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 neuromarketing.)
"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 you Pepsi."
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 drive.
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 consciousness."
"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," he says.
- 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 experience."