NeuroMarketing- "See" what the consumer thinks
Written by Arijit Das, IIM Indore (batch of 2010) Wednesday, 12 August 2009 20:01
Coke or Pepsi?? Well, the explanation lies not in our taste-buds but within the connectomes (read: neuronal connections) mbedded in our three-pound brain. A study conducted few years back found that participants had no significant preference of Coke over Pepsi when they were administered drinks anonymously in a blind taste. Yet when they were told as to what they tasted, there was a marked increase in the number of participants who preferred Coke.
While the test was conducted, the researchers at Baylor College of Medicine also used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to monitor brain responses. While the participants tasted the drinks, only the sensory part of the brain lit up. Whereas when they were told what they were drinking, the area associated with emotional response also became active. This is also when the scales tilted towards Coke. What is at play??
The response is not confined to Pepsi or Coke but is common to various other similar brands. This begs the question as to why people are willing to choose one brand over the other when they are not actually getting anything significantly different in terms of functionality. The question might have confounded marketing Researchers for years, but with traditional methods of marketing research they are ill-equipped to decode the consumers’ decision making process.
This is exactly where the fledging area of consumer research known as NeuroMarketing comes to the fore. It is basically an application of Neuroscience- the science related to understanding the functioning of brain, in marketing. It first originated in the works of Gerry Zaltman of Harvard University, in the early 1990s. Although expensive, it is pregnant with the promise to fully understand consumers’ decision making process while shopping. Traditional methods of marketing research have attempted to look at the human brain as the Black Box. The responses to the questionnaires and focussed group discussions are used to understand what actually goes inside the human brain. However all these have significant limitations, not least the inability of many to articulate their complex and often involuntary feelings towards something. The participants tell the marketers what they think, they are thinking. Yet they themselves are not aware as to what exact processes are going on in the brain. Scientists, Neuroscientists to be specific, say that close to 80 percent of the human emotions that slosh around in the approximately 3x1011 neurons in the brain, are rooted in the unconscious which are inaccessible to our direct, conscious introspection. Hence the participant filling a questionnaire, despite his best intentions, is himself not aware of the rationale behind preferring a particular product. They miss out the activity of the bio-chemicals in the brain which plays a significant role in choosing a brand. Advanced technologies like fMRI, magneto-encephalography, and more conventional electroencephalograms (EEG) can do exactly what the conscious mind of the participant misses out. I will discuss only the most promising amongst these technologies- fMRI, in this article.
At this point it helps to understand what exactly these technologies do to unravel the workings of a human brain- thereby making them so potent at consumer research. fMRI - an acronym of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a technology which uses basic Physics and Biology. It uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to create high resolution image of the living brain. It draws on the fact that the Red Blood Cells(RBC) in the blood contain iron in the oxygen- carrying- part of the hemoglobin and these atoms create distortions in the magnetic field around them. While any part of the brain becomes active, the blood vessels in the specific region dilate causing more blood to flow in that region to supply the additional oxygen and glucose required by the more active brain cells to do their work. This large amount of freshly oxygenated blood in to the region causes a small change in the magnetic field.
Real-time fMRI image of a human brain showing various parts which are active
The result is displayed as a patchy area of colour, amidst the high resolution grey background of the brain. The coloured area represents the active region as opposed to the grey background which represents the inactive region of the brain. Armed with such high-resolution 3D images of the brain on a real time basis, one can pinpoint exactly which part of the brain is active.
This area-specific knowledge plays a significant role in the utility of fMRI. Several parts of our brain work together. Even as you read this article, the connectomes related to your visual sense along with the ones responsible for reading and understanding the material are working. Each region with a rich intermesh of neurons is responsible for a certain activity. The more you stress on any activity, the more the work done by that part of the brain and more the blood flow in that region. The interesting part is, the region responsible for each activity is well demarcated in the human brain. It is the same for all human brains. While the whole brain is yet to be mapped by scientists, yet various centres of the brain are already known for various though processes such as reward centre, face-recognition centre, self-referencing centre, liking centre, anticipation centre etc.
Various parts of a human brain which affect buying decisions of consumers
This has path breaking applications in the field of marketing and advertising. NeuroMarketing researchers use fMRI to observe which areas of the brain “light up” when the test subjects view, hear or even smell products. The same applies to test subjects viewing various advertisements. E.g If participants undergoing fMRI are shown a series of advertisements and if for some the medial prefrontal cortex lights up, indicating increased neural activity, one can conclude that the participant is thinking about the product. This is a sure-shot way to test which advertisements have an impact on the viewers mind and which does not. The real time imagery even gives the indication which elements of the advertisement are effective and which is not. They can then focus more on the ones which elicits the right response from the viewer and cull out the ones which fail to do so. More precisely it can be used to learn which elements of the advertisement are responsible for ‘neuroengagement’- things that appeal to us, and which ones for ‘counterforce’- our brains calculated way of trying to avoid such appealing forces. E.g. In a advertisement for Rolls Royce, its look would elicit ‘neuroengagement’, however its exorbitant price tag would result in ‘counterforce’. Such specific knowledge can save the advertisements millions of rupees which are unknowingly spent on elements having no desired impact on the viewer. Having known the consumers’ response to various stimuli it equips the marketers with significant fire power to elicit the desired response to their brands.
The effectiveness of this still-nascent field of marketing has already been spotted by some dominant brand building companies. The first company Neurostrategies was started by professors at the neuroscience wing at the Emory University- Dr Clint Kilts and Dr Justine Meaux. Presently there are more than 90 NeuroMarketing consultancies serving various biggies like Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble, Daimler Chrysler, Nestle advice their clients, insights into the way they should tinker their products, advertisements to boost sales. E.g. Daimler Chrysler has used fMRI to improve its car designs. In a study Daimler Chrysler showed test-subjects images of cars through a fMRI scanner while images of their brains were taken by fMRI scans. The study showed that sports cars stimulate the reward centre of the brain, which is also stimulated by alcohol, drugs and sex. Interestingly enough, when images of the front-view of the cars were shown to the test subjects the area of the brain, which is responsible for face recognition, in our brains, ‘lit up’!
However as with any emerging field, there is enough scope of improvement in this as well. In spite of its utility it is still not widely used by the companies. high price of the fMRI test prohibits many companies from trying it out. The fact that the test subjects are subject to brain imaging to understand what they are thinking, is considered to be unethical to many, resulting in a reluctance to participate in such studies and high participation fees. The fact that fMRI machines are cumbersome doesn’t help things. Also, the cases where NeuroMarketing is applied successfully are still few and far between vis-a-vis traditional marketing methods, to gain currency amongst the marketers. As more and more successful cases emerge, the suspicion regarding the technique would fade way and acceptance would take root.
Having said that, it needs to be noted that the field of NeuroMarketing is still in its embryonic stage. It is developing with more and more new studies being conducted round the year. The utility of NeuroMarketing is dependent on the development of Neuroscience. As more research studies are conducted we get to explore more and more territories inside the human brain which affect our buying decisions. Our present day knowledge of the functioning of the ‘neuronal geography’ in the brain is very similar to the late eighteenth century map of the world, hand-drawn by the then cartographers. However with more and more studies and the development of sophisticated technologies like Brainbow, which can map individual neurons with 90 odd fluorescent colours, the day is not far when we might have the ‘Google Earth’ of our brain! If a better knowledge of the world geography (read: world map) was instrumental in Europeans venturing out and colonising half the planet, it takes little to imagine the immense possibility that NeuroMarketing has for the marketers in influencing the consumers’ psyche.
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