Have you ever given into the shiny, come-hither wrappers of the checkout counter-side candy aisle? Or notice how it takes one more lap around the racks before you reach the department store escalator? Or maybe the downward gaze of cereal box mascots, matching eyes with their juvenile demographic?
This is your brain on neuromarketing. That sensation we experience, telling us to add an item to our cart, has been carefully manufactured and backed by corporate billions. Studies show that these urges instigate 90 to 95 percent of our purchase decisions.
Whether cognizant or not, you’ve been targeted by the wonderful wiles of brain-stimulated merchandising.
Examples of Neuromarketing
- Eye tracking and eye gaze
- Effective packaging
- Color psychology
- Ad efficiency
- Decision fatigue
- Evaluating satisfaction
- Loss aversion
- Speed and efficiency
- Hidden responses
What Is Neuromarketing?
By definition, neuromarketing is a commercial marketing strategy formed around the physiological and neural signals of consumers in response to product stimuli. Its end goal — to crack the code of customers’ motivations, preferences and decisions — informs creative advertising, product development, pricing and other incentive areas.
The study is a blend of marketing, psychology and neuroscience.
The term “neuromarketing” was first coined by Ale Smidts in his paper “Looking into Neuromarketing: About the Possibilities of Neuromarketing” in 2002, which served as his inaugural address as professor of marketing at the Rotterdam School of Management.
Experiments that dabbled within this field, however, have been around since the 1990s. The Zaltman metaphor elicitation technique, founded by marketing professor Gerald Zaltman and neuroscientist Gemma Calvert, elicits both conscious and unconscious thought by exploring people’s non-literal or metaphoric expressions often hidden from themselves. Groups of participants were handed disposable cameras to document village life in Nepal. In nearly every image featuring actual villagers, photographers shot from above the ankle. Nepalese customs see bare feet as a sign of poverty — an uncomfortable truth that may have been missed in discussion-based approaches.
Theoretically, by studying relevant human emotions and behavioral patterns associated with products, ads and decision-making, companies are given an advantage by knowing what a customer wants, whether they know it or not.
Examples of Neuromarketing
There are several tools and techniques used to investigate the underlying brain activity that manifests as consumer behavior. Companies then take this information and fast-track it to a shelf near you, using the following applications.
Eye Tracking and Eye Gaze
Eye tracking technology has caught our attention, and where we pay it most. The software is designed to record the movement of a human pupil and where eyes fixate on a screen. Commonly, results are generated on a colored, blotchy heat map, revealing where participants locked eyes the most.
Comparative studies, where two images are juxtaposed to one another in order to see which provokes a better response from an audience, are often used to demonstrate the benefits of eye tracking.
Usability specialist James Breeze conducted a study of how people view baby ads, surveying 106 subjects. The prompt featured two different ads featuring the same baby. In one, the baby is ogling the onlooker, directly drawing them in. In the second, the baby’s gaze is posed toward the content of the advertisement.
Breeze found that significantly more attention was paid toward the message in the second example ad, finding that the consumer looks where the subject looks.
Simple insights into human nature like these have led to a compilation of eye-gaze strategies used by advertisers. As indicated by Psychology Today, an averted gaze appeals to the audience’s emotions, bringing them into the narrative of the campaign, whereas a direct gaze appeals to the audience’s rational side and conveys credibility.
It’s not always what’s inside that counts. Brands such as Campbell’s Soup, Gerber and Frito-Lay took careful consideration for their packaging revamps in recent years. Through focus groups, they asked customers to provide a positive, neutral or negative response to a product’s packaging, piece by piece, including color, text size and imagery.
Frito-Lay, for instance, discovered matte bags with pictures of potatoes did not trigger a negative response, whereas shiny bags with pictures of chips on them did. Within months, the changes were made.
Research shows that up to 90 percent of the reason a shopper buys a product comes down to color. In an article published in Management Decision, Satyendra Singh observed that prudent use of colors can contribute not only to differentiating products from competitors, but also to influencing the moods and feelings — positively or negatively — of a consumer, and therefore, their attitude towards certain products.
Wielding a color wheel, Coca-Cola is an iconic example — 94 percent of the world recognize the red hue. They, along with Target and Netflix, use red as a main ingredient to their brand identity to represent power, excitement, energy and passion. Red has also been known to cue hunger pangs.
Even so, critical research shows that personal preference, experience, upbringing, cultural difference and context can interrupt the message of marketing companies.
To optimize reach, the National Cancer Institute used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or FMRI, in a comparative study that juxtaposed the self-reported predictions from a small key demographic group with their hidden, neural reaction and real-world results to gain insight on its audience.
FMRI’s measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow, coupling neuronal activation with cerebral blood flow.
Before going live with a nationwide, telephone hotline campaign, NCI hooked up a sample size of 31 smokers identified as “heavy smokers with a strong intention to quit” to FMRI machines while asking them to rank three campaigns featuring different batches of commercials by preference. Their self-reported results conflicted with what stimulated their neural activity most, as tattled by their neural activity.
The test was then taken to the general population: airing the commercial campaigns. The success of each campaign was measured by comparing the call volume to 1-800-QUIT-NOW in the month before and the month after the launch of each campaign.
As it turns out, the sample size’s FMRI results aligned more accurately with the real-world response, versus the self-reported predicted preference.
The study speaks to boundary conditions and selectivity of participants, while also indicating that preference of entire populations may be inferred from the brain activations of a small neural focus group.
If dragging a superstore-sized cart down a labyrinth of fluorescent-lit aisles is overwhelming for you — you’re not alone.
A 1995 study involving gourmet jams, conducted by Columbia University, found that too many choices may actually be a deterrent for customers. Professor Sheena Iyengar and her research assistants set up a booth of samples of Wilkin & Sons jams, a selection which they would alter from 24 jams to only six jams every few hours.
While 60 percent of market passersby were drawn to the large assortment, only 40 percent stopped by the small one; however, 30 percent of the small-assortment crowd closed a deal compared with only 3 percent of those presented with two dozen jams.
That study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Iyengar said, “but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”
One tool used frequently in this space is known as electroencephalography, or EEG imaging, which identifies an individual’s emotional response to a product or advertisement.
One study measured customer dissatisfaction fixed to beauty standards, offering participants pro-bono cosmetic dermatological treatment, such as lip fillers. Using EEG, the Catholic University of Campinas found customer satisfaction correlated with activation in the neural circuits involved in evaluating facial beauty.
They found that 54 percent of patients underwent the treatment because they were already considering it while 52 percent were dissatisfied with their lips or nasolabial folding. Patients ranged from very satisfied or satisfied with the results of the treatment and with their facial attractiveness after the treatment, with no patient claiming to be unsatisfied.
Because the patients were very interested in repeating the treatment and promoting it among family and friends, the study interprets participant satisfaction to translate into trust.
Think FOMO but for products and advertising. People are just as worried about what they might lose out on — as seen in “buy before it’s gone” or “limited time only” schemes — as what they might gain when considering a purchase.
Although it’s important to not oversaturate the technique, loss aversion outperforms when tested against other cognitive biases.
Research from the ISM University of Management and Economics showed that loss aversion tactics resulted in the highest increase in conversions as well as the highest mean scores for maximizing page views on an e-commerce platform.
Messaging like “The meal is already reserved! Do not miss a chance to order it!” drew more traffic than the countdown effect (“Order your meal in [x time] and we will deliver it to you by [y time]!”); the bandwagon effect (“This meal was already delivered to 100+ clients! Be one of them — order now!”) and the gain effect (“The faster you order — the faster you get!”).
Without a sure sense of cost, a customer’s interpretation of value can get distorted quite easily. This is exploited best via anchoring, where companies brand themselves in a competitive way, betting on the fact that most customers make a decision by a sampling of what’s in front of them rather than researching the optimal product.
Common methods include bundle packages, add-ons such as the complimentary coffee with purchase of a hotel room or that line of cheap wine among expensive alternatives.
Speed and Efficiency
Sure, safety and security are great reasons to back a product — but how fast will it get there and will it work when it does?
One of the first companies to digitize money, PayPal, discovered that its platform users responded more positively to campaigns centered on speedy performance versus secure transactions when it comes to customer satisfaction. By emphasizing the rapidity of their online payment service, PayPal converted more online shoppers to add their platform to their wallet.
Thanks to neuromarketing, the guilty pleasure of having sticky, fluorescent-orange Cheeto dust on your fingertips has been confirmed.
In 2008, Frito-Lay cross-checked a commercial tossed by traditional focus groups with EEG mapping. It featured a woman taking revenge on someone in a laundromat by putting the orange snack food in a dryer full of white clothes. While participants were too shy to publicly admit their bout of schadenfreude, saying that they disliked the prank so as to not come off as mean-spirited, the tests showed brain activity in favor of the ad.
The results were so striking, Frito-Lay’s Chief Marketing Officer at the time, Ann Mukherjee, said that brain-imaging tests can actually be more accurate than focus groups.
With the likes of social media, millennials and onward have been tranced by this tactic via hours of logged screen-time scrolling through short, digestible content. Dopamine, a pleasure-based neurotransmitter, is released along the way.
Video game designers have begun to include psychological principles of reward and punishment into their products, hiring psychologists onto their teams to ensure content engagement.
A higher stakes reward offers increases in dopamine levels. This creates an attachment with the player to keep them playing and craving more, on a hedonic loop.
Consumers want a well-designed product. Outfitted in electrode-studded caps, a group of 30 men and women were tasked with staring at certain design elements — like the bumper, the windshield, the tires — of a sporty, silver 2011 Hyundai test model for one hour. Participants provided feedback to determine which aspects of the vehicle were most attractive to consumers.
Hyundai then used the information captured by EEG to better understand preferences and what kind of stimulation that can lead to a purchase decision. Additionally, Hyundai adjusted exterior design based on the brain activity recorded.
The ‘Right Price’
A study sourced from Singapore is introducing a new-age concept to market pricing — roundedness. Flat numbers, like $5 or $500, “just seem right” to a customer, tapping into their low-energy, emotional intellect.
When the logical brain is engaged, however, complexity of a precision price is preferred. This is because complex numbers make the brain work harder, perhaps convincing it that the complexly priced product is the more logical decision.
Neuromarketing expert Roger Dooley said that it all comes down to a company’s business strategy, whether they want to cater to a customer’s emotions or cognition.
Being a fairly new concept in itself, neuromarketing has taken to the web just as much as retail shelves and grocery aisles. Some must-have standards for online companies include certifications, testimonials and social widgets if they hope to draw in traffic.
To add, UX experts widely agree that horizontal website layouts are less effective than traditional vertical pages. A top-down format engages the brain and incentivizes consumers to keep scrolling, especially from their smartphones.
Headlines are the internet’s attention seekers, written for a click. Researchers at University College London conducted a study that found cleverness pays off. Results fell in favor of blog posts that included catchy puns in their headlines, a technique that the study coined as “hippocampal headlines.” Examples borrow lines from famous idioms and mesh them with subjects relative to a story’s content, featuring on favored liquor brand “Practice makes Patrón” or “Home, Smart Home” on technological, around-the-house devices. When a familiar phrase is altered, it creates a “surprise” effect, activating the hippocampus and calling our brain to attention.
Benefits of Neuromarketing
Neuromarketing proponents see the pioneering field as a tool best used to fill in the gaps left behind by traditional marketing methods, to the benefit of both producers and consumers alike.
Although the backing for business is evident, the average individual may experience relief from pace-of-life side effects such as decision fatigue. An American Psychological Association survey of 3,035 people conducted in 2021 found that nearly one-third of adults — with the 48-percent majority made up of millennials — struggle with executing basic decisions, like what to eat or wear. With that considered, we make 200 decisions per day about food alone.
The practice of neuromarketing links physiological reactions to content while improving reliability of results, which results in a greater value of money and time spent for both parties, whether in a focus group room or the local mall.
But Neuromarketing Is Not Without Controversy
While there are valid studies, neuromarketing is still widely considered a pseudoscience given a saturation of masquerading companies relying on hype rather than neuroscience.
Journalist Steven Poole colorfully words the rise in brain hacking — often accessed by consumers via self-help books — a part of the “neurobollocks” phenomenon, or “an intellectual pestilence.” Distorted, cherry-picked readings of brain mapping should not be calling itself science to sell more copies, he argued.
Joseph Turow, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, dismisses neuromarketing as the latest reincarnation of gimmicky advertising attempts, using a hypodermic technique to educate consumers about their own wants and needs.
In addition to legitimacy, ethical concerns exist around neuromarketing techniques, many of which have been dubbed as potentially invasive technology that manipulate en masse without consent.
Executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy Jeff Chester told the New York Times that neuromarketing is “having an effect on individuals that individuals are not informed about.” As an authority that works within safeguarding digital privacy, he believes regulations should now be in place: “If the advertising is now purposely designed to bypass those rational defenses, then the traditional legal defenses protecting advertising speech in the marketplace have to be questioned.”
For better or for worse, the forecast for the neuromarketing market is on a 15.6 percent trajectory over the next few years, until 2026, according to market intelligence platform Report Linker.