Neuromarketing – the way into the consumer’s brain?

Lighting, background music, fragrance – selling strategies in retail are no longer limited to just product placement. To ensure that a trip to the store leads to a purchase, marketing experts plan the layout of the retail space down to the finest detail. The goal is to create an environment or ambience that is ‘sale-friendly’ and speaks to the customer’s subconscious. This environment is not just important for the ‘brick and mortar’ retail sector but also for online sales. The e-commerce sector makes use of any and all means to bring attention to the products and services that they offer.

On a daily basis, online consumers are confronted by an excessive amount of offers from so many companies, many of whom are more or less selling the same thing. This flood of offers means that online retailers must ask themselves: ‘Why should the consumer choose to buy from us and not from the competitor?’ But purely rational approaches and considerations here play a relatively minor role – at least according to neuroscience. Neurologists believe the decision to buy has a lot more to do with the parts of the brain that deal with the processing of emotions and behavioral instincts. Trying to figure just how much neurological factors have to do with marketing is in many ways the definition of neuromarketing.

What is neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing is an interdisciplinary research field that positions itself between market research and neuroeconomics. While neuroeconomists attempt to explain economic decision processes with the help of neurological methods, neuromarketers on the other hand use these explanations to develop new marketing strategies and instruments.

Neuroeconomic research is based on the assumption that decisions are largely made based on subconscious actions. When it comes to making a purchase, it is emotions and not rational considerations that dictate our buying decision.

The aim of neuromarketing is the optimization of marketing processes and, figuratively speaking, gaining an insight into the brain of the consumer. The goal is to decipher what subconscious processes take place during a purchase or the viewing of an advertisement. Researchers and marketing specialists hope to acquire an accurate view of the purchase decision making process, which then leads to a purchase. With this information, neuromarketers now claim to be able to find the answers that up until now have remained elusive from the more classic marketing instruments, such as surveys, etc. Even the most cooperative of test subjects cannot provide information relating to processes that take place subconsciously.

Neuromarketing instruments

The human brain is a complicated network made up of approximately 100 billion nerve cells. It processes sensory perceptions, coordinates complex behavior, and acts as a central storage facility for all processed information. As the base for all thoughts, opinions, attitudes, wishes, and purposes, the brain is the physical bedrock of an individual’s mental processes and configurations, as well as their cognition and emotion. The way in which all these interact with each other and lead to decision processes is the subject of various research areas. But there are no conclusive answers, and neuroscience has committed itself to answering this question by attempting to understand the physical and biological processes that take place in the brain. This is done primarily through non-invasive neurophysiological methods of examination, like electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

  • EEG: Electroencephalography is the measurement of the electronic activity in the brain. This method of measurement gathers voltage fluctuations along the surface of the head, and then plots them graphically. Being a non-imaging process, it provides information on physiological reactions in the brain, but doesn’t lay them out in relation to the underlying anatomical structures. This means that researchers can record that a certain stimulus has triggered a reaction, but they are unable to figure out in which part of the brain this took place.
  • fMRI: Functional magnetic resonance imaging is an imaging method that makes it possible to create a spatial representation of the activated part of the brain. fMRI also make it possible to make use of different magnetic components of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood to identify metabolic changes to blood circulation. This in turn zones in on the neuronal activity in the corresponding part of the brain. In contrast to non-imaging processes like EEG, the reactions can be attributed to a specific area of the brain.

Further to advertising research, neuromarketing can also draw on psychophysiological behaviors, i.e. measurements like heart rate, electro dermal activity, and eye tracking.

  • Heart rate measurement: This is where the number of heart beats during a certain period is measured. The aim is to correlate the arousal of the test person with various stimuli.
  • Electrodermal activity (EDA):  Electrodermal reaction refers to a short subsidence of the electrical properties of the skin. This is caused by the emotional-effective reactions in the sympathetic nervous system. If the presentation of a stimulus leads to an electrodermal reaction, then this is a sign of the test subject’s arousal.
  • Eye tracking: Eye tracking means you gather data on the eye movement of a test subject while they are presented with visual stimuli. Using technical apparatuses, the eye movement can be recorded and divided into fixations, i.e. when the eye gaze pauses in a certain position, and saccades, i.e. when the eye moves to a different position.

Advertising research

Neuromarketing often involves a combination of psycho and neurophysiological examination methods. This is done with the intention of analyzing the reaction of potential target groups to advertisements, product design, the structuring of the design process, or indeed even the design of a retail space. Possible stimuli, whose impact can be monitored, are different versions of an advertisement, a website, the user interface of a software, or maybe a product packaging. E-commerce relies on processes like these to facilitate the optimal design and placement of advertisements, order buttons, visual elements, and calls to action.

Where does the consumer look? How does he/she react to it? Which parts of the brain are stimulated as a result? These are all key questions. The goal is, through neurological processes, to be able to understand the physical actions stimulated by advertising material and layout. This usually means that techniques such as eye-tracking must be applied to measure the eye movement and the attention span caused by the stimulus. This, combined with an imaging process like fMRI, can evaluate which neuronal area was stimulated by observing a stimulus. If a test subject responds to a certain stimulus via neuronal activity in a certain part of the brain, this then implies that this effect can be assigned to that corresponding area of the brain.

It must be noted that neuro and psychophysiological studies mostly take place in a laboratory environment. This allows for information on brain activity and the involvement of certain anatomical structures. But being able to correctly interpret the results with marketing issues in mind is only possible if the experiment results are compatible with fundamental neuroscientific and psychological knowledge, so that a relevant correlation can then be identified.

Example: Judging brain activity in the amygdala, a part of the so-called limbic system, when presented with a certain stimulus is only possible when this part of the brain is then attributed with being emotionally affected by this information. Emotional psychology research has established that emotions very strongly influence the way in which we take in and evaluate the world around us. Neuroscientific studies, particularly those by António Damásio (Descartes’ Error) and Joseph LeDoux (The Emotional Brain), prove insightful in this regard. What they have shown is that emotions that influence attention and memory, as well as emotional evaluation, i.e. all that is assessed emotionally, are processed at a deeper level.

Of particular interest to marketing experts is the mesolimbic system and its neurotransmitter dopamine. An activation of the so-called reward center is connected with feelings of joy and pleasure. According to neuroscientists, one of the key functions of the mesolimbic system is the strengthening of the readiness to act. An activation in the corresponding areal is interpreted as a positive stimulus, which in turn link to motivation. This means that the mesolimbic system plays a role in the positive reinforcement and learning through reward.

A connection has been found between achieving a profit and the activation of the reward center. This sensation is not just prompted by an individual achieving a profit because of making a decision, but can also come from joyfully anticipating a future reward. For example, tests in the area of product design have shown that sports and luxury cars have been known to have activated the rewarding areas of the brain much stronger compared to hybrid cars. This reaction can be explained by social ranking, which is often heavily associated with these kinds of cars. Raising your status can also be a form of social reward, even if it has not yet been achieved but is only a future prospect.

If this actually leads to consumers grabbing for their credit cards is another issue entirely. Ultimately, not all purchase decisions are ones that have successfully appealed to an individual’s emotions with marketing actions. Many other factors are also involved in potential customers’ decision making process, including; their state of mind of at that exact moment, recommendations from friends and family, and past experiences with products and services. On top of this, there are also external factors, such as interruptions and distractions caused by others. These can also influence consumers’ buying process. The fundamental issues when it comes to marketing cannot be addressed based solely on neurons and neuronal activity.

Neuronal marketing: the tricks of the advertising trade

When it comes to figuring out exactly how neuromarketing works, limits are defined by the current knowledge levels of general brain science and research. And in many of the areas relevant to marketing and advertising, little more than the basic amount of research exists. Technically elaborate apparatuses, expensive series of experiments, and PowerPoint presentations featuring colorful pictures of the brain, all disguise the fact that the current state of research is fairly limited. This also applies to the actively complex topics around cognition and emotion, where research is still a long way from done.

The idea that emotions, when mixed with brand awareness, can promote sales is in no way a new idea and is one which has been adapted by advertising psychologists throughout the last century. And advertisers demonstrate it without the use of expensive fMRI studies. But there is no doubt that the amount of influence exerted by neuroeconomic, psychological, and cognitive scientific theories in the minds of marketers is certainly increasing. But not only empirical measurement methods are being utilized. Instead of inviting test subjects into a laboratory, marketing experts instead turn to existing concepts, like arousal, herding, emotionality, priming, and other hypotheses of established marketers in order to develop sales tricks, which can influence consumers’ subconscious decision-making processes.

Herding

Human beings act based on the behavior of people around them, mostly without consciously deciding to do so. If one person begins to speak quietly, the other will begin to whisper. If one person feels the need to yawn, it’s often the case that a second person won’t be able to stop themselves from yawning either. Neuroscience explains this phenomenon with the aptly named mirror neurons. This was first recorded by the research group of the Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolati. He discovered that the neurons in a certain part of an individual’s brain not only reacted when the test subject carried out a motor hand to object interaction, but that this was also the case when a similar movement was observed being carried out by another test person. Today we know that all it takes is for a gesture, e.g. a yawn, to be seen to cause a subconscious mirror reaction.

The mirror neurons theory also explains the phenomenon of the herd mentality, something which can be observed both in animals and in humans. This refers to the way in which a group of individuals will collectively behave in a similar manner, without any organized controlling. This ‘herding’ term has now also found its way into marketing jargon. While neurophysiologists limit themselves to researching the brains of primates, such as observing test subjects eating ice cream, advertising experts use the herd mentality to give their target market a shove in the desired direction.

A technical marketing use of the herding phenomenon can be seen in the area of user-generated product reviews, something which is now offered by nearly every single online shop. It is no secret that the consumer is more likely to favor the products and services that have been bought by others and subsequently been found to be satisfactory. Who would choose to book a room in a hotel which, because of poor hygiene standards and unfriendly staff, has been given one star out of five by a previous visitor?

Marketing experts assume that the herding effect is much stronger when linked to recommendations made by prominent personalities. Testimonial advertising is an everyday occurrence now with regards to herding marketing. Why would you ever choose to drink Budweiser, when Heineken has now become the drink of choice for James Bond?

While celebrity endorsements have been around for decades, new forms of advertising like Let’s Play, hauls, and unboxing videos are now emerging. What these basically entail is consumers trying out video games or unboxing and sampling recently bought products, and then hopefully recommending them to others. The viewing figures of these sorts of videos on YouTube and other video streaming sites only go to show how large the audience is that can be reached with this form of user-generated advertising.

Emotionalized branding

If you buy into the idea that emotions influence the processing of information relating to memory, thought, and decision processes, then it is obvious that you must link brands, products, and services with emotion. To remain memorable to consumers it is no longer sufficient to make clear and rational points. In many ways, it is much more important to emphasize the emotional value of a brand, product, or service.

The emotional significance of certain brands in the minds of consumers can really be judged by observing the market for the likes of energy drinks, chocolate bars, and lemonade.
Here, it is the brands that have relied on emotionalized advertising for years that are the market leaders. With these brands, there is one advertising style that is king: storytelling. While this marketing trick may sound quite simple, finding good stories and then telling them in a way that evokes emotion is the key to major success in marketing.

A textbook example of a brand that is most certainly emotionally charged is Coca Cola. When blindly tasted, test subjects have been known to say that the main competitor Pepsi actually tastes better. But if they see the branded bottles, then the majority will nearly always go for Coca-Cola. This shows how the company has managed to skillfully link their brand with a certain emotion. So much so that it will override objective taste sensations. Let’s be honest: who’s going to be thinking of Pepsi when you see images of the iconic Coca-Cola Christmas truck rolling past on the TV or on a billboard?

A scientific explanation for how brands manage to emotionalize themselves is offered by the priming effect and also the somatic marker hypothesis (SMH).

Priming

Priming refers to a term from psychology which denotes a phenomenon where the processing of a stimulus (the target stimulus) is influenced by the fact that a previous stimulus (cue stimulus) has activated an implicit memory. This implicit memory will recall experiences that lead to specific associations, and subconsciously affect an individual’s behavior. Priming distinguishes itself from other explicit memories, which can be consciously called on and articulated.  A priming stimulus can be a word, image, smell, or a gesture.

The first reference to the priming effect can be found in the work of psychologist John A. Bargh, whose Florida experiment has gone down historically as one of the classic experiments in psychology. Bargh demonstrated that the behavior of the test subject can be influenced by priming. Two different lists of words were used as the priming stimuli. The experiment saw the experimental group receive two successive lists of words, like forgettable, bald, grey, and Florida; all words that were obviously linked to the theme of old age. The control group, on the other hand, were presented with a list of words from a range of other themes. Central to the experiment was the change of rooms that took place between the first and second tasks. Bargh noticed that the experimental group, which had been primed by the list of words to do with age, moved much slower to the next room compared to the control group. This allowed him to make the conclusion that simply reading certain words had subconsciously affected the behavior of the test subjects.

Bargh’s Florida experiment attracted attention, not just because of the implications regarding human decision-making and free will, but also because it could not be replicated in later studies. It was still the case, however, that similar effects were demonstrated by other, comparable social psychological and psycholinguistic studies. Today, ‘priming’ has established itself as a standard term in psychology.

Even in marketing, strategies are used that can be found to lead back to the priming effect. Regardless of whether it has to do with the creation of advertising material, the design of a website, or the furnishing of a retail space. In all these cases, stimuli in the form of words, pictures, and even smells are used to influence the consumer on a subconscious level. Alongside semantic priming, there is also a large focus on affective priming and the stimulation of emotions. These are some examples of how, for example, stereotypes, prejudices, and needs can all be triggered by certain stimuli.

  • Semantic priming refers to a priming effect, wherein a verbal stimuli activates a word association (semantic field). Priming studies have shown that the processing of a word can be influenced by a previous one, insomuch that both words share a semantic relationship. For example: Test subjects comprehend the word ‘nurse’ faster if the word ‘doctor’ is read beforehand. This phenomenon is explained by psycholinguists and cognitive scientists by the fact that individual words lead to the activation of an entire concept or theme. As soon as we read the word ‘doctor’ we immediately begin to run through scenes from ER or Scrubs in our heads.
  • Affective priming refers to a priming effect, wherein the emotional connotations of a previous stimuli (cue stimulus) impacts on the processing of a subsequent stimuli (target stimulus). Studies done by the American social psychologist Russell Fazio have shown that the processing of an affective stimulus is simplified when it is preceded by a consistently affective stimulus, i.e. a stimulus that provokes a similar feeling.

Depending on the relationship between the cue stimulus and target stimulus, either positive or negative priming effects can be observed. Therefore, the processing of the target stimulus will be either accelerated or delayed. With regards to neuromarketing, an invoking of positive emotions is what is sought after. Products and brands should have overwhelmingly positive connotations and therefore be anchored in the memories of the intended target audience.

Above all, advertisers strive to provoke positive associations and affects through priming, subsequently conveying this feeling onto an advertised product or service. In order to do this, stimuli in the form of words, images, music, gestures, and fragrances are all utilized to pave the way for the advertising message. There are countless examples of affective priming to be seen in the motor industry, which in adverts for luxury and sports cars either usually highlight the joy of driving or the accompanying feeling of freedom. On the other hand, rational arguments such as energy efficiency or good value play a relatively minor role.

When it comes to connecting emotions with brands, products, and services, advertisers will rely on the use of repetition. A prime example of this is the McDonald’s slogan ‘I’m lovin’ it’. Regardless of whether on TV, online, or on product packaging, the brand is connected with the most positive emotional state. And this is done in the hope that these positive emotions will in turn transform into a positive view of what the fast food restaurant has to offer. This transfer of emotions is referred to as a halo effect in social psychology. What is happening here is a cognitive distortion, where the known qualities of a person, brand, or product are determined by unknown qualities.

Somatic markers

The somatic marker hypothesis can be traced back to the neuroscientist António Damásio and is based on the assumption that emotional experiences are embedded in people and therefore play a large role in decision processes. According to Damásio, the choice between two alternatives is particularly influenced by unconscious body signals, a.k.a. somatic markers. Anatomically, these are to be found in the prefrontal cortex, and control a person’s preventative and approach mannerisms.

If, in a certain situation, an individual senses a positive body signal, e.g. joy, this in turn results in a subconscious approach behavior. If negative feelings, like disgust or fear were to arise, then this will usually lead to avoidance in the corresponding situation. If we are to believe Damásio’s theory, then body signals in the form of somatic markers represent a precursor to the rational decision process, i.e. they act as a type of pre-decision. Added to this, somatic markers link emotional reactions to memories of specific events, meaning everyone has their own sort of emotional memory. If it so happens that at a later point a person comes into contact again with the respective stimulus, this will lead to a repeat-experiencing of the corresponding emotions. This, then, acts as a type of guiding system, which during a decision-making process will give a push in the right direction.

The origin of Damásios’ hypothesis was observations of patients with damaged frontal lobes. These patients encountered difficulties when it came to making decisions, despite having a consistent level of intelligence and a working social environment. Somatic markers are of huge importance when it comes to neuromarketing. If Damásios’ conclusions are to be believed, then every emotionalized communication with regards to advertising or brand strategy leads to a somatic marker. And in turn, each new interaction with the advertised product or brand will then influence future decisions.

Criticisms of neuromarketing

Does neuromarketing signal the end of the self-determining consumer? While marketing experts are predicting a golden age, consumer advisors are voicing their concerns. Ever-rising consumer credit is reflected by the ever-increasing amount of people in financial difficulty, and the free will of the consumer has become a serious bone of contention. But is neuromarketing really a threat to consumers’ free will?


One thing is clear; there is no such thing as a ‘buy button’ in the heads of consumers, despite what may have been suggested in popular scientific publications. The inner workings of the human brain are simply too complex and cannot simply be broken down or figured out by basic sales tricks. Instead of this, neuroscience offers explanations and theories relating to human thought, perception, and decision processes, all of which are based on underlying biological structures of the brain.

These developments in brain research are valuable to marketers, as they allow for a better understanding of consumers’ decision process. This, in turn, means that products, adverts, and sales channels can be designed to grab people’s attention, evoke emotions, and then remain in their memory – three factors that have always been known to promote sales. With this in mind, neuromarketing can be seen as less of a revolution and more of an evolution of established consumer research. Past methods and findings have not become irrelevant. Instead, they are merely being substantiated and expanded by results in neuroscientific research, and are helping to reveal more comprehensive insight into consumer behavior. Neuromarketing is simply one of many components of the marketing process.

There have been some disputes about the extent to which findings in neuromarketing can and should be used to purposely manipulate consumers. But the idea of a remote-controlled consumer, who feels compelled to buy something due to some jazzed-up advertising, purely remains something from a science fiction movie. But it does pose one question: To what degree is manipulation possible through advertising?

The term ‘manipulation’ usually implies sway tactics, which are unclear to unsuspecting victims and therefore uncontrollable. Everyone knows that advertising is there to facilitate selling, and most consumers are aware that when they visit an online store, that the retailer will undoubtedly describe the products and services on offer in a positive way, and also that the website will be laid out in such a way that the ‘Buy’ button will always catch the eye. Many tactics and approaches adopted by advertisers are subsequently discussed by the consumers themselves. A prime example of this is the expression ‘Sex sells!’ In this sense, neuro-economic research acts as a form of consumer protection. As people become aware of the inner workings of advertising, its power is curtailed and marketing tricks debunked.