Neuromarketing: A potentially useful but expensive way to uncover consumer insights

As a consumer psychologist, I have been intently following the developments in the emerging academic and applied field of neuromarketing. But first, a definition courtesy of Wikipedia (as of 8/25/10):

Neuromarketing is a new field of marketing that studies consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli. Researchers use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain, electroencephalography (EEG) to measure activity in specific regional spectra of the brain response, and/or sensors to measure changes in one’s physiological state (heart rate, respiratory rate, galvanic skin response) to learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what part of the brain is telling them to do it…

As an example, Campbell’s redesigned their soup can covers and store aisle displays based on insights from a variety on neuromarketing techniques, including galvanic skin response, eye-tracking, and heart rate  (see WSJ article here).

Neuroimaging (aka fun with blood flow)

One might question whether measuring heat rate or sweaty palms is neuromarketing. Using fMRI to conduct neuroimaging studies, however, clearly qualifies. Moreover, fMRI is the most exciting (and likely the most expensive) method that marketers can use to uncover consumers’ “buy button” (this sticky but vague term often show up in applied literature – more about that in a later post). fMRI measures changes in blood flow due to activity in areas of the brain associated with certain cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes (read this for more information).

A necessary tool for uncovering consumer insights?

A well known example of a consumer insight from an fMRI study involved consumers receiving squirts of Coke found that (self-proclaimed Coke drinkers) had greater activation in areas of the brain associated with rewards when the Coke was “branded” (i.e., they knew they were drinking Coke) than when not.  The benefit of this study is that it seems to indicate that the branding of products indeed influences their desirability.  The obvious critique, however, is  that a similar effect was already shown in the “Pepsi Challenge” during the 1970’s; consumers involved in blind taste  tests (i.e., unbranded tests) preferred Pepsi to Coke, but not in branded taste tests.

Nothing is certain.

Is neuoromarketing worth the expense?

It depends on who you ask. If you calculate the value of a consumer insight technique as a simple formulation of (validity/cost), then I would say no, not at this point.  There are many other valid and less expensive techniques to measure judgments and behavioral responses to justify paying $500 – $1000 per respondent (plus overhead and profit mark-up) in an fMRI study (which, by the way, is typically validated using respondents’ own self reports or behaviors).

However, two guys who have thought a lot more about neuromarketing’s costs and benefits than me are Dan Ariely and Gregory Berns. They have a great paper in Nature Reviews that is worth reading, as it delves more deeply into these issues:

The application of neuroimaging methods to product marketing —neuromarketing — has recently gained considerable popularity. We propose that there are two main reasons for this trend. First, the possibility that neuroimaging will become cheaper and faster than other marketing methods; and second, the hope that neuroimaging will provide marketers with information that is not obtainable through conventional marketing methods. Although neuroimaging is unlikely to be cheaper than other tools in the near future, there is growing evidence that it may provide hidden information about the consumer experience. The most promising application of neuroimaging methods to marketing may come before a product is even released — when it is just an idea being developed.

Ariely D and Berns GS: Neuromarketing: The hope and hype of neuoroimaging in business. Nat. Rev. Neurosci., 11:284-292, 2010

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