Ever since the days of Ernest Dichter, the Austrian-American psychologist
and marketing expert who pioneered the application of Freudian
psychoanalytic concepts to the study of consumer behaviour, marketers have been
trying to tap into the human subconscious to influence consumers.
with the technology to measure brain impulses, neuromarketing claims to be able
to learn what emotions consumers are experiencing and what memories are being
stored. And some of the world’s biggest companies are turning to
neuromarketing as a new way of convincing consumers to buy their products. Google, Facebook, McDonald’s, Unilever, Procter & Gamble
and GlaxoSmithKline are all adopting this brain scanning technology to help
them understand what motivates consumers and turns them
Neuromarketing bridges the study of
consumer behaviour with neuroscience. Professor Gerald Zaltman was the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in marketing
research in the late 1990s. The term neuromarketing was coined in 2002 by Professor
Ale Smidts, and the
first neuromarketing conference
was held in 2004. In just a few years neuromarketing has gained increasing
authority over previous ways of researching consumer behaviour. Indeed, in 2011 NeuroFocus, a pioneer of neuromarketing and one of the
biggest players in this booming industry, was acquired by the global
measurement and analytics firm Nielsen, a clear sign of the
interest this field of market research is attracting.
According to one of the sector’s leading thinkers Roger Dooley, the author of Neuromarketing and Brainfluence, neuromarketing is based
on the notion that 95% of all our thoughts, emotions and learning occur before
we are ever aware of it and that marketers are actually only talking to 5% of their
customers’ brains. Neuromarketers claim to be able to find out what kind of
marketing hits that other 95% of the brain in the right way.
So what are some of the key research findings of
neuromarketing? Outlined below are six of the areas that receive the most attention
in business and marketing circles
1. The Paradox of Choice
Dooley believes that an overload
of options may actually paralyse people’s decision-making processes
resulting in choice fatigue. The research often cited to highlight this point
is the jam
study carried out by Professor Sheena Iyengar in a California
gourmet market, where her team set up a booth of samples of Wilkin & Sons
jams. Every few hours, they switched from offering a selection of 24 jams to a
group of 6 jams. On average, customers tasted two jams, regardless of the size
of the assortment, and each one received a coupon good for $1 off one Wilkin
& Sons jam. 60% of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only
40% stopped by the small one. However 30% of the people who had sampled from
the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3% of those confronted with
the two dozen jams purchased a jar. Iyengar concluded that having fewer options makes it easier for
consumers to make decisions and complete tasks.
Building on this study, a team of researchers
at Stanford University found that an excess of choices often leads consumers to
be less, not more, satisfied once they actually decide and are often left with
a nagging feeling they could have done better. Less is more is the conclusion
of the research.
2. The Power of Free
Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, believes a preference for “free” is a feature that is hardwired into our brains.
Ariely’s research found that “free” is far more effective than “almost free.” He
argues that this is true even when the price differential of two products were
near identical (e.g. one cent vs. free).
Cialdini, agrees with Ariely. In his book Influence: The
Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini explains the pervasiveness of giving out free samples in marketing through the concept of
reciprocity. Reciprocity is a strong
factor in human behaviour. As such a small favour can produce a sense of
obligation to return a much larger favour. Giving free samples creates a
reciprocal relationship with the consumer, who then feels obliged to buy the
product next time, he argues.
3. The Use of the Senses
Neuromarketers believe that music, design visuals and smells
can all affect consumers’ buying decisions. For example, the University of
Leicester conducted an experiment
in a local wine shop. On one day the shop played French accordion music, on the
next it played German oom-pah music. On the first day French wine outsold
German wine by five bottles to one, on the second day German wine outsold French
by two bottles to one.
Likewise, in his book, Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,
author and columnist Martin Lindstrom
explains how his team used both fMRI and Electroencephalography (EEG) technologies to
study what was really going on in the brains of consumers as they watched
commercials and thought about brands. Lindstrom believes advertising works
best when it bypasses people’s cognitive defences through the use of sensory
data—sounds, fragrance, touch, tastes and visuals—that appeal to
4. The Perception of Price
How the consumer perceives price is another important
area for neuromarketers. Professors’ Elger and Weber
conducted an experiment using
fMRI where people were shown products as well as the price for the product.
Some of the products were cheap, others were overpriced. In addition, some of
the products—regardless of whether they were cheap or overpriced—had been
marked with a discount tag. The researchers established that every time a
discount tag was shown, the brain’s reward system was activated whereas
the part of the brain that prevents us from making irrational (purchasing)
decisions was deactivated.
at Cornell University also showed that restaurant patrons tended to be more
price-conscious when dollar signs appeared alongside the prices on menus.
However if there was just a numerical digit—no dollar symbol and no decimal
point—then spending went up. The research team’s advice is to not put the
currency symbol on menus.
Dooley makes a similar observation in Brainfluence. When spoken, the more
syllables a price has the more expensive it will appear. The same applies to the
use of commas and decimals, for example using $2500 rather than $2,500.00. In
addition, minimising the currency symbol so that it is smaller than the figures
reduces the visual length of the price, thereby diminishing its perceived
5. The Fear of Loss
Making a product appear scarce can be a powerful
marketing tool to instil a sense of urgency to the buying process according to
suggests that is because our fear of loss rather than gain is the greater
emotion. For example, in an experiment people
were given $50. They were then asked whether they would prefer to keep $30 or
lose $20. Even though the dollar amounts were the same, the majority chose the ‘keep
$30’ option. Researchers found that people base their decisions on an inherent
aversion to loss so the fear of losing out on a bargain or offer is a
greater motivator than the persuasion of gain.
6. The Use of Storytelling
The writer Maya
Angelou once remarked: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you
said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you
made them feel.” Neuromarketers agree with this and believe that when rational
thinking conflicts with emotion, emotion wins. As such the use of storytelling allows
you to connect at an emotional level with your customers. Research
has found that linking ideas to commonly known stories leverages previously
established neurological path in the consumer’s memory. Studies show that when
absorbed in a story, people detect fewer inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
However, when reading dry and factual content, people seemed more critical than
when reading a story. From this, neuromarketers conclude that consumers do not make
decisions on the basis of pure logic alone.
So does neuromarketing actually work? Some critics
argue it relies on the belief that brain scans somehow reveal
the “real consumer” despite the fact that no benefits have ever been
demonstrated over traditional consumer behaviour research. These critics take
issue with neuromarketing research that purportedly demonstrates consumer behaviour
is fundamentally irrational and driven by needs hardwired into our brains. For
them, studying brain activation does not provide an explanation, it only
provides a new level of description for what we already know is happening.
This is very true. Neuromarketing alone is unable to
explain consumer behaviour. Neuromarketing always needs to be supported by
other disciplines like psychology and sociology. In reality there is no such
thing as a magic “buy” button in our brain nor can consumers be manipulated
into buying things that offer no value to them at that time. For all the
possible insights neuromarketing may bring, consumers are still independent, rational individuals who will ultimately make their own decisions
about what they want to buy.
- Theresa Clifford is a tutor/presenter in Digital Marketing for
the Marketing Association. She is also associate consultant, customer engagement, at digital agency Cucumber and is a regular
writer and speaker on digital trends. Most recently she has written about
the four big digital trends marketers need to pay heed to in
2013 and why companies need to become social businesses to create employee engagement.