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Neuromarketing: Tackling the (sub)conscious mind

Matilda Pateraki
- 05 Jun 2017
Matilda Pateraki
Neuromarketing: Tackling the (sub)conscious mind

As neuromarketing gains rapid credibility and adoption among advertising and marketing professionals, Matilda Pateraki discusses its incremental value as a new market research tool.

Sarah is heading to the lab. She enters the room and she is quite intimidated by the presence of a range of devices. The researchers explain to her that she is going to go through an MRI examination. She lies on the table and starts to slide into the large cylindrical MRI machine. Suddenly, she starts to panic, “Are they trying to control my brain?” she thinks. Then she reminds herself of the incentive she will get. “Maybe I will go to this music festival I always wanted to” she thinks. The examination starts…

For many years, research has relied on consumers’ ability to consciously report how they feel about various things. While these measures are important, it is increasingly recognised that there are other considerations that marketers should take into account when they examine emotional responses: the subconscious components of our cognitive processes. According to this way of thinking, the brain is a ‘black box’ that hides consumers’ emotions and preferences, so one way to gain access to these emotions is through neuromarketing: the study of brain activity to gain deeper understanding of consumers’ thoughts, feelings and behaviours (Roth, 2014).

Advertising research studies have often pointed out the important role of examining emotional responses to trigger the buying decision of consumers. Neuromarketing provides answers to questions such as: “Can I predict your choices before you’ve made them? How does choice work in the brain?”. An example of applying neuromarketing is a study carried out for a crisps brand. The research revealed that shiny bags with pictures of crisps activated the part of the brain that is associated with feelings of guilt, whereas the colour of beige potato chips bags that picture healthy ingredients such as potatoes or herbs did not activate this part of the brain (Wadhwa and Zhang, 2015). In this way the brand developed an understanding of the elements that affect the purchasing decision / preference so they could incorporate them into their advertising strategy.

While these studies of brain activity are fascinating, one might question the value of neuromarketing. Many have argued that neuromarketing can only reveal what is occurring in the brain, it can’t explain why it occurs. Graham (2012) stated “we are not zombies when we shop, mindlessly and unknowingly putting brands in our baskets and stumbling to the checkout in a fog”. In the end it is the consumer who will decide whether or not to buy a product: including catchy music in the advert, or a certain colour scheme, can only take a brand so far. Moreover, the notion that subliminal messages have the power to change a person’s behaviour without them noticing can be questioned. Research has shown that the advertisement of a specific drink brand with subliminal flashes was only effective if the audience actually wanted a drink (Sur, 2015). This means that subliminal messages are context specific and neuromarketing doesn’t take into account this fact as the experiments are being carried out in a strict laboratory environment where many variables are controlled.

Overall, neuromarketing can be a beneficial research tool for some marketing areas such as when assessing advertising or packaging, however its value should be understood as incremental to that of other market research tools, rather than a substitute. The complexity of human behaviour and emotions cannot be captured just in a colourful image but requires a longer term understanding of both the “what” and the “why”. Through Community Panels we can gain a longitudinal understanding of consumers and explore how behaviour and the underlying drivers and attitudes behind it change over time. Digital platforms enable us to combine both qualitative and quantitative methods and gain consumer insights on both System 1 (understanding the intuitive thinking – the “what”) and System 2 (understanding the reasoning behind decisions – the “why”), building a holistic picture of consumers within a test-and-learn environment.