We humans tend to think we’re inherently logical creatures. We are top of the cognitive food chain after all. But in reality, we’re far from the dialectic powerhouses that we think we are. We feel emotion, we make snap decisions, we make mistakes, and we have regrets.

It’s often the more irrational, impulsive side to our makeup that marketers and salespeople lean on in order to get us to act. But what’s the science behind this behaviour? How do marketing and psychology interact – especially in the B2B space? And is it possible to use psychological marketing in an ethical way?

Lab coats on – let’s explore.

The Reptilian Brain Hypothesis

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean theorised in the 60’s that our brains are “layered” by function. The three layers are:

This triune “reptilian” brain is nestled in the basal ganglia, situated near the centre of the brain, closest to the spinal cord. It’s called the “reptilian” brain because this part of the brain is hypothesized to have developed during the early reptilian stages of our evolution. For completeness, the limbic brain is said to have developed as we neared our mammalian pack animal era, and the neocortex as we progressed towards humanity.

Nowadays, some scientists consider the three-part brain model a bit of an oversimplification, but Maclean’s model of a reptilian triune brain; an animalistic, limbic middle ground; and a neocortex in charge of higher brain function is still considered a close approximation of how our grey matter got to where it is today.

So how does this affect the way we sell things? Let’s investigate.

We Hate Risk

Our reptile brain is all about self-preservation and keeping us safe. Understandably, in doing so, this also makes us psychologically very averse to risk. Therefore, portraying your business as a safe bet is of paramount importance. One of the most fundamental ways of doing this is to build a strong company brand that looks and feels consistent across all touchpoints. Branding is far more than a logo and colour scheme – it encompasses design, tone of voice, graphical and textual themes, use of colour, shape, and form.

Many audiences often greatly appreciate transparency and clarity, so if you’re able to put all of your cards on the table about what a prospective client can expect when working with you, then absolutely do so. Content marketing is a great practice for marketing psychology. By proving your expertise through informative blogs, videos, and so on, you demonstrate your company’s depth of knowledge, proving that you know what you’re talking about. You therefore appear much less of a gamble to prospects.

All in all, the aim here is to appear dependable, experienced, and efficient – as low a risk as possible.

We’re Incredibly Loss-Averse

Our FOMO or “fear of missing out” is much stronger than most of us would like to believe. One of the more common ways of triggering your readers’ FOMO is to offer a limited time price reduction or some kind of element of scarcity. It’s why countdown timers are often used to such great effect by online retailers. Seeing the seconds counting down before our very eyes is a huge psychological trigger!

If you sell something that lends itself to samples, free trials, or free access, this presents a great FOMO-marketing opportunity. According to Psychology for Marketers, when you provide a free trial or sample, people will more readily envisage themselves already owning the product, so therefore closing the sale will seem more of a natural step.

However, my inner ethicist is demanding that I tell you never to outright lie about something’s availability or pricing. There’s nothing I dislike more than corny not-really-slashed pricing and faux scarcity when the thing being sold is actually available at all times for the slashed price anyway. Tactics like these can easily backfire, thoroughly spoiling any trust that the reader has in you. And if they feel particularly duped, they could make a huge PR stink on social media!

We’re Self-Centred

Now we come to one fact that some people are quite uncomfortable with – every one of us is fundamentally egocentric. It sounds awful, but even the most generous of us will instinctively think “what’s in it for me,” especially when we’re being marketed to. It’s all a part of our innate self-preservation instinct. Remember this when putting forward your proposition to the client – “what’s in it for me” will be top billing in your prospect’s mind, even when you’re dealing with the most dry, B2B, “work-related” purchases.

Emotions Control the Purse-Strings – Even When You’re a B2B

In our personal lives, we’ve all bought something that we didn’t really need. A surprising amount of purchases are made on a basis of emotion and feeling rather than pure logic. Advertisers have been taking advantage of this for decades, by highlighting how their product will make us feel rather logically putting forward the tangible benefits that the product provides.

Though my expertise lies more on the B2B side of the marketing divide, B2C brands can teach us volumes about emotional marketing. Take car ads, for example. Many new car models have plenty to boast about like proximity meters, automatic locking, and self-parking features. But when it really comes down to it, a car’s job is to get you from A to B safely. So how do they make one “A to B machine” seem more appealing than another? Ads for more family-orientated models lean on feelings of safety, security, and dependability. Smaller, city car ads highlight fuel efficiency, style, and practicality. Ads for luxury cars feel sleek and sophisticated, focusing on style, sophistication, and high tech features.

The lesson here? Paint a picture for your audience, detailing how much better off they’ll be with your product or service in their professional lives. Just how much more effective, efficient, or simply easier will things become as a result of your solution? Will it save your client time? Provide peace of mind? Enable economising? Streamline operations? All of the above?! Thorough market research will help you to fundamentally understand your prospects’ drive – allowing you to really nail the underlying emotions and rationale behind your average sale.

Real Recognises Real

You’re a real person, right? With your own drives and opinions and eccentricities. And as a team, your company has its own ethos, expertise, and collective personality. At the end of the day, you’re not selling to faceless businesses – you’re trying to appeal to other human beings.

It’s much like that old saying that people always trot out at networking events – “people do business with people”. But away from the business cards and handshakes, I prefer a saying that’s co-opted from hip hop culture “real recognises real”.

Yes, I know, I know… (GIF via GIPHY)

Think of how many B2B brands use a tone of voice that can be described as a homogenised, bland, “professional, yet friendly”. In playing it safe, they all tonally blend into one. But using a warm, vibrant, and personable linguistic personality immediately makes your copy more welcoming and human, and keeps readers hanging on your every word. To give a small example, I often introduce myself in person as a “professional explainer”, often amping it up a little to “Wolverhampton’s primo professional explainer” online, and I’ve always had good feedback about doing so.

When talking about other B2B brands that use a warm, personal, intimate tone that makes you feel like you’re the only person reading, two awesome ladies spring to mind. Brittany Berger’s upbeat, personable copy (and love of a good gif) leaps from every piece of copy she writes. Though Ann Handley’s Total ANNARCHY newsletter is aimed towards those in the B2B marketing space, it always feels like a warm, comfy email from a sweet, business-savvy aunt from across the pond.

Both Ann and Brittany offer a measured, well-communicated, but above all lighthearted-yet-genuine peek behind the B2B curtain. Granted this isn’t going to work for all organisations, but I feel that many SME B2Bs with stuffy, corporate copy could afford to let their hair down a bit.

Open a Curiosity Gap

Some of you reading may have seen the “reptilian brain” part of this blog’s title and clicked through out of curiosity – wondering what our scaly friends have to do with B2B marketing psychology.

When you add an unusual, unexpected, or suspenseful slant in your content’s title, meta description, thumbnail, or any other “preview” content, you open up something termed a “curiosity gap” in the reader’s mind. Clickbait articles are great examples of this, hackish and trite though they may be.

Though these articles bark corny lines at you like “11 penny-pinching tips that the [whatever] industry don’t want you to know – number 7 will shock you!”, they do a great job of raising a huge neon question mark in our minds. We’re wired for completion and closure, so we naturally want to close that loop.

The End Bit

So remember the legacy of our fork-tongued cousins whenever you create marketing materials. Marketing psychology isn’t about being scaly and cold blooded, and more about being empathetic, understanding, and dare I say it, human.

Note: This post was first published on the 19th April 2016 and has since been edited.