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Neuromarketing: the quest to find the buying buttons in our heads


Are you familiar with the Coca Cola versus Pepsi paradox? Around three quarters of people say that they prefer the taste of Coca Cola. But let them do a blind tasting and a small majority prefers Pepsi. To find out where this difference comes from, a few researchers repeated this taste test while the test subjects were connected to a brain scanner. What did they find out? When drinking Coca Cola (not blind), there was greater activity in the hippocampus, the memory centre in our brains, than when drinking Pepsi. Coca Cola has succeeded in stimulating strong, positive associations and memories within us and these can surpass the messages from our taste buds.

So, are the digital marketers of today ready to overwhelm our taste buds? That is, indeed, the question. And it makes us think about the marketing of the future.

What is neuromarketing?

These studies signify a starting point for the research domain of neuromarketing. Neuromarketing is a relatively new marketing domain that employs medical and neurological technologies, such as brain scanning, to examine brain responses to marketing stimuli.

The domain really took off when it became clear that the vast majority of our (purchasing) decisions are driven by our subconscious. Traditional marketing research would therefore not provide reliable results. People are simply not capable of accurately justifying why they chose a particular advertising message or why they would buy a specific product. We are usually completely unaware of the reasons for our choices, even though we think that they are deliberate decisions. Social desirability also still plays a role in marketing research; we don't necessarily say what we are thinking, but what we think the researchers would like to hear. Instead of asking someone what they think of a product, an advert or a website design, we really need to ask their brains.

Finding the buying button in our brains

The focus within neuromarketing quickly turned to predicting the influence of consumer behaviour. If we know which brain areas play a role in buying behaviour, we can perhaps use adverts or website designs to influence these areas and, in turn, manipulate the consumer into taking the desired action. The so-called 'buying button' in our brains. Media and neuromarketing gurus enthusiastically embraced this term. Research results were interpreted as if it was just a question of time before we could find this 'holy grail' of marketing. And so the hype began.

The question however remains; can neuromarketing fulfil this hype? Will (online) marketers soon know precisely which combination of images, videos, text, call-to-actions and value propositions a website needs in order to make a consumer buy a product or take a particular action?

You love your iPhone. Literally.

Well, we're not that far yet. Our brains are infinitely complex organs and our neurological expertise is still very limited. A great example of this is the iPhone study. In 2011, during the launch of the new iPhone, neuro-marketer Martin Lindstrom published a study entitled 'You love your iPhone. Literally.' Brain scans had shown that when people see their iPhones, there is significant activity in the insula, an area of the brain that relates to feelings of love and empathy and which is also active when you see your partner of a family member. However, this area also lights up slightly when people experience feelings of aversion, disgust, pain or hatred. So the title of this publication could just as well have been You hate your iPhone. Literally'.

Very often, there is no clear one-to-one relationship between an area in the brain and a specific function. Seeing part of a brain light up doesn't necessarily mean that a neuro-marketer knows what someone is thinking or feeling and certainly not which behaviours could be triggered. It remains a case of interpretation and guesswork.

But, even if we can chart the functions of our brains precisely in the future, it doesn't necessarily mean that marketers will be able to simply push the buying button. Our brains don't work like that. Making a decision to buy is a complex process that usually takes place over a long time. Many buying decisions are also influenced by factors that lie outside our brains, which cannot be influenced by neuromarketing. A property company can push the buying button as much as they like, if we don't have the budget required for the luxury apartment, we won't be able to buy it. Furthermore, we also possess rational thought processes that can evaluate and, if necessary, correct our buying decisions. Most scientists agree that the concept of a 'buying button' in our brains is pure fiction.

The importance of neuromarketing

So what is the value of this new marketing domain? As already indicated, neuromarketing is an interesting supplement to traditional marketing research. Large companies such as Google or Lays increasingly use neurological research in the development of new products or the production of new advertisements. Research has confirmed that neuromarketing is more effective at predicting the success of advertising messages than classic marketing research via surveys or focus groups. For most companies, however, the use of a brain scanner for research is simply too expensive.

Neuromarketing could also help with conversion optimisation, i.e. optimising websites in order to ensure users take a particular action. It also stresses the importance of subconscious, emotional factors, such as the use of social proof, the creation of scarcity or capitalising on typically human intellectual errors. These factors had already been identified in psychology and marketing but their effectiveness has been further confirmed by brain research. Neuromarketing could also uncover new factors, or lead to existing principles being modified. We have known for some time that the font used, and how easily this can be read by our brains, plays a role in website optimisation. A font that is easy to read is more persuasive in terms of communication. Neuromarketers play on this. A font that is easy to read creates additional engagement among website visitors but a more complex, slanting font leads to visitors retaining the message more readily. So it all depends on what you wish to achieve with your message. For online marketers, it is very interesting to follow the developments in this area.



The consumer takes centre stage

The huge advantage of neuromarketing is that it always puts the consumer first. Neuromarketing insights help marketers create products, adverts or website that more effectively anticipate and capitalise on the needs and desires of their consumers. Marketing therefore becomes more effective and this can lead to increased sales and higher turnover. With neuromarketing, you can influence your customers' buying behaviour, not simply by pushing a 'buying button', but by designing products and messages that are more appealing to them.

As a marketer, there are numerous challenges for the future in this domain because, as already stated, neuromarketing is a highly complex but ultimately extremely interesting field.
Do you have any questions on this blog? Then please feel free to get in touch. 




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