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Neuromarketing: Peeking Inside the Black Box

Karl Moore | May 18, 2005

The field of marketing research marches onward year after year, with new techniques and new approaches.

For example, I remember when "garbology" first came out. Many found much amusement in the idea of rooting through someone's garbage to better understand their consumption patterns. Today, it is much more accepted, though still assigned to more junior market researchers.

A type of marketing research that has recently garnered considerable attention is "neuromarketing." What set off this interest was a study published in the October 14, 2004 issue of Neuron. Researchers monitored brain scans of 67 people who were given a blind taste test of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Using brain scanners, they could see that each soft drink "lit up" the brain's reward system.

Participants were evenly split about which drink they preferred. However, when the same people were told what they were drinking, activity in a different set of brain regions were engaged. Three out of four said they preferred Coca-Cola. This demonstrated in a fairly dramatic way that brand matters.

For as long has I have been a student of marketing, we have regarded the human mind as a "black box," something which was rather mysterious. We marketers do our thing: beaming advertising, direct marketing pieces, a sales pitch or what have you to our target market.

We can measure the results of that marketing effort, in terms of sales, awareness, liking and so on. We understand reasonably well the beginning and end of the process—but not the vital part in the middle. That is, what goes on inside the mind of the consumer.

This is what is changing with neuromarketing. First, let me take a run at defining it.

The basic fundamental science underlying neuromarketing is neuroscience, which is the study of the how the brain gives rise to the mind. In other words, neuroscience is how the brain enables us to perceive, think, make decisions, feel emotions, communicate (i.e., the neural basis of human experience).

Techniques used by neuroscience are psychophysics (reaction times/detection levels), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), magnetoencephalography (MEG) and electroencephalography (EEG). The most interesting of these to neuromarketing is fMRI scanning. I am sure we all have seen these on ER or other television shows, where the patient is slid inside a machine that hums and makes various other noises.

Neuromarketing is the application of the techniques of neuroscience to marketing stimuli—in layman's terms, to see how the brain "lights up" when exposed to our marketing efforts.

Science has made a great deal of progress in understanding our brains. Many called the '90s the "decade of the brain," and in the last 20 years there have been more than 100,000 scientific publications on this most complex of organs.

It is early days for neuroscience. But what research has been done has stirred up a considerable amount of interest in the idea of neuromarketing. It is being touted by some as the next big thing. If marketers can use science to locate consumers' "buy buttons," then we have gotten closer to opening the "black box" of the consumer's mind.

The best use of neuromarketing is in predicting behavior—spotting the advertisements that people remember, selecting the media format that works best and how what consumers actually do differs from what they tell focus groups. Other uses I have seen or read about include reactions to movie trailers, choices about automobiles, the appeal of a pretty face and visceral reactions to political campaign advertising.

Neuromarketing has critics. I share some of their fears. Neuromarketing raises the possibility of a too-useful tool for Big Brother, for example. Other concerns include the costs and the unpleasantness of a scan.

Dr. Gemma Calvert, cofounder of Neurosense Ltd., a neuromarketing consultancy, noted in a recent issue of the London Times: "MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is not as expensive as people think and is only slightly more expensive than the average cost of conducting focus groups...and OK, it is not pleasant, but it isn't unpleasant either. We have never had a problem getting people into scanners; most have read about brain imaging and are really keen to have a go."

At this point, brain scanning is being used as an adjunct to traditional market research techniques, including focus groups. In the future, perhaps 5-10 years off at this point, I think brain scanning may well become a routine part of corporate marketing strategies.

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