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How the Brain Reveals Why We Buy

Advances in neuroscience are changing the way some companies position their products, giving birth to the new field of neuromarketing
neuromarketing mindfield



JAMES NUNN

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Mindfield: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World by Lone Frank, to be released in the U.S. November 10.

Say the word: neuromarketing. Doesn’t exactly sound good, does it? It’s an outlandish word that scrapes across the tongue, leaving an aftertaste of thought control, science fiction, and downright creepiness. The press surrounding neuromarketing reflects this as well. The headlines are ominous: soon, the bright boys of the advertising world will get their sticky hands on our inner "buy button." Soon, marketing experts, with the help of cutting-edge brain research, will get direct access to the inner depths of our brains where, with the right stimulation, they can unleash our buying impulses and get their cash registers ringing.

Neuromarketing is a young and growing field–some won’t even admit that it is a field yet–that is striving to reveal the inner mechanisms of our consumer behavior. You might say that this interest and the issues it raises are a natural extension or offshoot of neuroeconomics and the more general studies of how we make choices and decisions. Every so often, there is also a conspicuous overlap between neuroeconomists and researchers in neuromarketing. The studies in neuromarketing are just more specific and much more directed. And the Holy Grail lies in predicting what the brain wants.

In the advertising industry, you can see neuromarketing as an attempt to make the "art" of advertising into a science. Any marketing expert proposing a multi-million dollar project to a client would like to be able to back it up with something that looks like real data, not just hunches. To answer this need, marketing has already drawn on psychology in developing tests and theories, and ad people have borrowed the idea of the focus group from social scientists. Brain research is the third wave. And neuromarketing has taken on a warm, fuzzy glow in the advertising world, where they convene meetings and conferences about its potential and, every so often, proclaim in their journals that it is the undeniable wave of the future. Such enthusiasm is harder to find in the scientific arena. Marketing is not a science, many say, pointing out that only a small handful of studies have been published in scientific journals.

Still, the whole thing started in academic circles, when in 2003 Clinton Kilts of Atlanta’s Emory University called in a team of volunteers for a series of experiments to throw light on the brain’s role in product preferences. How does activity in brain cells mirror things we are crazy about as opposed to things we absolutely hate or that just don’t speak to us? At that point, Kilts had nothing to do with marketing or advertising in general, but the fundamental question tickled his fancy.

The volunteers came in and, in the first round, were presented with an array of various consumer goods, which they were asked to rank by appeal. Simple answers on a numerical scale. In the next phase, they were taken through the MRI scanner as they were once again shown the same goods, while the apparatus registered the brain activity they aroused. When Kilts later analyzed the reactions of the research subjects, there was a common feature that leapt to his notice at once. Every time one of them–male or female–saw a product they really liked, blood rushed to a little area towards the front of the brain. The medial prefrontal cortex lit up like a beacon in the images.

This result lit a fire under Clinton Kilts, who knew he was onto something interesting. The medial prefrontal cortex is not just any old brain region–it is an area very much involved in our self-identification and the construction of our personality in general. This part of the frontal lobes is involved when we relate to ourselves and to who we are in some way. Kilts was quick to draw his conclusion. The scanning experiments, he believed, indicated that, if you are attracted by a product, it is because you identify with it. That the product fits into the picture you have of yourself.

This was quite exciting–in a nice academic way–but the debut experiment seemed to provide an obvious opportunity to do a new sort of study of the market. Kilts could see a future where researchers didn’t have to go out and ask people what they thought about a product anymore, or rely on their vague answers and poor self-insight. No, potential consumers could just be scanned and the answers could come straight from the brain.

Not long after his breakthrough, Clinton Kilts helped to found a new division for the American marketing consultancy BrightHouse, their Neurostrategies Group. Their focus was not intended to be ordinary market studies of the type that are supposed to tell producers how to put together a commercial for strawberry jam or sports cars to hit a target market. It was claimed in their launch statements that all the studies done would be of a general character–designed to increase our understanding of how consumers think and, in particular, how they develop a relationship to companies and brands.

The discussion quickly came to turn on the concept of branding. The fact that something–be it a product, an institution or a concept, for that matter–is not just immediately recognizable but has a narrative of its own. The product is not just a physical thing but comes with a whole mental universe that penetrates the consumer. Think of Gucci, iPod, Mercedes, and take note of the images the words bring to mind. Branding has been a hot topic for a long time in the advertising world, and it is one with phenomenal force. Most of us know that branding palpably influences our choices and shopping habits, but researchers suspect that branding can also fundamentally change the way we comprehend sense impressions.

At least that is the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the only (so far) classic study in neuromarketing, a fascinating study of what can be called the Pepsi paradox. For decades, it has been known that Pepsi is the preferred cola in blind taste tests, but it is still Coca-Cola that continues to be the absolute bestseller in the U.S. and the rest of the world. However, since 2004, we have been able to see the short-circuit going on in the head of the cola-drinking masses.

The originator of the experiment was Read Montague of Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, who must be credited with breaking through to the broader public with the experiment, which was essentially a cola-tasting while being subjected to MRI. Just under seventy volunteers were first asked to taste the competing products in a blind tasting and, just as so often before, Pepsi was the big winner. Pepsi also set off greater activity in the so-called ventral putamen than Coca-Cola. The putamen is an area cradled deep in the brain in the striatum, which is, among other things, a component in the reward system. So, the interpretation was straightforward–the activity meant "this feels good."

In the next series of experiments the subjects tasted colas with visible labels. When the research subjects knew which brown liquid was which, almost all of them suddenly preferred Coca-Cola. They were convinced that the taste of Coca-Cola was far superior to Pepsi. This shift in attitude followed an important change in the brain–this time, the medial prefrontal cortex went into action. The cerebral cortex intervened with its higher cognitive processes and triumphed over the immediate feeling of reward that was evoked by the taste impression. The product that actually tasted worse and provided a poorer physiological reward was viewed as better when the whole identification apparatus and the idea "this is so me" went into action.

The cola experiment, which came out in the journal Neuron, might be said to show that branding is mind over matter. And, of course, this got marketing people to think in a new way. Now they could hope that the methodology of brain research would help to explain how people build up the much sought-after positive branding story. The dream is that researchers with their scanners will discover what has to be done to get the right elements into play to achieve a tenable branding. Storytelling aimed right at the medial prefrontal cortex.

Excerpted from Mindfield: How Brain Science is Changing Our World by Lone Frank. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Oneworld, previously published in Danish as Den Femte Revolution by Gyldendal in 2007, English translation by Russell Dees

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