Neuromarketing- Finding The “BUY” Button

Posted in Marketing & Strategy Articles, Total Reads: 1971 , Published on 06 October 2012
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For the increasingly difficult job of a marketer there has been hardly anything apparently as radical a tool as “Neuromarketing”, this discipline aims at unraveling the neurophysiological mysteries behind customer behavior and using the knowledge to increase mind share of the customer.

Results of the blindfolded Pepsi challenge made coca cola change its formula, the same challenge repeated with eyes open led to more people preferring coke. A simple blindfolded tasting of both Pepsi and Coke resulted in more than half of the people showing definitive  preference for Pepsi. Fast forward 30 years, the same experiment was repeated along with brain scans. Without brand identity, tests gave the same results as the Pepsi challenge, but,  simply revealing the brand name  gave a completely different response, with suddenly 67% of the subjects finding Coke to be better tasting than Pepsi , implying that brand perception overrides the taste.


The brain scans showed the areas of the brains stimulated in both the cases, Pepsi producing stronger response than Coke in the Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (processes reward feelings) when the brand was unknown to the subjects, but when they were told which brand they were drinking,  scans showed greater activity in the Lateral Prefrontal cortex(higher cognitive functions) and Hippocampus(Memory) for Coke than Pepsi, these are the same region involved in face recognition, thus our perception about the brand overrides the actual taste of the drink. Perhaps by deliberately stimulating a certain part of the consumer’s brain by their Ads or promotion marketers can press the consumer’s “BUY” button

An amalgamation of neuroscience and marketing, Neuromarketing lets us peek into the consumer’s mind to study the effects of marketing tactics. Conventional economics assumed that everyone involved in economic transaction always behaved rationally in all the transactions to maximize their gain, but it’s more than a fact that buying decisions are  more often than not, based on emotion/impulse and not some rational alternative weighing decision making process. Marketers want to know exactly which part of the brain is responsible for making decisions. The discovery by psychologists in 1990 that most (90%)of the human thinking including emotional responses,  and decision making happen in the unconscious beyond the controlled awareness created interest in the field.

The basis of Neuromarketing is a “meme” which is a unit of information stored in the brain, in the form of images, writing or speech  representing an idea, behavior or style that spreads from culture to culture. When someone is making a decision these memes affect their decision. If marketers are able to affect  these “Memes” appropriately through the use of images, sounds and visuals we remember their message. Neuromarketing helps marketers build their brand image in the consumers mind by targeting these memes more accurately.

The first viable tool based on this technique was the Zaltman metaphor elicitation technique (ZMET). Based on an insight the founder developed during his Nepal visit, it explores the human unconscious using specially selected sets of images that cause a positive emotional response and activate hidden images, metaphors stimulating the purchase. It quickly gained popularity among hundreds of major companies- including Coca-Cola, General Motors, Nestle, Procter&Gamble. It was critical to the launch of the odor-removing spray, Febreze by Procter Gamble, and also helped in the marketing of various other products. Other not for profit  use for the technology include, studying the recovery of women from substance abuse, reaction of Americans to the Economic crisis, video game player’s relation to their Avatars.

The currently used  techniques like ECG, MRI, fMRI(rarely used because of expensiveness), measuring palpitation, analysing facial expressions usually determine the attentiveness and the emotional connect to ADs/products. Tracking eyeball movement while watching Ads is also used to track which region of the video the respondents focus on and for how long. Judging the effectiveness of an Ad, or product, thus becomes more precise , the ones that generate most attention and positive reaction is a clear winner.

Umpteen organizations have mushroomed to provide these insights to marketers, on their latest Ads and packaging, using  “innovative Neuromarketing tools” which are based on one or more of the above mentioned techniques. Affdex an innovation by “Affectiva” a Neuromarketing firm, is a breakthrough technology that delivers real-time emotional insights into spontaneous facial reactions to Advertisements, Innerscope uses biometrics to gauge customer engagement to the Ads, Time Warner recently opened a Neuromarketing studio in NYC in association with Innerscope, to gain insight in to consumer behavior


Examples of organisations relying on these insights include, Daimler Chrysler, which found Sportier models of cars stimulating the reward centers as well as the face recognition centers of the male brain. University of California found difference in the reaction of Democrats and Republicans to Ads with images of 9/11 incident in them. Lighting up the fear center more vividly in Democrats than Republicans.

New scientist magazine used Neurofoucs’s (Neuromarketing firm) help in finalising the cover ,from amongst the three options, for  their magazine’s August 2011 issue. The advice given by Neurofocus led to strong Sales that month, up by 12% compared to last year’s sales in the same month.

There have been reports of the technique being used by candidates in the 2010 Midterm Election in US. A consultant for two wining republicans, Darryl Howard acknowledges having designed for Senate, and other election candidates Neuromarketing based content for TV, direct mail, and speeches in the year 2010. A bronze star recipient for service in Iraq the Oregon Republican State Senator “Brian Boquist”, also admits to having employed political Neuromarketing in his campaigns. “I don’t know how it works, all I know is that it works,” he says. More reliance on neuromarketing for elections was discovered amongst republicans than democrats. They are appealing to the emotion of voter’s “Red Brain” triggers.

Evidently, this field has faced some criticism of lately, It’s having an effect on individuals that they are not aware of” says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. He further adds that unlike conventionally, the ads today are aimed at penetrating the judgment defense of Adults, and thus the legal defenses protecting it need to be questioned.

” Dr. A.K. Pradeep of Neurofocus(neuromarketing firm) is against such practices and assures that his firm will never create subliminal marketing messages, using the science to persuade people for Country’s president can have far more serious consequences than persuading for a toothpaste, he says.

But, many experts like  Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, have dismissed neuromarketing as just the latest “Fad” in marketing, given the desperation of marketers to find the latest holy grail of marketing. Certain areas of brain lighting up in an EEG, only shows attentiveness not engagement with the content. It’s possible to detect positive reaction to an AD, but telling whether its awe or amusement is not possible.

Let’s face it ,the idea that Neuromarketing can turn normal people into hypnotized buying zombies is perhaps is too much of a fantasy, given the phenomenally complex nature of the human brain and the inability neuroscience to figure it out completely till date.  But if we look at it from the perspective of understanding Decision making by humans, it might come handy as another tool providing one piece of the puzzle. In the academic paper “What is ‘Neuromarketing’? A discussion and agenda for future research”, Lee,  Broderick, Chamberlain, point out that the research in Neuromarketing can help the field of Neuroeconmics- the study of how people make decision making in economic matters. For example using simultaneous exploration of the temporal and spatial nature of the brain, can  decipher pricing psychology, why $4.99 is perceived significantly lower than $5.

Likewise understanding negotiations may reveal when people let emotions override rational, or what areas or types of cortical activity are associated with risky negotiating tactics or negotiation tactics deliberately intended to harm another party. Neuromarketing can yield insights into the origin of trust in economic transactions, help reduce marketer’s reliance on ‘blunt instruments’ of  blanket coverage, shock  tactics, or  sexual imagery, and make them create communications for appropriate audience only. It can help in accurately pinpointing the advertising component that trigger economic problems like ,purchase addiction or chronic debt- use.

Practically impossible it may be to ever discover a “Buy Button”, but, initiating industry wide standardization like the recent “NeuroStandards Initiatives project” might grant legitimacy to the discipline of Neuromarketing  as one more tool in the Behavioral economist’s toolkit and, ultimately provide deeper insights into one of the pillars of modern society-“Consumerism”.

This article has been authored by Abhisake Saini from IIM Indore.


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