Neuromarketing: How neuroscience is revealing what a consumer really wants

Neuromarketing: How neuroscience is revealing what a consumer really wants

By Vincent Schoots

Since the days of snake-oil peddlers, and even long before, the art of marketing has been to reach for that secret ‘buy button’ in the mind, to tickle the subconscious into purchasing whatever it is that needs to be sold. Along came the 21st century, and with it came neuromarketing. What is this new technology, and what can we expect from it?

According to the Neuromarketing Science & Business Association (NMSBA),

“Neuromarketing is the use of modern brain science to measure the impact of marketing and advertising on consumers.”

It includes techniques for measuring neural activation, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). Neuromarketing also uses more indirect methods like galvanic skin response (essentially the degree of skin sweatiness), eye tracking or automated face reading. Its aim is typically to gauge the response of consumers to marketing materials such as (online) ads, television commercials, or even shelf-displays.

Better than surveys:

Like its parent discipline, cognitive neuroscience, this is a young field; it is not much more than a decade old. It is also rapidly evolving, and still defining its standards. A series of success stories by academic research institutes has demonstrated that neuromarketing is able to capture a few aspects of a consumers’ response that are not available through surveys or focus groups. It can predict real-world marketing success, sometimes better than said methodologies.

A recent study by researchers from Rotterdam, Stanford, and Michigan showed crowdfunding ads to a focus sample of 30 participants undergoing fMRI brain scanning. The neural data from these participants could predict whether or not a given project would get funded, several weeks before the fact. The prediction was correct 67% of the time (where blindly guessing would achieve 50%). This was much better than asking the participants for their liking and their estimate of whether the project would succeed (53% accuracy, not statistically better than blind guessing).

Subconscious drives:

Not surprisingly, results like these have flared enthusiasm amongst practitioners. The Ad Council (the largest provider of public service announcements in the US), is a client of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience. Coca Cola, Vodafone and Heineken have all used neuromarketing at least once. From the supplier’s side, there is a large number of firms worldwide, big and small, offering these services, and new ones are still joining the fray.

The reason for the success of neuromarketing might lie in its promise to capture information that was unavailable up until now: the subconscious drives and desires of the consumer. Surveys and focus groups are intrinsically flawed because:

  1. The consumer might not always be aware of their own drives and
  2. They might have incentives to hide the truth or simply not care much about giving accurate answers.

Naturally, measuring the body’s response directly does not suffer from these flaws.

Neuromarketing is a credence good:

The thing is, as with any new technology, there are both inflated expectations and overly harsh skepticisms. To the customers of the neuromarketing bureaus, i.e., the firms wishing to place their product as well as possible, neuromarketing is a credence good. While there are many hardworking and honest partners out there, a few charlatans are sure to exist as well. The methodologies of the bureaus in question are of course proprietary, so there is no way to check their scientific rigor. A regulatory body would be very useful and will surely emerge. Until that time, if you are interested in neuromarketing, it is good to be curious and cautious. Avoid the snake-oil peddlers, consult an independent expert if needed, and reap the benefits.

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