Neuromarketing: what it is, how it works, examples and methods

What is neuromarketing? What are the methods and tools of this discipline? Can it really help us determine the most effective forms of communication to influence the consumer’s decision process? In this article we offer an overview of this discipline, which is based on the methodologies of neuroscience, and present two case studies that attest to its potential, as well as the importance of knowing how to communicate to consumers at a cognitive level.

Although there are many data at our disposal, as well as known methods for understanding sales dynamics, marketers often know that there are very few certainties; that very often (if not always) continuous experimentation is required to evaluate what works and what needs to be revised, and that all this not only changes from case to case but also temporally: what proves effective at first might not be so later on.

Those who work in this sector have probably learned to live with uncertainty, adopting highly flexible mindset and strategies in order to adapt to contingent situations.

But how would the way of marketing change if there was the possibility to understand certain consumer behaviours with greater certainty and to have scientific data that can create real potential value for marketers?

Well, the possibility of obtaining all this already exists: neuromarketing. Although with due limits – which you will find in the final considerations at the end of this article – this discipline offers a surprising potential, as well as a unique point of observation of consumer dynamics and of the relationship between brands and people.

Before delving deeper into this world, however, let’s take a look at some important definitions that will help us better understand some concepts.

What is Neuromarketing and how it is useful

The term neuromarketing first appeared in 2002, coined by Ale Smidts, professor of Marketing Research at the Rotterdam School of Management.

But to understand what it is and how it works, we must first talk about neuroscience, which is the discipline on which neuromarketing is based and which groups together the disciplines that study the nervous system.

In fact, neuromarketing is a set of techniques that exploits the discoveries and methodologies of neuroscience to determine the most effective forms of communication to influence the consumer’s decision process.

In parallel, consumer neuroscience is the academic use of neuroscience to better understand the effects of marketing on consumer behaviour.

These disciplines are particularly interesting because they take into account and analyse our subconscious and our emotional responses during the phases of choice and purchase, and our relationship with a brand. In fact, neuromarketing can help us understand how the unconscious processes that take place in our mind of consumer and that affect purchasing decisions and the emotional involvement with a brand are generated, what they are and how they develop.

Where everything starts: the brain

Before delving into the processes that take place in our subconscious and the tools that can be used to measure them, it is good to spend a few minutes analysing the element from which everything starts: the brain.

Although relatively little is known about this magnificent and at times inscrutable system, several neuroscientific studies have indicated how purchasing processes and the occurrence of certain emotional reactions related to a brand activate certain parts of our brain.

Without having the presumption of being exhaustive, let’s briefly brush up on how our brain is structured.

Our brain is made up of convolutions, that is, areas determined by sulci, which are called fissures when they are deeper.

The cerebellum controls movements and emotional responses, as well as cognitive functions. The occipital lobe deals with visual inputs; the temporal lobe is the seat of memory, hearing and language and is what allows us to recognize objects; the parietal lobe supports us in spatial movements and is the seat of self-awareness; last but not least, the frontal lobe is just as important for memory and is also what drives preferences, decisions and motion.

Which parts of the brain are activated when we have to choose a product? Brian Knutson’s case study

In 2006, Brian Knutson, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University, published a study on neural purchase predictors, highlighting which areas of our brain are activated when making a choice or a purchase.

The results are really interesting and give a possible answer to one of the pivotal questions of neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience: how do we choose? Do we only make our choices after deliberately pondering everything and gathering information? Or are there some signals, some emotional or unconscious responses that can predict what we will do next?

For this study, the researchers gave participants a sum of money to spend at their discretion during the decision-making process.

Afterwards, participants were presented with various products that were assigned a price only at a later stage. So, for 4 seconds, the participants looked at the image of a product. Then, for another 4 seconds, they were shown the specific price of that product. Finally, for the last 4 seconds, participants were given the possibility to choose whether or not to buy the product for that particular price.

Participants performed this task several times with different products, allowing researchers to aggregate multiple responses.

Once the process was over, the researchers looked at the data to identify any specific neural responses that could predict the choice.

What came to light is really interesting: during the first 4 seconds (related to the observation of the product alone), there was a strong activation of a part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, which plays an important role in the cognitive processes of aversion, motivation, reward and reinforcement of the action. In fact, the activation of this part of the brain was strongly correlated with the choice of the product. So, the more this part was activated, the higher the chances of purchase.

Observing instead the neural responses in the next 4 seconds – those in which the price was displayed – a strong activation was found in the insula, another part of the brain related to emotional responses. In this case, however, the more this part was activated, the more the probability of a subsequent purchase decreased.

Finally, observing the neural responses related to the final 4 seconds, connected to the actual moment of choice, a stronger activation in the medial prefrontal cortex was detected, predictive of the choice.

To verify the results, the researchers asked the participants when they knew they had made up their mind about whether or not to purchase the product. Participants replied that the decision was made only during the last 4 seconds, corresponding to the actual time needed to say yes or no.

Therefore, the interesting conclusion is that by observing the neural responses, it is possible to predict the choice of a product 8 to 12 seconds before the actual moment of choice or even before people realize they have made a decision. Furthermore, it was possible to identify a particular part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, which is indicative of wanting, which in this case matched the desire to buy the product.

The role played by attention, consciousness and emotions

Through Knutson’s study we have seen how, by observing neural responses, it is possible to know in advance the choices of a consumer and evaluate his unconscious emotional reactions, which guide most of the purchasing decisions or our relationship with a brand.

In fact, if everything happened consciously, we would only need to ask consumers directly to understand their choices, right? But, as Knutson’s study showed, their answers would be only partially true: very often, the actions we perform as consumers are unconscious, even more so when we have little time to decide or are distracted by something else.

In fact, there are two elements that play a very important role in the purchase dynamics or when it comes to brand awareness, especially at an unconscious level: attention and consciousness.

Attention is something limited and is divided into two types:

  • Bottom-up, that is when there is something that automatically catches our attention.
  • Top-down, when we consciously focus our attention on a particular thing.

Bottom-up attention is spontaneous, involuntary; top-down attention is a voluntary choice and, as such, is activated by the conscious action of focusing on something specific.

However, several studies have shown that attention, especially visual attention, can be influenced by advertising, even if we are not aware of this.

For example, have you ever felt gobsmacked when the packaging of your favourite cookies changes its appearance? This happens because the receptors in our eyes – which are more sensitive to certain changes such as contrast, brightness, density – are activated and send signals to the thalamus, triggering visual attention. This information is then sent by the thalamus to the primary visual cortex. This step is what activates bottom-up attention.

Therefore, changing the visual appearance of a product from time to time increases the chance that people will notice and buy it. But before we can even notice a product or a change, we must be aware, unconsciously as well, of that particular product or brand.

And here is where consciousness comes into play – a state of mind, an experience, which occurs when we have to face more challenging situations or when a greater degree of flexibility is needed.

In fact, to become aware of something, our brain requires a great deal of energy: despite weighing only 1.5 kg, the brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy. For this reason, when our brain can become unconscious or activate “autopilot”, it will. It happens, for example, when we drive a car or ride a bike: these are things that our brain already knows how to do, actions that are reproduced almost automatically, without having to think about it.

At brand level, awareness is not a static phenomenon but is influenced by our preferences. And it is precisely for this reason that brands must be able to communicate their value in an unconscious way in order to capture the consumer’s attention.

However, attention and consciousness are not only the only dynamics that come into play during purchase decisions or in the relationship with a brand. There is another important aspect to which they are linked and which can influence our unconscious choices: emotions.

Emotions are physical responses to an event that typically occur before consciousness or even without being aware of it.

Emotions are not to be confused with feelings, which are instead responses of an organism when it is in a certain emotional state and which always occur in a conscious way. In fact, if it is true that there can be emotions without feelings, it is impossible for the opposite to happen, as feelings require an emotional state.

When it comes to marketing, triggering emotions in the consumer is particularly important because emotions lead to action, they can change our perception of a product, act as a social signal and are completely spontaneous.

The Coca Cola vs Pepsi case

The acclaimed Coca Cola vs Pepsi case study perfectly shows both the role played by emotions and consciousness, and the unconscious power of advertising. A good example of how communicating and associating certain values with a brand can really make a difference.

In 2004, neuroscientist Read Montague conducted an experiment on 67 people to compare Coca Cola and Pepsi, with the aim of understanding what factors influenced the consumer’s choice.

The participants had to taste a glass of Coca Cola and one of Pepsi, first without knowing the brand of what they were drinking, then knowing the brand.

This time around as well, the experiment gave interesting results: when the participants did not know the brand, they showed a preference for Pepsi, with an activation of the orbitofrontal cortex.

Instead, when the participants knew which brand they were tasting, 75% claimed to prefer the glass of Coca Cola, with an activation of the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, structures linked to memory, emotions and sensations.

Therefore, the neuroscientists came to the conclusion that not only being aware of the brand influenced the answers of the people, but also that more than the taste, it was the emotions and memories associated with it that determined the preference of one brand over the other.

In this case, although Pepsi met consumers’ tastes more, Coca Cola managed to associate the consumption of its drink with specific moments and emotions through targeted advertising campaigns, insinuating itself into the subconscious of consumers, who are able to recognize its values.

This does not mean that we must focus entirely on value, forgetting about the quality of a product. Rather, this experiment teaches us that quality is not enough if we do not know how to communicate the values of the brand and arouse both conscious and unconscious emotional responses in the consumer.

From theory to practice

So, as the examples and data reported so far teach us, it is not enough to be the best in our field: we must know how to communicate the values associated with our brand in order to attract the attention of consumers and promote its awareness even in an unconscious way, arousing an emotional response in the consumers. We must infiltrate the subconscious of consumers, which is the place where most of the purchasing decisions take place: only in this way will our chances of success increase.

To succeed in the task, we must build a relationship of trust with our customers and potential ones. To do this, it is essential to build an organic customer experience, which not only takes into account the purchase phase, but also the overall interactions with the brand and with the touchpoints (both digital and physical), and the support before and after the sales process. Directly engaging our audience and customizing the message according to the behaviour and interests of each customer represent the key to the communication of the future, as we have already seen in this year’s marketing trends.

Not only that, the humanization of the brand has also often proved to be a winning strategy for many companies. This means favouring direct recognition of corporate values, as well as of the people who represent them: showing our face, allowing those who follow us to see who is hiding behind the brand, to witness daily life in the company, to know our stance with respect to a particular issue – these are all factors that have a great impact on people’s memory, promote empathy, sometimes identification, and therefore favour a stronger bond with the brand.

When it comes to content, let’s focus on creating real value, through simple, unexpected, concrete, credible messages with a strong emotional component, which facilitate the engagement of the public and arouse interest, increasing the likelihood that our audience will remember them.

Neuromarketing itself, especially Sensory Neuromarketing, associates evocative images, scents, sounds and noises to a brand, to use them as triggers to activate the consumer’s memory, even at an unconscious level.

In fact, apart from the moment in which people use our product or service, if we really want to enter the consumer’s subconscious, we have to use triggers that will bring our product to mind even when consumers are not using it.

TO KNOW MORE: How to create great content: The science behind Viral Marketing

The methods and tools of neuromarketing

If we want to delve deeper into the world of neuromarketing, using the methodologies of neuroscience, we can rely on the main tools of this discipline.

The first tool to mention – which is among the most used in neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience, exploited both in the Knutson study and in the Montague experiment – is functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. This method measures brain activity, identifying changes associated with blood flow, and can identify the regions of the brain where increased activation levels occur.

Another widely used brain imaging tool in the sector is the electroencephalogram (EEG) which, through the application of electrodes, measures the brain’s electrical activity, hence the activation states of our brain.

The electrocardiogram (ECG) and the galvanic skin response (GSR) are two methods that respectively measure the activity of the heart and the responses of the skin, such as sweating. Both can provide us with interesting data on people’s reaction to certain advertisements, images or products.

Finally, a special mention also goes to eye-tracking technologies, which measure eyes movements, tracking their reactions, such as pupil dilation or the lingering on a particular point. This type of technology – probably more accessible than the aforementioned scientific tools – is widely used both online to build websites and marketplaces, and offline, for example in supermarkets or clothing stores, to understand the most effective placement of the goods.

Software, such as NeuroVision, can also automatically analyse images and videos, predicting where the consumer’s eye will fall, through a heat map. In this case as well, such tools can be useful to analyse and easily and effectively take action when it comes to advertising graphics, product placement or other visual element.


We are only at the beginning

Neuromarketing is as interesting as it is controversial and still very little exploited.

Surely, right now, there is a lack of reference professionals – the so-called neuromarketers – as well as agencies that are truly specialized in the discipline. Furthermore, the methods of experimentation and analysis are difficult to access for most.

However, if on the one hand it is a discipline that is currently limited due to our equally limited knowledge of the human brain, on the other – and precisely for this reason – it offers great potential for development and experimentation, which can go beyond the paradigms of traditional marketing.

This does not mean that traditional marketing offers less potential: unlike what we read online, where the two methodologies are often compared, I am of the idea that a synergy between the two can give the most surprising results.

What do you think of neuromarketing? Will it find a more widespread application or will it remain a niche sector? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below and contact us for more information on our marketing services.

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