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Neuromarketing: It’s All In Your Head

Neuromarketing strives to apply the theory behind neuroscience to marketing practise. By studying unconscious brain response to various stimuli, marketers hope to use the information gained to market more effectively. Neuromarketing can be defined as, ‘…the formal study of the brain’s responses to advertising and branding, and the adjustment of those messages based on feedback to elicit even better responses’. In order to gather information, companies measure brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). But is neuromarketing anything more than a slightly awkward portmanteau?

Neuromarketing Sceptics

Detractors of the practise believe that the science behind neuromarketing is vulnerable to manipulation and the links produced are often tenuous at best. The EEG technology employed by companies can often be crude, leading to inaccurate data. EEG technology can be subject to interference from outside stimuli, electrical devices, for example, can affect the results as can electrical activities in the muscles. fMRI, while thought to produce more accurate data, is costly and inconvenient to operate. Even though it is supposed to result in more legitimate data, according to neuroimaging researchers drawing conclusions of worth from a single study is difficult.brain

Dr Andree Bates, analytics professional and neuromarketing sceptic, questions its validity. She cites an incidence in which an advertisement was created for the Weather channel based on testing the engagement of subjects in response to various stimuli. By measuring brain activity, the tester could discover which portion of the advert the subject responded positively to. And while the mouth might be partial to untruths now and again, the brain doesn’t lie. However, ROI was not measurable as no clear correlation was able to be drawn between the advertisement and ratings for the show and thus the impact of employing neuromarketing techniques was unmeasurable. Dr Bates notes, ‘To the point of using this to demonstrate the ROI and impact of the advertising, and to make decisions around this, unfortunately…this does not seem to be the answer. No one has successfully been able to link the two in any real life case studies to date. The companies have created lovely virtual case studies, but not real life impact case studies.’ Which begets the question: Does neuromarketing hold any validity?

Coke vs Pepsi: The Pepsi Paradox

Tupac vs Biggie, Harry Potter vs Draco Malfoy, Mohammed Ali vs Joe Frazier, while all notable contentions, has there been a bigger rivalry than that of Coke vs Pepsi? The Pepsi paradox is a fascinating insight into the way the brain operates with regards to preference. In blind taste tests against Coca-Cola, Pepsi has come out the victor yet still sales of Coca-Cola outstrip Pepsi. Statistics grant Coke with 17% of the American market for carbonated soft drinks, Diet Coke comes in second with 9.4%, and trailing behind with 8.9% is Pepsi.

An experiment was conducted whereby brain response was measured whilst drinking various colas ‘blind’, in other words participants were unaware which drink they were tasting: Pepsi had the best positive brain response. When participants were shown the labels of the drinks they were enjoying, however, Coca-Cola came out on top. Brain activity was also altered, in an article published in Scientific American, Lone Frank explains: ‘The cerebral cortex intervened with its higher cognitive processes and triumphed over the immediate feeling of reward that was evoked by the taste impression.’ Branding, then, seems to hold the brain to ransom. A cola that was widely agreed to taste worse triumphed over one that tasted better and thus the cultural Coca-Cola hegemony was, and still is, upheld.

The Future

While identifying that one brand of cola is preferred over another despite it’s ‘inferior’ taste is interesting, the ability to predict what will be popular would be perhaps more beneficial. In 2006, scientists conducted an experiment measuring the brain response in teenagers while listening to unreleased pop music. They found a correlation between response in the nucleus accumbens and the eventual success of the music; Jason Castro writes in Scientific American, ‘Though it certainly didn’t distinguish between hits and duds with dead-on accuracy, more activity in the accumbens was loosely predictive of higher sales’. In a similar vein, film studios have employed neuromarketing techniques to try and predict the popularity of new releases. By measuring unconscious response to film trailers, such as heart rate, breathing, how much sweat was produced, they hope to find ways to better market the films.

In 2010, after a few years of research, Campbell Soup changed their iconic labelling based on findings from neuromarketing studies. In order to tap into the mind of the consumer, many companies are now employing a more scientific approach, Dr. Carl Marci of Innerscope Research, Inc. notes, ‘The vast majority of brain processing (75 to 95%) is done below conscious awareness. Because emotional responses are unconscious, it is virtually impossible for people to fully identify what caused them through conscious measures such as surveys and focus groups.’

Although in its infancy, the future of neuromarketing looks bright. Specialist neuromarketing agencies are popping up and as technologies evolve and improve, we may well be welcoming in a new era of marketing.

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