The Jury Is Out | Is Neuromarketing The Next Big Thing Or The Next Raw Deal
(Third of Three Articles)
Understanding what motivates consumers to buy your product over the competition and instilling brand loyalty are the hallmarks of the marketing dream. It is also the promise behind neuromarketing, a somewhat controversial technique that uses magnetic resonance imaging to gauge people’s reaction to marketing messages.
By observing how the brain reacts in real time when exposed to stimuli, neuromarketing researchers say they can identify what triggers an emotional response. For example, pictures of sports cars light up the rewards center in the brain. However, if the price of the car is higher than the consumer is willing or hoping to pay, the centers in the brain associated with pain and reasoning show increased activity. Armed with this information, neuroscientists claim to be that much closer to predicting buying behavior, which has spurred millions of dollars of investment to further refine the technique.
Consumer advocacy groups, however, worry about the potential of brain-washing and the invasion of privacy that neuromarketing entails. They argue that armed with the knowledge of how consumers make decisions, companies can manipulate unwary consumers into buying anything. However, there is no evidence in the research that supports these fears. In fact, there’s little research to support the claim that neuromarketing works at all.
So, What’s the Buzz?
Although neuroscientists claim to be unlocking the mysteries behind consumer buying behavior, the application of such knowledge into a feasible marketing plan has yet to be realized. And while advocates tout neuromarketing as being the next big deal, it just might be the next raw deal.
Yet, despite minimal published peer-reviewed research, companies including Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and Proctor & Gamble invest heavily neuromarketing research. The promising applications suggested by entrepreneurial neuroscientists apparently prove irresistible to companies seeking a competitive edge. For example, in a corporate profile by the market research firm, Polaris, a Coca-Cola spokesman says that "this type of knowledge from the brain will help establish the foundation of loyal and long-lasting consumer relationships not easily superseded by the competition."
The Research Is Not Revelatory
The knowledge garnered from brain mapping studies has yielded few if any revolutionary insights, however. For example, in the study titled, "Cultural Objects Modulate Reward Circuitry," Susanne Erk writes that products symbolizing wealth and status exhibit increased activity in the rewards/pleasure center of the brain, something that marketers have known intuitively since the first cave with a view was put up for sale.
Another study, "Bias-Specific Activity in the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex During Credibility Judgments," by Michael Deppe, found that when consumers were faced with doubtful credibility, brand information was an important influence in decision-making and could be seen by increased activity in the section of the brain associated with attraction. Brand loyalty has always been a marketing goal, and though the neurophysiology of this finding is relevant, it only qualifies a marketing strategy that has already existed for some time.
Yet another study, "Why Are Celebrities Effective? An fMRI Study into Presenter Context Effects," by Vasily Klucharev, found that using celebrities increased the memory center in the brain, and consumers were more apt to remember the product by associating it with the celebrity. Again, this is no great revelation.
All these studies, though they may yield exciting insights into better understanding the physiology behind decision-making, only validate what marketing professionals already know and do not provide revolutionary insights into the creation of new marketing strategies.
The Expense Might Outweigh The Benefits
What’s more, fMRI studies require repetitive simulations to reduce noise and they must be averaged across a large number of trials to validate findings. This can prove to be very expensive as cited in "Impact Assessment of Neuroimaging," by Barbel Huesing. For example, the average cost to scan one subject for one hour is between $400 amd $550.
Although fMRI imaging is being marketed as more reliable than traditional means of gathering consumer preference information, it is not a perfect science. Body movement such as breathing can distort and disrupt images, and the interpretation of the results is subjective. The human brain is complicated, and activity in various sections at the same time can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As a result, conclusions are often based on assumptions, which is not all that different from traditional market intelligence gathering.
Unrealistic Goals, Perhaps?
Neuroscientists are now backing away from the pursuit of the every elusive buying button, realizing that such a goal is unrealistic. For example in an article published in New Scientist, BrightHouse founder Clint Kilts claimed that rather than predicting individual purchasing behavior, neuromarketing will help them understand how people develop preferences. "Our goal is to change company, not consumer, behavior," he says.
Perhaps this is a sign that companies are tired of getting nothing for their investments.
Although brain mapping has provided keen insight into the neurophysiologic responses, the utilization of such information into a revolutionary marketing plan remains allusive and expensive. According to "The application of functional magnetic resonance imaging for market research" by Peter Kenning, "…in order to determine whether the market researchers, fmri or other techniques such as MEG rally provide a window into the consumer mind, much more empirical evidence is needed." The only beneficiary so far has been the neuroscientists in obtaining funding for their research.
Neuromarketing has been termed a scam, a hype or a passing fad by many others. As long as companies believe in the quest for the mythical buying button, funding for such research will continue to pore in. However unless neuroscience can prove the information garnered from such study can be translated into a successful, actionable marketing plan, interest and investment will continue to wane.
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