Sukhvinder S. Obhi: Is neuromarketing really all that?

One of the buzz terms in the world of advertising is neuromarketing. The approach has been gloriously described in numerous forums, including best-selling books such as Buyology by Martin Lindstrom. With the widespread availability of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines, it is now possible (although not cheap) to 'see' into the brains of consumers as they ponder brands and related marketing material. However, for any business seeking to design or market their brand effectively, the real question is whether neuromarketing provides new info to help guide their efforts, or whether it's simply hype, of which much has been made, but little has been delivered.

One of the buzz terms in the world of advertising is neuromarketing. The approach has been gloriously described in numerous forums, including best-selling books such as Buyology by Martin Lindstrom. With the widespread availability of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines, it is now possible (although not cheap) to ‘see’ into the brains of consumers as they ponder brands and related marketing material. However, for any business seeking to design or market their brand effectively, the real question is whether neuromarketing provides new info to help guide their efforts, or whether it’s simply hype, of which much has been made, but little has been delivered.

Let me start by admitting that I love brain scanners and the data they’re capable of providing. Once upon a time, scientists had to wait until patients died before they could whip out their brains and examine what was wrong with them. Now with fMRI scanners, we can peer into the living human brain while willing participants engage in (almost) any experimental task we care to give them. However, in evaluating the efficacy of fMRI data for marketing, we need to know what that data comprises. In a nutshell, fMRI gives us an idea of where in the brain activity correlated with a behavioural task is happening. It doesn’t tell us exactly when the activity is happening or exactly what it represents at the neural level.

What does this mean? Correlated activity tells us nothing about causal relations between activity in brain areas and thoughts or actions. For example, if I buy a new pair of sneakers and then run the fastest mile I’ve ever ran, I can’t claim that the sneakers caused me to run fast, because the purchase is only correlated in time with my fast run. It’s equally (perhaps more) likely that I was simply very motivated on that particular run. This is a well-known limitation of fMRI data and the primary reason why a triangulation approach is advised in neuroscience. Simply stated, this means we need to combine information from multiple methodologies to get a decent handle on what’s going on in the brain in any given scenario.

The other thing about (most) neuromarketing is that it comprises using brand and marketing ‘stimuli’ in experiments which measure brain activity. Realistically, this stimuli (the pictures and messages presented to people in the fMRI scanner) are just cases of generic sensory stimuli used for decades in the neurosciences. It is no big secret that the processing by the brain is already reasonably well understood. We already know the parts of the brain that deal with visual images, verbal messages, emotions and reward, long-term and working memory as well as higher level ‘executive’ control of thought and action.

We most certainly do not know exactly how these parts of the brain coordinate their activity to produce complex thoughts and behaviour, but we have some good ideas which are currently being tested by neuroscientists the world over. So, I don’t see neuromarketing as the ultimate answer to marketers’ dreams. It might well be interesting to know that high prices are correlated with activity in areas of the brain that process pain, but does this really give us new information? And there are cheaper (and quicker) ways of measuring this than a brain scanner.

The bottom line is that a very well-designed neuromarketing study will be worth its weight in gold, but simply knowing where something is happening in the brain is not all that illuminating for theories of how that something actually happens.

So the first thing for marketers to be aware of is that data from a neuromarketing fMRI study, although scientifically interesting (I am not advocating that neuromarketing studies are absolutely useless), will not provide you with all the information you need to effectively market your brand. The implications are: a) beware of anyone trying to sell neuromarketing as the ultimate approach for branding, and, b) adopt a triangulation approach to your marketing research activities.

For all practical purposes, this means, yes, do focus groups, but design them on the basis of what behavioural scientists know about effective qualitative info gathering. Also, take an additional more quantitative approach by using what we know from neuroscience and psychology to design repeatable tests and gather data from consumers on how they think (consciously and unconsciously) about your brand and messaging.

If your aim is to understand the mind of consumers to market effectively, you definitely need to know how human beings process all kinds of information, but you don’t necessarily need neuromarketing for your specific situation.

Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi is an associate professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, ON. Dr. Obhi also consults on how psychology and neuroscience can be used to solve business problems. drobhi@gmail.com