Targeted Marketing Gets Intelligent
Advertisers ride a brain wave called
neuromarketing. But is it for real?
November 5, 2008
In early 2004, a half-dozen scientists from the Baylor
College of Medicine published a no-brainer of a research
paper. The conclusion: When exposed to Coke labels, soda
drinkers who hadn't previously expressed much brand
preference suddenly had affection for the Real Thing.
Big deal, you say. Everyone knows that branding has an
effect on the psyche. But get this: The researchers
weren't measuring lip-smacks, nods or checked-off boxes.
They were using a Siemens Allegra 3T functional Magnetic
Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scanner. The drinkers'
noggins lit up like Christmas trees after they sipped
the branded Coca-Cola.
"When an image of a Coke can preceded Coke delivery,
significantly greater brain activity was observed,"
according to the paper, published in the academic
journal Neuron. It adds: "Equivalent knowledge about
Pepsi delivery had no such effect "
In other words, our brains confirm that the brand with
the more effective marketing wins and can even fake out
our taste buds. Four years later, the field of
neuromarketing--the practice of using brain-wave product
feedback to target goods and services to our
subconscious appetites--is growing up. While large
corporations employ neuromarketing firms to conduct
costly fMRI studies, a new breed of marketing upstarts
with neuromarketing expertise is promising smaller
entrepreneurs the same kind of knowledge without the
high costs of custom lab research.
"You don't have to rent MRI machines," says Christophe
Morin, co-founder of San Francisco-based neuromarketing
firm SalesBrain. "A lot of agencies say we have this
great device to monitor brain waves, but having a huge
body of knowledge is enough without having to put your
customers into an MRI."
Morin, co-author of Neuromarketing: Understanding the
Buy Buttons in Your Customer's Brain, calls his approach
"applied neuromarketing," which describes how a firm
like SalesBrain can help a company target its marketing
and advertising using some basic tenets learned from the
bedrock of neuromarketing research, sans brain-scan
studies. (See the sidebar for Morin's six rules of
"The higher-end services that involve external
brain-scan studies probably aren't really within reach
of small business," says Roger Dooley, president of
web-marketing firm Dooley Direct and publisher of
neurosciencemarketing.com. "On the other hand, if you
choose a broader definition of neuromarketing--going
behind traditional marketing approaches to understand
what's going on in people's brains, to see how they're
hardwired--that's something almost anyone can do now."
Even so, experts are debating the effectiveness of even
high-cost brain-scan studies where subjects are hooked
up to MRIs and similar machinery and then monitored for
their responses to marketing stimuli, brand visuals,
tastes and smells. Big corporations can afford ad
campaigns and product development based on brain-scan
data. But are the data all that telling?
We're talking about regions of the brain lighting up or
not. If a part of the brain glows at the sight of Coke,
it could say that someone is thirsty as much as it says
they like the brand, argues Paul J. Zak, the founding
director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at
Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif.
"MRI scanning gets around the self-reporting problem"
where people could lie about their responses and
researchers would be none the wiser, Zak says. "People
are very poor at reporting why they're doing what
they're doing. But what the scan means is up to
interpretation. It's not clear really what you're
measuring in your brain. If you already drank three cans
of Coke and we showed you a Coke image, your brain is
not going to react as strongly as it would if I showed
There's no rulebook, training, licensing, or peer-review
processes for most private-sector neuromarketing
studies. Such research, in fact, can be done by
undergraduate students in their spare time, Zak argues.
"Eighty to 90 percent of the published imaging
research," he says, "is complete garbage."
Sill, neuromarketing boosters say the field is young and
will surely evolve. They argue that brain-scan data
already point to the areas of the mind--such as the
hippocampus, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the
midbrain--responsible for our taste for certain
products, and that this information can go a long way
when entrepreneurs are working on marketing strategies
in a tough economic climate.
The possibilities, boosters acknowledge, could be
frightening. Imagine a world where advertisers figure
out the exact colors, tastes, smells and images that
speak to the core appetites of humanity and surpass the
rational mind. What if it were applied to marketing to
children? Maybe it could someday be used to "sell bombs
or cigarettes," says SalesBrain's Morin, but more likely
he sees neuromarketing as a tool that will help
consumers confront and challenge their inner, consumer
The universal truth about human beings' purchasing
choices, he says, is that we make them out of fear,
subconsciously, and without much reason.
Self-preservation, emotion and visual cues rule the mind
when it's in the marketplace.
"Look at the financial markets and how irrational people
are," Morin says. Purchasing is the "dominion of the
older regions of the brain--reptilian, primal areas
responsible for functions such as fight or flight,
respiration, digestion. And all these are happening
below a level of consciousness. We are completely
emotional and irrational decision-makers."
Dooley of neurosciencemarketing.com agrees: "If someone
asks why you purchased a particular car, scotch or soft
drink, you would have a rational answer, but your brain
is processing that information below the level of
"Neuromarketing," he says, "could help companies achieve
those visionary breakthroughs."
Keys to Neuromarketing
Christophe Morin, co-author of Neuromarketing:
Understanding the Buy Buttons in Your Customer's Brain,
says entrepreneurs can improve their products, services,
marketing and advertising by learning six keys to
neuromarketing. These tenets stem from Morin's argument
that most purchase decisions are made subconsciously, in
the nether regions of the mind he calls the primal
brain, areas where basic fight-or-flight instincts kick
in. We buy, he says, out of fear.
- We're self-centered: Nothing triggers
self-centered action like a transaction. "People are
completely egocentric and all they want is something
that will create a difference in their lives, eliminate
pain and possibly bring them more pleasure," Morin says.
- We crave contrast: "The bottom line is, on any
given day, we will receive about 10,000 ad messages, and
only the ones that are huge contrasts will get any
attention," he says.
- We're naturally lazy: Abstract advertising and
marketing won't get through. Keep it simple, but strong.
"Most companies tend to create abstract messages and use
too many words," Morin says. "Reading is much more a
function of the 'new brain.' We recommend that, of
course, companies use a lot of concrete visuals."
- We like stories: Advertising and marketing with
strong beginnings and ends create anchor points that we
latch onto, so Morin advises entrepreneurs to sum up and
recap their strongest selling points at the end of any
promotional material. "The brain has a natural tendency
to pay attention at the beginning and end of anything,"
- We're visual: Appealing video and graphic
presentations can make the difference at cash registers
where price and reason can't. "We process and make
decisions visually, without being aware of them," Morin
says. "Only later do we rationalize decisions we made."
-Emotion trumps reason: Give us the right emotion
to ride on, and we'll buy what you're selling. "When we
experience an emotion," he says, "it creates a chemical
change in our brain, hormones flood our brain and change
the speeds with which neurons connect, and it's through
those connections we memorize. We don't remember
anything if there isn't an emotion attached to that
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