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Neuromarketing is the formal study of the brain’s responses to advertising and branding, and the adjustment of those messages based on feedback to elicit even better responses. Researchers use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to measure specific types of brain activity in response to advertising messages. With this information, companies learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what parts of the brain are motivating them to do so.

Although Montague’s “Pepsi Challenge” gave neuromarketing greater publicity, the concept was first explored by Harvard marketing professor Gerry Zaltman in the 1990s. Zaltman later patented a technique called the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), which since has been used by General Motors, Nestle, Procter & Gamble—and, perhaps ironically, Coca-Cola.

While the technology involved in neuromarketing is highly sophisticated, the premise is simple: Consumers can lie; statistics don’t. Even if consumers aren’t lying, they very often may not properly articulate what they’re thinking. It’s estimated that 95 percent of all thought occurs in our subconscious minds—which traditional research methods can’t measure.

Neuromarketing isn’t cheap. In fact, an fMRI machine can cost as much as $5 million (and twice that to set up). Additionally, a single ad sample group of 20 people can cost in excess of $10,000. By necessity then, true neuromarketing is primarily used by large (or at least heavily subsidized) companies and organizations. Some recent examples:

  • Google and MediaVest partnered with biometrics researcher NeuroFocus (minority-owned by the Nielsen Company) to gauge how users responded to their InVideo advertisements (the semi-transparent overlay ads on YouTube). Forty participants’ sensory responses were scored along such criteria as attention, emotional engagement, and effectiveness.
  • Microsoft uses EEG data to better understand its users’ interactions with its personal and laptop computers, including feelings of “surprise, satisfaction, and frustration.”
  • Frito-Lay studied the female brain in order to learn how to better position its advertising. The company discovered that it needed to avoid talking about “guilt”—even “guilt-free”—and instead focus on making “healthy” associations in its advertising.
  • The Weather Channel (TWC) was another company that partnered with NeuroFocus, as it prepared to relaunch its When Weather Changed History series. Using EEGs as well as eye-tracking technology and GSR (galvanic skin response), TWC was able to refine its commercials, and programming, for maximum impact.

Its considerable cost aside, neuromarketing still has a range of skeptics and detractors. Concerns include accusations of “brainwashing”, questions as to how much brain behavior actually affects consumer behavior, and the inability (so far) to employ neuromarketing techniques in the business-to-business arena.

Still, as its high-profile users attest, neuromarketing has already captured the market’s imagination. As researchers conduct more studies in the field, further refinements—and possibly legislation in responses to the aforementioned “brainwashing” allegations—will no doubt further enhance and define neuromarketing strategies in the future.

For what kinds of customers is neuromarketing effective?

Neuromarketing is a flexible method to determine customer preferences and brand loyalty, because it can apply to nearly anyone who has developed an opinion about a product or company. No matter what form it takes, marketing focuses on creating positive and memorable impact in the minds of customers. Neuromarketing measures those impacts, but anyone can take the basic discoveries and adjust their product or sevice to reflect subconscious consumer needs.

Sensory devices that create or evoke memories, for example, can be easily employed—the aroma of fresh bread, recollections of past stories (either a published work or a shared experience), evocative language, a song that gets stuck in your head and won’t come out — ultimately, these are all effective (if crude) examples of neuromarketing that can be used by nearly any business of any size.

How is a neuromarketing campaign  developed?

Although their work heavily affects the visible part of advertising, neuromarketers focus primarily on the “back end” work. They’re less concerned with developing the right message or branding than they are with studying the emotions and memories triggered by that message.

A neuromarketing campaign is more person-intensive. Whereas typical marketing draws broadly from a cross-section of customers, through a variety of methods (focus groups, surveys, customer records, etc.), neuromarketing focuses intently on individual marketing test subjects— usually no more than a few dozen, and over an extended period of time.

Toward this end, MRI and EEG machines are used to monitor participants’ brain activity before, during, and after exposure to neuromarketing techniques. Other physiological sensors that monitor heart rate, breathing, and skin response may also be used.

Neuromarketing depends on a process known as priming—an electrochemical reaction set off whenever a topic is first introduced. Priming allows the brain to recall everything it knows about the specific topic (as with our opening Coke example). Even before the conscious mind becomes aware of a stimulus, the subconscious mind has already begun to process it and respond—all in the course of a single second. Neuromarketing, then, is most concerned with that second when the response is first formed.

Once a consumer’s brain is primed, new information/stimuli is introduced to allow the brain to compare this new information with what it already knows, and to form and express conscious opinions about the product itself. This information is compared to the information already compiled in the priming stage.

Once all the data has been collected, the marketing campaign itself becomes more like any “traditional” marketing campaign. Based on the neural and sensory data collected, the broader marketing team will further develop and adjust the campaign in order to create maximum engagement, and memory retention, with consumers.

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