite a strong emotional response in us are processed and committed to memory here. While the hippocampus helps form memories that can be consciously recalled, the amygdala helps form subconscious memories that are felt primarily through their emotional impact. Whenever the say-do gap in marketing research is present, chances are that this brain region plays a key role.

Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: DLPFC for short, this small area of the cerebral cortex is thought to play a central role in the focusing of the brain’s attention. Given the vast amount of sensory data available to us every second, the brain has to be able to filter out unnecessary information and focus on sensory data that is most immediately relevant or useful, and the DLPFC appears to serve that function in Homo Sapiens. Neuromarketers pay close attention to this area when attempting to measure the engagement level of a test subject as they are exposed to a marketing message. If your email offer or direct mail piece is especially relevant to your customer, then her DLPFC will keep her engaged and increase her likelihood to respond.


  1. Rick

    I am not a neuroscientist either, but I still have around twenty neuroscience books on my bookshelf to help me keep abreast of what little we know about brain function, cognition and human behaviour, and how that influences customers’ experiences.

    May I suggest you take a look at the following for further information about the neurosciences:

    Antonio Damasio
    The Feeling of What Happens
    An accessible description of how we perceive experiences

    Mike Gazzaniga
    Cognitive Neuroscience
    A more difficult text about human perception, cognition and action

    Daniel Kahneman
    2002 Nobel Prize Lecture on Bounded Rationality
    As good a read as any to illustrate the complexity of appling the neurosciences to real human behaviour.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager


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