Neuromarketing: The Power Of The Subconscious

Posted in Marketing & Strategy Articles, Total Reads: 3995 , Published on 12 August 2012

The Article written by Pramit Das from IMT Ghaziabad is the First Prize winner of the July 2012 Article Writing Contest.

“Now, my experience is that most of the time, people have no idea why they are doing what they are doing”        

-    Clotaire Rapaille, Market Researcher and author of “The Culture Code: 7 Secrets of Marketing in a Multi-Cultural world”

Well, he is not alone. Malcolm Gladwell in his celebrated book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”(2005) draws on examples from fields of science, sales, advertising, medicine and music to accentuate his idea of “thin-slicing”- a concept that some mental processes work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information.‎ Author and marketing guru Martin Lindstorm’s bestselling book “Buyology - Truth and Lies About Why We Buy” (2008) claims from his experimental studies that subconscious mind plays a major role in people’s buying decisions. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Prize winner for Economics, in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow"(2011) throws light on the ways in which we make choices—most often, automatically and not necessarily in line with their best intentions. The authors seem to be mystified while the marketers still try to unravel the gap between the consumer intention and action.

As said in a Forbes article, neuromarketing is about making the intent-action gap visible in a consumer, showing how different parts of the brain are made to take part by cues such as branding (for example, Coke vs. Pepsi) or by facing a spend-or-save choice between whether to indulge for pleasure now or delay gratification for some later date. While neuroscience has been around for decades, it is only recently that it became part of the marketing parlance.

Neuromarketing involves application of cognitive neurosciences in the field of marketing and marketing research. It uses a brain mapping medical technology known as fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to study blood flow and blood oxygenation in the neuron activity of consumers at the time of selecting and buying a product. Though it started with the application of neurosciences, over the years it gained entry into the traditional methods of doing marketing research. As research proceeded, it was applied to promote sales and research organizations such as BrightHouse Institute was set up to serve corporations eager to reap the nascent developments in the field.

The term “neuromarketing” was coined by Ale Smidts in 2002, a marketing professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. But there is a more interesting story about the public attention to the term. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s blind taste tests had shown that Pepsi was the winner when consumers were told to choose between Pepsi and Coke without knowing which one they were consuming. Dr. Read Montague, a neuroscientist, was however intrigued by the fact that in spite of these results, Coke dominated the market. Montague decided to repeat the tests with fMRI in what was known as The Pepsi Challenge, 2003. The results were astonishing. He found that when blind folded, consumers liked the taste of Pepsi but when the names were revealed three fourth of them switched loyalty to Coke. It was observed that the knowledge that they were drinking Coke increased activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with thinking and judging. The experiment showed that while people liked something in their subconscious brain they express something else. The example became a classic to be used later on in marketing case studies worldwide.

From The Pepsi Challenge, 2003 it was brought out that brand and image could affect the customer’s choices more than the product. This encouraged neuromarketers to use the neuro-imaging techniques to identify decision making triggers among shoppers to help companies directly click the “buy button” on the customer’s brain to boost sales.

On 17th Feb, 2010 an article in the Wall Street Journal carried the caption “The Emotional Quotient of Soup Shopping”. It dealt with how the Campbell soup company had applied neuromarketing techniques in a two years study, intending to get consumers to buy more soup. It drew a lot of public attention at that time and encouraged debates on whether the studies on skin moisture, heart-beat and biometric by Campbell soup company was really worth it.  In the process, more than 1,500 subjects were interviewed and tested using multiple methodologies—ranging from traditional consumer feedback to neuromarketing techniques.

The same subjects also participated in a deep interview process called ZMET (The Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique) which helped the Campbell's team to contextualize the biometric measures that were used. According to the company itself, the end results of the expensive neuromarketing efforts offered many insights that the company needed to work on and which traditional methods could only partially arrive at. The alterations which, among others, included different colour packaging for different lines of soup and a new logo proved beneficial for the company as it went to increase its bottom line.  

So how is neuromarketing implemented in real life? Starting with, say the fMRI scanners(other technologies are used too), the consumer’s brain is scanned which help the neuromarketers to find out how consumers react subconsciously to advertising, brand and products.  This will tell the neuromarketers what the consumer reacts to, whether it was the shape of the packaging, the colour of the packet, the sound the box makes when shaken, and so on. This rare ability to watch inside the mind of consumers and noting how sensory inputs like image, smell and touch culminate to reach decisions enables the advertisers and marketers to optimize their advertisement, campaigns and product or service features to make them more acceptable. fMRI is not the only technology that is used. While fMRI is chiefly used for refining the product attributes, Electroencephalography (EEG) measures fluctuations in response to advertisements, Magnetoencephalography (MEG) measures the fluctuations but with greater accuracy than EEG and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is used to measure causal roles.

EEG frequency


Various companies had adopted the services of neuromarketing research organizations successfully in the last decade. They include, among others:

  • Proctor & Gamble (in launching of Febreze room freshener)
  • Motorola (in product positioning)
  • Hyundai (in changing exterior appearance of a car)
  • Paypal (in identifying what turns people on more in e-shopping: speed or security)
  • Microsoft (in knowing the engagement of Xbox users)
  • PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay (in testing packaging in the U.S. and overseas)
  • Buick Motors (in enhancing dealers’ experience with customers and increase in sales)

Yahoo’s 60-second television commercial which shows happy and dancing people around the world was pre-tested with neuromarketing. Before rolling it out and spending money to air the advertisement on television and online, Yahoo had run it on EEG-cap-wearing consumers. The brain waves from them showed stimulation in the limbic system and frontal cortices of their brains, where memory and emotional thought occurs. The advertisement surfaced in September 2009 to attract more users to its search engine. More recent inductees such as Kimberly-Clark, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever are using three-dimensional computer simulations of both designs and store layouts along with eye-tracking technology to deduce how to improve sales.

In March 2011, world’s largest world's largest neuromarketing research firm Neurofocus (now part of Nielsen) had launched Mynd, a full-brain wireless EEG sensor headset. Using this market researchers would be able to capture data on consumers’ subconscious responses in real time wirelessly thus opening up new testing environments beyond the lab such as home. The data would be streamed to platforms such as iPad, iPhone and other smart devices. With this rate of development and participation by the corporate giants, it is hard to call neuromarketing a flash-in-the-pan and the future could be beyond traditional focus groups, dominated by mind-reading technology for understanding the consumers.

However neuromarketing is not without its share of criticisms. While some groups claimed that the research institutes are exploiting the corporate clients, some non-profit organizations and customer advocacy groups maintained that the concept was unethical, being intervening with the customer’s privacy when practiced without their knowledge.

Many research papers hold that the findings of fMRI are not revelatory and only reconfirmed some rules that marketers had known intuitively. As for example, Michael Deppe in his paper “"Bias-Specific Activity in the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex during Credibility Judgments" (2005) says that when consumers faces credibility doubts, brand information played a major role in decision making as seen by increasing activity in the area of brain where attraction occurs. But brand loyalty was traditionally always a factor on such occasions. Other concerns include that the benefits received might not outweigh the cost incurred and the accuracy of the findings. Regarding the latter, critics assert that it is inexact science as body movements such as breathing could distort or disrupt images and there are multiple interpretations of a mapped image unless assumptions are taken.

This article has been authored by Pramit Das from IMT Ghaziabad.

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