How The Brain Makes A Purchase Decision


There’s a secret to very good marketing. It’s a thread that combines all exceptional marketing campaigns, from pureblooded email marketing through to true omnichannel marketing masterpieces: the purchase formula.

Good marketing helps communicate whether or not a product is right for the end consumer in a way the brain understands. 

A little bit of insight into the neuroscience around how we make those decisions can go a long way to helping you create your own marketing masterpieces; so let’s take a look at how the brain makes a purchase decision, what the purchase formula looks like, and what that means for your email automation.  

How the brain makes a purchase decision 

The brain uses a purchase formula to decide whether or not to buy a product or service – it’s a very specific process that you can watch if you have your own fMRI scanner at home… 

If you don’t have an fMRI scanner in the front room, not to worry. The lovely Professor Brian Knutson and his colleagues at Stanford university did it all for you!  They ran fascinating experiments into how the brain makes a purchase decision. 

Whilst people lay in the neural imaging scanner, the psychologists showed them a picture of a product, then the price of the product, and then asked them whether or not they would buy.  

The results gave us phenomenal insight into how the brain chooses to buy.

When participants saw a product they might like to purchase, the reward centres of the brain lit up like a Christmas tree. Behaviourally, this makes sense, you see something you want to buy – your brain emulates having that, and you get a nice little hormonal boost that triggers your “yes, I’d like that”. 

But the fun really happened when the brain saw the price of the product. 

Most psychologists expected that the logic centres would be activated- the prefrontal cortex and areas that are responsible for making those sound logical decisions us humans like to pride ourselves in. If you’re following along with Antonio Demasio and his work with logic and emotion – then you might have expected some emotion center activation too.

Neither of these things happened. 

Instead, the pain centres of the brain were activated. Literally the part of the brain that deals with physical or emotional trauma… Things like stubbing your toe (physical trauma) or losing a loved one (emotional trauma). 

Why reward and pain? There is no “purchase” section to the brain.  Essentially we evolved to survive, not buy stuff – especially not online. To get by in a modern world the brain hacks itself every day to get things done. It uses processes and systems that were never intended to be utilised for these things. 

Our learnings didn’t stop there though. 

Looking at the relative levels of activation, the amount of reward activation vs the amount of pain activation, researchers were able to predict whether or not that person would buy that product before the person had even decided whether they were going to buy.

And it’s this insight right here that led to the discovery of the purchase formula: 

                            Net Value = Reward – Pain

Without getting all crazy and mathematical, the likelihood of your consumer purchasing is influenced by how much reward activation your consumers have about your product or service in relation to the amount of pain activation the price gives them. 

The researchers also found two things: 

  1. The Net value must be positive

    The reward value must outweigh the pain value
  2. The Net value must be high

    There must be a much higher reward activation to pain activation.

Here-in lies problem 1 – as businesses we tend to focus on price – making that seem as enticing as possible. We want to soften the blow around the money being spent. But this is the area we don’t have a huge amount of control over. While the pain activation can be reduced, we can’t get rid of it entirely.  

In fact “comfortingly expensive” is a quantifiable factor that helps *increase* the amount of reward activation. 

Instead, the area we have so much more potential to impact, and the one thing that we can do to increase our conversion rates – is to increase the reward activation that your prospects have in relation to your products and services.

And this right here is where your email comes into play. 

Why email works so very well in helping the brain

To skew the purchase formula in our favour we need to increase the value of your brand and your products to your audience.

This activation isn’t something that happens in one touch at an arbitrary point along the customer’s journey. This works best when it’s sustained and drip-fed over time. It’s precisely why content marketing works so well. 

Adding value and educating your audience over time is called nurture. It’s a cornerstone of exceptional quality marketing. 

Nurture means you’re utilising quality content to increase the reward activation in your prospects’ brains.

Nurture hacks the purchase formula. 

That’s increased engagement, conversion rates, and customer lifetime value – all for you. 

And email… Well, email is a phenomenal way to deliver consistent and valuable nurture.  

Email and nurture – a match made in neural heaven

Email automation is a fantastic way to show up and give brains what they need. 

By mapping out what your prospects and customers would find valuable and helpful at each stage of their journey, you can create automated campaigns that increase that all-important reward activation.

Your job is to find out what your audience needs, and when, and be ready when they need you. And that’s where a solid omnichannel marketing plan comes in. 

Stay tuned for next week where we take a look at how you can apply these insights to your industry in a more practical way.

Special thanks to our friends at dotdigital for their insights on this topic.
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Steve has entrepreneurship in his DNA. Starting in the early 2000s, Steve achieved eBay Power Seller status which propelled him to become a founding partner of, a contact lens and eyewear retailer. Four years later through a successful exit from that startup, he embarked on his next journey into digital strategy for direct-to-consumer brands.

Currently, Steve is a Senior Merchant Success Manager at Shopify, where he helps brands to identify, navigate and accelerate growth online and in-store.

To maintain his competitive edge, Steve also hosts the top-rated twice-weekly podcast eCommerce Fastlane. He interviews Shopify Partners and subject matter experts who share the latest marketing strategy, tactics, platforms, and must-have apps, that assist Shopify-powered brands to improve efficiencies, profitably grow revenue and to build lifetime customer loyalty.

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