• January 26, 2010
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

Are You Smarter Than a Neuromarketer

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For the rest of the January 2010 issue of CRM magazine please click here.

Neuromarketing is reaching consumers where the action is: the brain.

What do consumers want? That question continues to fuel American capitalist society—and may never be fully answered—but one relatively new group is boldly promising an innovation that will come very close. Call them neuromarketers—people attempting to merge the study of neuroscience with the art of marketing to understand desire on a level far beyond what consumers are able to articulate. This insight, they hope, will enable marketing to determine the truth—or something close—about what consumers really want. 

“Eighty-five percent of decisions…are made in the nonconscious part of your brain,” says Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy and founder of a firm specializing in marketing neuroscience. “The reality is there’s no way we’ll find out [what’s going on] using conventional research,” he says. “We’ll scan your brain instead.”

Neuroscience and marketing, however, have made a quarrelsome couple. “The two camps don’t speak the same language. They don’t understand each other. Most of them hate each other,” Lindstrom says. “There are two different worlds that need to come together and hold hands in order to [achieve] anything productive.” That’s why, at press time, he was in Tokyo at Hakuhodo, the second-largest advertising firm in Japan, working with nearly two dozen specialists developing neuro-driven concepts for future products.

“Consumers will never, ever tell the truth,” Lindstrom says. “It’s not because they’re lying—because they’re not—they’re just unaware.” Neuromarketing, he argues, is more reliable than most of the industry’s current concepts, which he says are vulnerable to external factors such as cultural and societal norms. “We can learn how to react and express ourselves differently…but when it comes to the brain, you really can’t lie.”

Most regions of the brain are associated with some form of response. Lindstrom says a region known as Brodmann Area 10, for example, is active when we think something is cool or hip; the right mesial prefrontal cortex is tied to the tendency to collect things; the nucleus accumbens, known as “the craving spot,” plays a role in addiction and reward; and the amygdale handles responses to fear. Nothing, however, points to an absolute truth. 

Even if everything requires interpretation, knowing what parts are activated helps focus the hunt, a challenge Lindstrom compares to the Gold Rush of the 1800s. “If you know which area you have to dig,” he says, “then you’re much more likely to find what you’re looking for.”  

The current techniques for tracking neural activity fall into three buckets: scans via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), measuring blood flow (i.e., activity) to parts of the brain; electroencephalography (EEG), utilizing electrodes on the scalp to measure the brain’s electrical activity; and noninvasive applied neuroscience, which teaches sales and marketing teams the principles of design and message optimization. 

Nascency allows debate over how neuroscience applies to marketing, and Kelly Hlavinka, a partner at loyalty-marketing firm Colloquy, says factions aren’t helping matters. “They all take shots at one another in terms of reliability.” 

A Colloquy report titled “The Neuromancers” references a famous 2003 study conducted by Read Montague, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine: Participants in a blind taste test between Coca-Cola and Pepsi had their brain activity measured via fMRI. Activity in the ventral striatum (i.e., the reward-stimuli processing center) indicated affinity was evenly split between the two brands. 

However, when the brands were known to the respondents ahead of time, 75 percent said they preferred Coke. What’s more, the report described those respondents’ fMRIs showing the medial prefrontal cortex—associated with memory and higher thought processes—lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, an indication consumers were subconsciously invoking positive associations with the Coke brand.

A stereo-equipment manufacturer that Lindstrom worked with asked customers to rate the quality of a remote control. Participants hated it, he recalls, but couldn’t explain why. Neuroscientific research identified activity in the region of the brain associated with touch. The remote was too lightweight—a trait indirectly conveying a sense of poor quality. After the remote’s weight was increased, customers ranked it much more favorably.

For CRM, Hlavinka says, understanding the where and why of decision-making can be extremely helpful. Direct marketing has traditionally relied on high measurability, she says, a threshold of effectiveness that the incorporation of neuroscience can only exceed: For example, why give people rebates when they’re more emotionally inclined to appreciate experiential rewards such as tickets to an event? Moreover, consumer targeting relies largely on results gathered after a campaign’s launch. What if marketers could be more effective—upfront—in determining whether an offer would appeal to the brain? They’d essentially narrow, if not close, the “say/do gap.” 

Lior Arussy, president of customer experience consultancy Strativity Group, doesn’t see neuromarketing as an advancement at all—in fact, just the opposite. (See Arussy’s Customer Centricity column, “Neuromarketing Isn't Marketing,” January 2009.) “As we see cocreation of products and services coming into the world, neuromarketing is keeping us back,” he says. “It doesn’t treat customers as partners, but as subjects. It’s the old-fashioned way of doing something to customers because [we think] they don’t know what they want and we know better than them.”

Lindstrom says neuromarketing’s intent is not to force an unwanted purchase, but to identify the relevant drivers and appeal to those areas. Arussy, however, is unmoved, and remains strongly averse to what Colloquy refers to as “neuromance.” 

“Would you date someone and say, ‘Scan my brain so you can find the right gift for me?’ It’s the equivalent!” Arussy scoffs. “You’re a human being. You don’t want to be treated like a piece of meat with wiring on your brain that tells others how to treat you.” 

True, that may kill the spontaneity, but consumers might not mind—if they get the perfect gift as a result.

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