Simplicity is key

People are irrational creatures, taking most decisions based on short-cuts and routine instead of rational considerations. The implications for marketing and communication campaigns are massive. Prof. Dr. Caroline Goukens, professor of Consumer Behavior, doesn’t beat around the bush. “Most communication has zero impact! Even worse: students forget over 90% of what they learn in class, hours after they have left the class room. So, for communication to be impactful, it’s important to unravel the working of the human brain and the decision-making process.” In a lively session filled with real-life examples and insights from inspiring academic studies, Caroline Goukens kept her audience captivated.

Caroline Goukens is Professor at the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Maastricht University School of Business and Economics. She studied Applied Economics at the University of Leuven, and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. She teaches consumer behavior courses in the master, PhD and post-graduate programmes. Her research focuses on individual decision making, consumption behavior and the effect of contextual cues on consumer behavior. She has published in journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, and the International Journal of Research in Marketing. Caroline Goukens is member of the research theme group ‘Human Decisions and Policy Design’. The session Human Decision Making is part of the Sustaining Competitive Advantage module. Roel Kuijpers (39), manager Care at Radar Foundation in Maastricht: “It’s great that this module makes the link with psychology and human behavior. Prof. Goukens brought a number of basic concepts to live with insights from recent research. Very interesting.” Sevdalin Yakimov (41), sourcing/procurement officer at Boston Scientific: “As part of the SCA-module, it made sense to get a better understanding of the consumer and his/her decisions perspective.”

Lazy bastard

Our brain is a lazy bastard. It’s hardwired to prefer information that aligns with what we already know and think. Unknown concepts, objects or ideas can make us uncomfortable because they require more effort. In short: we want things to be simple. Why? “Because that’s how the human brain works”, Caroline Goukens explains. “The brainstem controls many subconscious body functions like breathing. Our so-called limbic system is our old brain; it works extremely fast and is dominated by emotions and impulses. The prefrontal cortex on the contrary, is the younger part of the brain (100.000 years). It operates logical and precise and is considered to be responsible for planning and decision making. Only 5% of our daily decisions is made in the prefrontal cortex!”

Less is more

“The way the brain works makes traditional marketing research practically useless”, Caroline Goukens states. “As Henry Ford stated already in the beginning of the 20th century: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’. Instead of asking questions, it’s much more effective to observe people (for instance in stores), use eye-tracking or brain scanning techniques. Another implication of the limited capacity of the prefrontal cortex is that messages should be as simple as possible. In words, in logo’s and in the number of choices. Just so you know, MRI scans show that we perceive ‘choice’ the same way as ‘pain’. Tip: less is more, better focus on one aspect of a product. Simplicity is about finding the core of an idea. This is illustrated by images of Volvo (core idea: safety) and Kia (too many features, not one of them standing out). And there is also the matter of ‘Jack of all trades’. Too many positive features are easily perceived as too good to be true.”


Associations with prior experiences

But what to do when things just aren’t that simple? “The good news is that the limbic system entails a wealth of associations based on prior experiences. When introducing new products or services, one should refer to known concepts or ideas. Placebo marketing is another trick; make your product look like something the consumer knows or expects. And: don’t come too cheap. In a test with the same chardonnay marked at different prices, the most expensive one – even though a little bit of acid was added (!) – came out as the best choice.”

Close the gap

Roel Kuijpers: “The gap between people who can keep up with the everfasting changing world and those who cannot, is widening. Organisations such as the Radar Foundations (supporting people with a (mental) disability in South-Limburg) are needed to close that gap a little bit. The insights and examples in this session will help me to unboard others with our goal.” Sevdalin Yakimov: “This session has presented me with many new insights from the consumer perspective. For instance: the actual feelings are probably a lot different from what they tell you. Although I work in a procurement role, I still have to deal with (internal) customers. In negotiations it’s important to understand how the other party thinks and if what he says is true.”



This article displays the student insights and experiences of our On-Campus MBA Sustaining Competitive Advantage module. Our On-Campus track has an on campus learning format and is part of the executive modular part-time MaastrichtMBA programme. The programme has a Triple Crown accreditation and is aimed for professionals with at least 5 years of working experience.

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