Neuroscience has come a long way in a short amount of time, but is it worth the investment for brands? Can it actually tell us more about our customers than other market research methods? We dive into the history of this fascinating field and trends in neuroscience to learn more.
The world around us is rapidly changing. Companies that keep up with these changes will set themselves up for long term success. Businesses that stand idly by instead of leaping on new opportunities will fall behind the pack. With so many new solutions and ideas for running a company in today’s world, management has had to carefully pick and choose which emerging technologies to invest more heavily in.
One such technology that marketing and advertising departments have been paying close attention to for several years now is neuroscience. Yes, the study of how the nervous system develops, its structure, what it does, and how it impacts behavior and cognitive functions is quickly becoming a crucial part in understanding why consumers do what they do. But not everyone is on board with ‘neuromarketing.’
Today we’re diving into neuroscience and how companies are leveraging it to better understand their target market. We’ll also cover some of the major benefits and pitfalls of “neuromarketing.”
But first, let’s take a look at neuroscience more broadly, including what specific trends we’re seeing today within the industry.
Neuroscience at a glance
Traditionally considered a subdivision of biology, today, neuroscience is seen as an interdisciplinary science closely related to other disciplines, such as mathematics, linguistics, chemistry, philosophy, and psychology.
There are quite a few different branches of modern neuroscience. Behavioral neuroscience—the branch that studies the biological bases of behavior and how the brain affects behavior—is closely related to neuromarketing. Over the years, advancements in technology have propelled this branch of neuroscience into the marketing and advertising industry.
Trends in neuroscience
Neuroscience originally focused mostly on molecular and cellular studies of individual neurons. But, through new imaging tools and computer simulations, modern neuroscience has developed into much more. Today, neuroscience has allowed researchers to deepen their understanding of the brain’s anatomy and neurological, physical, and psychological functioning.
This has led to some significant breakthroughs in several areas, especially within the field of psychology. Studies using neuroscience have helped researchers gain valuable insight into how to treat Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Schizophrenia, clinical depression, anxiety, and drug abuse.
Modern neuroscience has also contributed greatly to an improved understanding of other common conditions, such as down syndrome, ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, brain tumors, epilepsy, the effects of strokes, and immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis.
According to Kent Scientific Corporation, in the last 20 years, neuroscientists have made many other significant discoveries, including:
- Discovering the role of glial cells in key brain functions.
- The use of brain-computer interfaces to establish direct communication between the brain and an external device.
- The discovery that the brain is highly malleable, even into adulthood.
- Understanding how the brain reacts to social stimuli.
- Identifying single gene defects that contribute to neurological disorders.
- Uncovering the biochemical processes that determine how memories are formed and accessed.
While it’s clear that neuroscience has led to some exciting breakthroughs in the medical and psychology fields, how exactly have innovations in neuroscience changed the way companies are conducting their market research?
Neuroscience and market research
Neuromarketing is a broad term with a wide definition. Essentially, it can be boiled down to the measurement of physiological and neural signals to gain insights into consumer’s motivations, preferences, and subtle decision-making triggers – which are difficult for respondents to access consciously and express orally or in written words using traditional survey research instruments. Knowing this information can help brands in many ways. For example, creative advertising departments can finely tune their messages to attract more consumers. The product development team can utilize insights into consumer preferences to craft a product that addresses their needs better. Even pricing can be adjusted based on neuromarketing research.
When did neuromarketing start?
There is an inherent risk with every advertising and marketing project that makes its way out into the real world. If a multi-million-dollar campaign falls flat, it can be seriously damaging to a company’s bottom line and its brand image. Therefore, real data needs to back up these expensive and important strategies.
In an effort to gain as much insight into consumers non-conscious biases to ensure the success of products, advertisements, and other marketing-related decisions, neuromarketing has begun to grow in popularity. Though, the various techniques are still relatively new and can be considered still in the infancy stage.
The roots of neuromarketing can be traced back to 2003 study done by Clinton Kilts of Emory
University in Atlanta. Kilts was curious as to what role the brain played in product preferences. In particular, he wanted to know how brain cells’ activity varies when looking at things we love vs. things we hate.
In the first part of the study, Kilts had participants look at a list of various consumer goods and rank them by how much they appealed to them. In the second part of the study, participants were taken through an MRI scanner and were once again shown those same consumer goods. The results showed Kilts had stumbled upon something significant. Every time a participant came across a product they liked, blood rushed to the brain. The medial prefrontal cortex lit up in the MRI images.
To grasp precisely what this means, it’s important to first understand the medial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is associated with our self-identification and our personalities. Basically, the medial prefrontal cortex is a key part of determining who we believe we are and how we relate to ourselves. Based on this, Kilts believed that his study proved that if you are attracted to a product, it is because you identify with it. That said, it would be incredibly expensive to put thousands of consumers through MRI tests to understand preferences and decision-making triggers.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi
Several decades removed from the Cola Wars of the 70s and 80s, the battle between Coca-Cola and Pepsi was once again thrust into the national spotlight when a paper was published in the Neuron Journal in 2004. This paper documented an experiment that took Clinton Kilts’ research and applied it to the contentious soft drink showdown.
Baylor College of Medicine’s Read Montague is credited with organizing the study in which 70 volunteers were asked to go through a standard taste test between the two brands. As has been documented before, Pepsi was the definitive winner. Participants were also subjected to an MRI during the taste test, which showed that Pepsi set off a higher amount of activity in the brain’s striatum. This is the part of the brain that acts as the reward system. So, basically, the participants felt better when drinking Pepsi.
Here is where things get interesting. In the next round of taste tests, Montague made the labels visible. This time, an overwhelming majority said they preferred Coca-Cola. Remember the aforementioned prefrontal cortex? Because the labels were made visible and volunteers could see which product was which, the prefrontal cortex was activated. Even though the physiological reward of tasting Pepsi was greater than drinking Coca-Cola, the medial prefrontal cortex intervened so much that it was able to convince the participants that they do, in fact, like the taste of Coca-Cola more (despite what the blind taste test results said).
The takeaway here? Branding may, in fact, be more critical to the success of a brand than the
quality of the product. Lone Frank describes in his book, “Mindfield: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World,” that the “Pepsi paradox” illustrates how Coca-Cola was able to utilize branding to beat flavor and that it’s wise to invest more in branding and advertising.
Neuromarketing benefits and drawbacks
At this point, it may seem like neuromarketing is the future of marketing, branding, and advertising. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. As mentioned, we’re still in the very early stages of integrating marketing with neuroscience. Just like with any market research studies, there are variables that simply can’t be accounted for.
For example, while those infamous blind taste tests seem to show that Pepsi is superior in taste, journalist Felix Salmon points out that in blind wine tests, people tend to prefer sweet varieties. Does this mean that sweeter wines are always better? No. But, Pepsi is sweeter than Coca-Cola, which could factor why it wins out in blind tests. For whatever reason, people choose sweeter items when conducting blind taste tests.
So, if Pepsi wins blind tests that may be flawed, but Coca-Cola wins when labels are visible, which can cause inherent biases to reveal themselves, then which one actually tastes better? And does it matter? At the end of the day, Coca-Cola is still beating Pepsi where it counts: at the checkout.
Furthermore, in recent years, resistance has formed around the practice of neuromarketing. As Ming Hsu, a marketing professor at UC Berkeley, wrote in a 2017 article in the California Management Review,” “The prevailing attitude (around neuromarketing)…can be summarized as… ‘neuroscience either tells me what I already know, or it tells me something new that I don’t care about.'”
Many marketers have taken similar stances in regard to neuromarketing, but this reluctance may soon dissipate for a few reasons. First, neuroscience is seeing substantial growth in terms of the technology being used for studies. As a result, the costs for conducting several types of neuromarketing tests have come down to the point that they’re scalable and affordable. This new technology is validating older neuroscience studies that were once seen as outlandish (see Martin Lindstrom’s New York Times editorial, “You Love Your iPhone. Literally.” which was once scrutinized but may have been more accurate than previously thought thanks to new neuroscience research).
The second reason, noted by a Harvard Business Review article, titled, “Neuromarketing: What You Need to Know,” is due to academic studies coming forward that have “demonstrated that brain data can predict the future success of products more accurately than can traditional market research tools such as surveys and focus groups.”
The article cites a specific example in which researchers at Emory had people listen to music while an MRI measured their brains. The study found that activity in a particular part of the brain correlated with a song’s future popularity as measured by sales three years later. But, because it’s extremely difficult to understand our cognitive biases, when the participants were simply asked how much they liked a song, it did not predict sales. This is one of many studies that show neuromarketing may be a better research method than focus groups, as study respondents “aren’t always forthcoming about their memories, feelings, and preferences.”
The future of neuromarketing and how we’ll be impacted
One of the biggest hindrances on the growth of neuroscience in marketing is the cost. An fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) can cost upwards of $5 million with high overhead. However, according to the aforementioned HBR article, several Silicon Valley start-ups are in the process of creating a more portable and affordable fMRI.
In the HBR piece, Stanford neuroscientist Brian Knutson also points to how much the technology for neuroscience has progressed recently and that marketers should, at the very least, pay attention to the basic science if they choose not to invest in neuroscience quite yet. “I look at how far the science has come in the past 15 years, and I’m astonished,” says Knutson. “We’ve come so far, so fast. And I really do feel like we’re just scratching the surface.”
While today, most larger companies can afford to test around with the science of neuromarketing, there are now many affordable neuroscience options for big and small companies alike.
That said, these modern, affordable neuroscience methods do come at a cost: far less scientific rigor in the various testing protocols used. This can, and does, lead to incorrect conclusions, particularly if tests are not designed, conducted, and interpreted by trained neuroscientists.