Wanting vs. Liking: How the Brain's Reward System Impacts Marketing Strategies

10-minute read

The Neuroscience of Wanting and Liking in Marketing

In our daily lives, it's easy to use the terms "like" and "want" interchangeably. We often think we want a pair of sneakers because we like them, and we assume we like what we want. From a neurological perspective, however, these terms are quite distinct.

As a business, understanding these differences can be crucial for driving sales, building brand equity, and fostering customer loyalty. Consumers may "want" or "want to try" a product or service, which may lead to a trial purchase, but this doesn't guarantee positive feedback or "like" for the product or service, leading to repeat purchases. On the other hand, a consumer may "like" a product or service, but not necessarily "want" it.

In this blog, we'll unravel the mysteries of the brain systems behind liking and wanting and examine the marketing implications of these differences. We'll also explore how brands can use both "want" and "like" to drive sales and build brand loyalty.

Dopamine and the Reward System: Separating Wanting from Liking

Research into the brain mechanisms of liking and wanting has focused on the brain’s reward system, and studies of neural responses to reward have generally involved neural circuits that use the neurotransmitter dopamine.

When it comes to dopamine and reward, you may recall experiments from the 1950s, where James Olds and Peter Milner implanted electrodes in the brains of rats that could stimulate dopamine neurons. If the rats received a stimulating current from these electrodes each time they performed a certain behavior, such as pressing a lever, they would repeatedly perform that behavior to the exclusion of everything else – not eating, drinking, or having sex – potentially until death1.

As a result, dopamine became popularly known as the "pleasure chemical," a substance responsible for feelings of "liking" and pleasure. However, this understanding of dopamine's role in the reward system is not entirely accurate. Later studies, particularly those by Kent Berridge and his colleagues, have explored the behavior of animals when their dopamine functions were experimentally inactivated. They found that, while such rats would not eat even when they were starving, they still showed normal reactions to pleasurable tastes given to them2. Thus, dopamine does not seem to be directly linked to pleasure or "liking”. 

Then, what was the reason that the rats did not eat the food despite starving? In short, dopamine's role in the reward system is more closely associated with "wanting" rather than "liking". Namely, without dopamine, the rats were not motivated to do it, even though they still liked it. This fact allows us to infer that the reason for repeatedly pressing the lever in the self-stimulation experiment was not a process of “liking” something, but a process of being motivated to "want" or "do" it.

The fact that dopamine’s primary role in the reward system is not the “liking” is further supported by studies showing that "liking" is a major function of different systems in the brain, such as opioids and cannabinoids. 

From a practical standpoint, it's not important to focus on the specific brain parts or substances involved. Instead, in the next section, we’ll discuss the implications of these findings for marketing practices. 

Triggering Approach Motivation: The Role of Wanting in Marketing Success

It's a powerful situation for brands and service providers when consumers irresistibly want to eat, use or experience something. According to findings in the brain's reward system, this behavior is likely not driven by "liking," but rather by a heightened feeling of "wanting."

Some may argue that customers aren’t like rats. However, the underlying emotions that drive purchase decisions are fundamentally similar in both humans and other animals. The fundamental emotional response of approach and avoidance motivation is something that marketers can tap into to effectively reach consumers.

The wanting system works by triggering subconscious approach motivation. By doing so, you can increase the effectiveness of your campaign. In fact, in-market case studies have shown that approach and avoidance motivation indicators based on brain activity are the best predictors of campaign effectiveness3, 4.

For example, showing the opening of a Coke bottle and focusing on the visual and auditory moment of the sizzle, rather than the consumption, is likely to enhance wanting rather than liking responses. This is why many successful food and beverage ads emphasize anticipation just before the product is consumed.

On the other hand, liking plays a role in reasoning and justifying decisions and actions triggered by emotions. Decisions are often influenced by underlying emotional reactions, but consumers need to be able to provide a compelling rationale after the fact. This is where the liking system comes in.

In branding, this process should not be overlooked as it's where the memory network of brand assets is built up and linked to increased equity. It's important to remember that the goal of explaining a product or service is not to persuade or encourage action, but to help the customer easily give reasons for their actions.

Balancing Wanting and Liking: Strategies for Building Brand Loyalty

In summary, it's clear that liking and wanting are different processing systems that play distinct roles in a marketing campaign. These systems can be used differently in campaigns. "Wanting" may be more effective for driving trial purchases, while "liking" may be more effective for building
long-term brand loyalty. Marketers can take advantage of each of these systems by enhancing approach motivation and post-rationalization of consumers, respectively.

Brands would need to determine whether to focus on wanting to drive trial purchases and trial memberships, or whether to focus on building loyalty through liking. The approach will depend on multiple factors, such as the maturity stage of the brand, the goal of the campaign, and the brand’s overall strategy.

To measure the success of these efforts, it would be important to establish key performance indicators (KPIs) for both wanting and liking. For wanting, metrics such as sales and click-through rate (CTR) may be appropriate, while for liking, changes in brand favorability as measured by the brand health tracker may be an appropriate indicator.

In any case, we hope that understanding and considering the differences between wanting and liking will help readers in their practices.


  1. Olds J, Milner P (1954) Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 47: 419 – 427.
  2. Berridge KC, Robinson TE (1998) What is the role of dopamine in reward: Hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience? Brain Research Reviews, 28: 309 – 369.
  3. Marci C, Murray B (2017) Emotions. In Cerf M, Garcia-Garcia M (Ed.) Consumer neuroscience (pp. 151 – 176). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 
  4. Hansen F and Christensen SR (2007) Emotions, Advertising and Consumer Choice, Copenhagen business School Press, Copenhagen.

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