Neuromarketing: a brief history
“95% or more
of all cognition,
levels of awareness.”
—Gerald Zaltman, Harvard researcher
Neuromarketing is a business discipline that utilizes neuroscience to measure the emotional impact of marketing messages in the brain and translates them into actionable insights. Its rise has been fuelled by the failure of conventional methods of reporting in predicting the effectiveness of marketing investments. Because neuromarketing does not rely on cognitive or conscious participation, it gives marketers more objective results.
Neuro-Pioneers and their work
The concept of neuromarketing was developed at Harvard in 1990, with the neuroimaging project of pioneer researchers Gerarld Zaltman and Stephen Kosslyn. Their work described by Dr. Zaltman in his book, How Customers Think, involved the use of MRI combined with fDOT, a specially developed technique, to reveal blood flow in brain tissues, allowing them to measure neural response to ads and scenarios for retail sites. The results were very encouraging as the researchers were able to achieve a fourfold increase in the gross sales of the test sites.
The subconscious and the decision making process
One of Dr. Zaltman’s most important findings—and indeed the entire premise of neuromarketing—is that up to 90% of purchasing decisions are made on an entirely subconscious level. He also discovered that thoughts in the brain, are formed as images, leading him to develop ZMET, a method of exploring the unconscious mind with selected images that cause a positive emotional response and activate deep hidden metaphors, stimulating the purchase. Its commercial use has been successful in creating impactful marketing messages.
The Pepsi Challenge
The first scholarly neuromarketing research was performed by neuroscientist Read Montague at Baylor College in 2003. He used a functional MRI to scan the brains of 67 subjects while taking a blind taste test of Pepsi and Coke. At the start, half of the subjects preferred Pepsi and their scans showed a stronger response than Coke, in their ventromedial prefrontal cortex—the brain’s reward centre. But once Montague displayed the brands, three-quarters said Coke tasted better. To Montague‘s surprise their brain activity also changed. This time, the medial prefrontal cortex lighted up—the executive-control function that does our thinking and planning, and the hippocampus—a region implicated in memory, indicating that the subjects were thinking about Coke and recalling memories. Remarkably, their brain’s most active area was the hippocampus—the older brain structures nestled in the limbic system, responsible for our emotional and instinctual behaviour. The conclusion of the study was an eye-opener.
Judging on results Pepsi should have 50% of the market. However the study demonstrated that although consumers prefer the taste of Pepsi, they are still buying Coke—suggesting that the brand image was overriding the actual quality of the product.
While the conclusions of the study were intriguing, it may have not been enough to convince marketing researchers about neuroscience’s ability to decode the neural code of our decisions, but it was certainly enough to worry many about its potential power. Indeed, in short time neuromarketing became the most controversial branch of neuroscience, triggering a wave of heavy criticism and raising questions about the ethics and morality of researchers—because of its perceived potential to tweak our subconscious minds.
In spite of that, neither the short-lived attacks from the media nor the efforts from consumer advocacy groups succeeded in curbing the popularity and growth of neuromarketing. With subsequent studies, neuromarketing has gained rapid credibility for its effectiveness in improving business results. It has grown considerably in the last years and has been adopted by many large-scale marketers such as Rogers, Royal Bank, Molson, Royal LePage, Canadian Tire, Nestle, Daimler, Ford, Audi, Campbell Soup, National Geographic, CBS, Google, Frito-Lay and others.
Redefining marketing and communications
The exponential progress of brain research, has been acknowledged by Nobel laureate Dr. Eric Kandel who dramatically said: “We have learned more about the brain in the last five years than during all of human history combined.” Neuromarketing holds the key to creating advertising that’s scientifically proven to be effective. It has attained critical mass and its growing knowledge is having a substantial impact on marketing, redefining communications and shifting business paradigms.