Imagine you are in the supermarket buying some groceries. You start with your favorite cereal brand. It is the same brand you have had for years, and it tasted just as good every time. The chicken comes next. You get two pounds at 3.99 each. Moving to the next aisle, you spot a shiny blue packaging of the new brand of cookies. You decide to buy some to try it out, as you do not want to miss out on the latest taste. Now, you remember your planned family dinner for next week and immediately decide to buy a refreshing coke bottle for the night. As you approach the checkout, you take out the loyalty card you recently got. The card allows you to use the express payment booth and leave quickly.

At first glance, your actions seem to be guided by your own free will. However, in every step of the process, various neuroscience and cognitive psychology principles are put into motion.

The application of neuroscience in marketing has come to be known as neuromarketing. It has one goal: to push you towards that “buy” button.

What is neuromarketing and when was it invented?

Recent years have seen substantial advances in neuroimaging. Through it, neuroscientists can directly study the frequency, location, and timing of neuronal activity. However, marketing professionals remained unaware of such advances and their immense potential until the early 2000s.

Dr. Reading Montague, Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, performed the first piece of neuromarketing research in 2003. His study asked a group of people to drink either Pepsi or Coca Cola while an fMRI machine scans their brain activity. While the conclusions of the study were intriguing, Dr. Montague failed to provide a rationale for how our brain handles brand choices. Yet, the study did reveal that different parts of the brain light up if people are aware of the brand they consume. Specifically, the study suggested that a strong brand such as Coca Cola has the power to activate parts of our frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the seat of our executive decision-making, which manages our attention, planning, and thinking. The Coke and Pepsi study opened the door for further research into the underlying factors influencing consumer decision. 

Today, neuromarketing includes the direct use of brain imaging, scanning, and other brain activity technology. This technology measures the response of a subject to specific products, packaging, advertising, or other marketing elements. In some cases, those tested are not consciously aware of the brain responses measured by these techniques. Hence, this data may be more revealing than self-reporting on surveys, in focus groups, etc.  

How is neuromarketing being used? 

Neuromarketing research gave birth to various advertising techniques. Let us go back to our initial example to explain some of them.

Remember that favorite cereal brand you have been choosing for years? Well, we can attribute your decision to hold on to the same cereal brand to the positive relationship it had on your brain reward system. The sugar in the cereal gave your nervous system a rush of dopamine every morning. The addictive properties of that reaction made you grow attached to the brand. Neuromarketing is also the reason behind that abundant .99 cent price tag. Research showed that rounded figures are more likely to work alongside emotional decision-making, while more complex prices work better when the logical brain is engaged. Thus, the .99 cent strategy makes the product seem like a bargain, even when the difference is literally one cent. But what about packaging? Research completely revolutionized that one area of product design.

The measurement of brain response while testing different packaging models helps the manufacturer determine which packaging can capture the attention of the consumer. They use that data to map the relationship between different colors and the sensory-responsible sections of the brain. It’s possible to leverage the connections between the sensory-responsible parts mentioned and memory, which is why touching ads are often efficient. The same goes for the human desire to cut corners and reach our goals as fast as possible. In our example, we use that impulse to push the adoption of loyalty cards.  

What companies use neuromarketing? 

The field of neuroscience is gaining rapid credibility and adoption among advertising and marketing professionals. Each year, brands invest over 400 billion dollars in advertising campaigns. Examples of the campaigns coming from these investments include:

  • Paypal: PayPal used EEG (electroencephalography) data to understand how to position its brand with its audience. To persuade more e-shoppers to use its online payment service, the company learned that convenience and speed were a better selling point than safety and security. This prompted them to shift their message from online security to focusing on the ease-of-use of the company’s services. 
  • PepsiCo: Executives at PepsiCo‘s Frito-Lay unit used neuromarketing to test commercials, products, and packaging in the U.S. and overseas. They discovered that matte bags of potato chips portraying potatoes and other “healthy” ingredients in the snack don’t trigger activity in the anterior cingulate cortex–an area of the brain associated with feelings of guilt–as much as shiny bags with pictures of chips. Frito-Lay then replaced the shiny packaging in the U.S. a few months after the discovery.  
  • Hyundai: The Automobile manufacturer wanted to learn which consumer preferences could lead to purchasing decisions. As an attempt, the company asked a small test group to stare at specific parts of their latest sports vehicle, including the bumper, the windshield, and the tires. Electrode-studded caps on their heads captured the electrical activity in their brains as they viewed the car for an hour. We want to know what consumers think about a vehicle before we start manufacturing thousands of them,” Says Dean Markov, manager of Brand strategy at Hyundai Motor America.  

The marriage of marketing measurement and neuroscience has turned heads for years; the idea of using science to influence consumer behavior is still raising ethical issues. Some would argue that neuroscience may not be the most legitimate method to improve advertising. Nevertheless, one thing is guaranteed; neuromarketing is here to stay.