‘Brain engine optimisation’ is the new search engine optimisation

Brands – both B2B and B2C – should focus less on keywords and more on making themselves memorable at the point of the buying decision.

brain power
Source: Shutterstock

“The most important search engine is still the one in our minds.” 

That quote – from Jon Bradshaw, founder of the consultancy Brand Traction – is the most profoundly pithy idea we’ve heard in a long time.

What exactly does it mean?

Well, imagine you’re a tourist in Dublin.

You’re inside Mulligans, a fabled 168-year-old pub on Poolbeg Street.

A cheery Irish barman ambles over.

“What’ll you have to drink?” he asks.

So, how do you decide what to order? Do you whip out your iPhone and type ‘What drink should I get in a pub in Dublin?’ into the search box?

Of course not.

You don’t search Google – you search your brain.

And since humans are ‘cognitive misers’, you default to simple and fast searches like ‘drink, pub, Dublin’. Your brain retrieves a short-list of options from its memory banks. And then, to save yourself time and energy, your brain usually picks the most obvious choice.


Today, marketers invest billions of dollars in search engine optimisation. We want our brands to come to mind easily when buyers enter the market. We’ve got the right objective, but we’re optimising for the wrong search engine. The right search engine is the one in your head.

Which is why the real focus for marketers should be brain engine optimisation (BEO).

That’s right – BEO is the new SEO.

But how do you optimise for search results inside a buyer’s brain?

We’re not smart enough to answer that question, but we know someone who is: Professor Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, one of the greatest marketing thinkers of our time.

Our team at the B2B Institute published new research from Romaniuk that we believe could revolutionise the way B2B marketing works. The paper explains how B2B marketers can grow their businesses through brain engine optimisation.

Category entry points are the real keywords

BEO isn’t so different from SEO.

The goal is still to link your brand with a keyword – a mental keyword. Or what Romaniuk calls a ‘category entry point’ (CEP).

What exactly are CEPs?

To quote the professor: “CEPs are the cues that buyers use to access their memories when faced with a buying situation and can include any internal cues (eg motives, emotions) and external cues (eg location, time of day) that affect any buying situation.”

And why exactly are CEPs so important?

Because in a buying situation: “a category buyer first draws on existing memories to identify potential brands for purchase. These memory-generated brands are the starting point for the buying process. Other sources and search engines (eg Google, colleagues) are usually only consulted if the memory-generated options are insufficient. And, even when consultation does occur, buyers still show a bias for the brands they already know.”

Ehrenberg-Bass: Linking brand messages to buying situations wins ‘the mind and the market’

That’s why you didn’t pull out your phone to decide which drink to order at Mulligans. Decades of advertising and marketing made Guinness the obvious choice in that buying situation.

This also explains how most marketing works to increase sales: by linking the brand to CEPs well before the customer needs to buy. In her latest research, Romaniuk shows that B2B brands with more links to more CEPs are more likely to get bought. Just like pages with more backlinks rank higher in Google search, brands with more CEP links rank higher in brain search.

And CEPs don’t just help with customer acquisition. CEPs also help with customer retention. According to the research, each additional CEP link lowers the odds of defection by 5%. If you care about acquisition or retention, then you should care about CEPs.

The relationship between CEPs and customer defection. Source: LinkedIn

How to optimise for category entry points

Just like marketers use digital data to optimise Google search, marketers can use market research to optimise brain search. Brain engine optimisation is a four-step process.

Step 1: Identify the relevant CEPs for your category

Start by surveying buyers to understand the cues that trigger a buying situation. In B2B, you want to understand both the business needs and the professional needs of the buyer.

Why does the buyer need automation software? There are probably multiple CEPs for that, like making a tedious ask easier (a business CEP) or angling for a promotion (a professional CEP). The CEPs will be very different for a beer buying situation, ranging from ‘when I’m in an Irish pub’ to ‘if I had a horrible day at the office’.

Step 2: Prioritise the right CEPs for your brand

With SEO, you try to pick the most valuable keywords. With BEO, you try to pick the most valuable CEPs. There could be 50 different CEPs for the cloud computing category, but not all are equally attractive to IBM.

You can quantify the commercial value of a CEP by analysing the ‘three Cs’: commonness, credibility and competitiveness. In other words, prioritise CEPs that occur frequently, are easy to associate with your brand and are not already associated with competitors.

Priority CEPs are the paths to profit

Step 3: Build (and refresh) links between your brand and the CEPs

Now that you’ve identified the most potentially profitable CEPs, it is time to start investing. Concentrate on no more than three to five CEPs to start (the smaller the brand, the smaller the list should be).

Find creative ways to feature the CEPs in your marketing and advertising, and co-present alongside your distinctive assets (Guinness’s harp, Oracle’s red, Intel’s chime).

Align with your salespeople to make sure you’re all talking about the same CEPs (which are really just your biggest customer needs).

Put the CEPs on your website and into your Powerpoint presentations.

Here’s a great example from Microsoft, which uses ‘co-presentation’ to link the brand (Teams) to the relevant CEPs for a buying situation (online education).

Step 4: Measure the effectiveness of your CEP-building efforts

If you’re doing your job right, over time you should see increases in the number of buyers who link key CEPs to your brand.

Most of us are busy trying to link the brand to a bunch of fluffy, perceptual attributes that marketing thinks are important, like ‘innovation’ and ‘trustworthiness’. Instead, link to CEPs that your customers think are important. It’s a more profitable approach and much easier to explain to sales and finance, who are notoriously sceptical of brand marketing.

Memory generation is the best form of lead generation

Most B2B marketers are obsessed with lead generation, but the best B2B marketers are obsessed with memory generation.

If your brand doesn’t get remembered in a buying situation, it isn’t likely to get bought – period. People mostly just buy what they can easily remember, and brain engine optimisation is how you increase your odds of being easily remembered. And because brain engine optimisation determines most sales, it should be priority number one for every B2B (and B2C) marketing department.

SEO is overvalued.

BEO is undervalued.

If you win the mind, you win the market.

Peter Weinberg and Jon Lombardo are the heads of research & development at the B2B Institute, a think tank at LinkedIn that studies the laws of growth in B2B. You can follow Peter and Jon on LinkedIn.