Neuromarketing: What Makes Your Customer Light Up…Literally

Neuromarketing is a relatively new branch of market research which utilizes brain imaging technology to record and analyze customers’ psychological responses to various marketing stimuli. While there are many arguments criticizing both the validity of the science and its ethical implications, this should be seen as a golden opportunity for marketers to build branding that is in tune with the customer psyche.

The Technology: How it Works

Before looking at what it can do, let’s break it down and see how it works. There are three techniques at the center of neuromarketing that, when combined, paint a picture of the consumer mind: fMRI, QEEG, and MEG.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a technology that is used to monitor normal brain function and provides insight into how the brain reacts to stimuli such as language, pain, and emotion. It is best used to illustrate changes in the regions of the brain and is most notably known for adding brain imaging to the beloved Pepsi Challenge, in which subjects blindly taste Coke and Pepsi and indicate which they prefer. The fMRI added a twist by showing that when customers were unaware of which brand they were tasting, both Coke and Pepsi lit up the reward center of the brain. However, when they became brand- aware, the centers of memory and emotion processing illuminated. This indicated that the taste of both products fills the reward role, but it is the brand that appeals to emotion and thus the purchasing decision.

Quantitative Electroencephalography (QEEG) is a more statistically based method used to monitor brain patterns. It records electronic patterns on the surface of the scalp, converts and records the information onto a computer, and compares large populations of individuals. It is more suited to observing the customers’ minds where it matters most: when they are in stores making their decisions. QEEG is used to watch the brain as a customer is exposed to different advertisements, drives a new car, and even receives an unexpected freebie while shopping. It is noninvasive and provides easily comparable data.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) provides its value in psychology by being able to measure brain activity by the millisecond and provide data in small- time intervals. Out of all the techniques, MEG is used the least in neuromarketing. Its most noteworthy contribution is finding that the emotion processing portion of the brain only lit up when customers observed brands in their comfort zones in a virtual super- market.

The Implications: Threat or Opportunity?

Now that we have the “how,” we move into the “if we should” aspect of neuromarketing. The ability to watch the psychological impact of marketing has been criticized by both the scientific community as well as those concerned with ethics in business.  There is a fear that the ability to see advertising at a neurological level will lead to the manipulation, or even mind control, of customers and be a gross violation of their privacy.

Rather than focus on the potential for malicious use, however, this should, instead, be seen as a golden opportunity to rebuild brands based on what customers actually respond to and what literally makes them “light up.” By gaining so much insight into what stimuli creates meaningful and emotional impressions on customers, companies would be able to build brands using that stimuli, meeting  and exceeding expectations at the neurological level. Drilling down, this will enable companies to find more effective ways to communicate their marketing messages, instead of using resources to create noise that is expensive to produce and a hassle for customers to watch.

It is important to note that the neuromarketing concept is by no means a new or perfect science -scientists and marketers have dabbled in mind mapping with advertising for a number of years. Advances in technology, however, are at the crux of the push to expand this field as they allow more portability and versatility in what researchers can actually see.

Author: Natacha Arora


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