Neuromarketing is going mainstream.

I recently read a fascinating article by Graham Lawton, deputy editor of New Scientist.  They recently utilized neuromarketing (a marriage of market research and neuroscience) to  determine which (of three) magazine cover they should use.  The idea was to observe reactions of people on a level that would not normally be possible.

Market research has traditionally relied on methods such as questionnaires and focus groups to gauge how consumers will respond to new products.  These tools have their strengths, but they share one fatal weakness – they depend on asking people what they think.  It’s not just that people are inclined to say what they think others want to hear, and to give answers that they think reflect favorably upon themselves.  According to Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University in Atlanta, the problem is that much of the decision-making process happens at a subconscious level, and experiments reveal that people are generally not very good at explaining the thinking behind their choices.  (Lawton, New Scientist, 7 August 2010 p 33).

It’s funny that rocket science has finally described something that we were always told wasn’t rocket science.  Neuroeconomists have been trying to figure out for years what is going on inside people’s heads when they make economic decisions.  The bottom-line is that people aren’t rational and don’t make rational decisions.  Duh.  What science tells us is that emotions are really important in the decision making process.  In fact, emotions are also key to concept of “brand loyalty.”

In a famous study published in 2004, Read Montague from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston got loyal Coke drinkers to take the “Pepsi challenge” inside an fMRI (brain-imaging technique which records brain activity via changes in blood flow) machine.  When they didn’t know which drink they had been given, Pepsi triggered the most activity in the areas of the cortex responsible for rational thought and people said they preferred it.  But when Montague told them in advance which cola was which, Coke provoked stronger activity in the emotion-related limbic system and their stated preference switched (Neuron, volume 44 p379).  By triggering positive emotions, successful brands can override our rational choices.

Further research indicates that we build long-term emotional bonds with brands.  These are established and maintained by messages that constantly associate the brand with positive emotions.  Think of all those feel-good ads you see every day – they aren’t trying to sell you something, they are trying to entice you into a long-term relationship.  Once people have formed a relationship with one brand they are very resistant to the advances of others (Advances in Consumer Research, volume 34 p 1).

Another key discovery of neuroeconomics is that certain products trigger activity in brain systems that usually fire in anticipation of rewarding stimuli, such as food, sex and addictive drugs.  Neuroeconomists now think of the amount of activity in these regions as a sort of universal currency of desirability, allowing the brain to weigh up different rewards.  Want to know if a new car design is pushing the right buttons?  See if it revs the reward centers in the brain.  Is this advertisement going to make people love our product?  Measure the emotional response it generates.  Branding in particular is a marketer’s nirvana.  The difference between products (say Coke and Pepsi) isn’t that big, but the brands are completely different.  It’s the emotional content of the brand that marketers are trying to understand.

Advocates believe that neuromarketing can predict what will sell in a more direct and objective way than just asking people.  They also argue that you don’t need to scan the brains of many people to get a representative picture of what consumers think.  That may be true, but the thing to remember is that marketing will always be more art than science.  Someone has to create the ads that elicit the response.  Neuromarketing may replace traditional focus group testing, but it won’t replace the agency.

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