Neuromarketing, The Latest, Greatest Answer

Neuromarketing has garnered a great deal of attention over the last year, particularly in the months leading up to the most recent elections in the US. It’s the hot new thing. Indeed, there are some remarkable applications for it as a means of gathering insight into what elements of a marketing or shopping experience trigger neurological responses. However, as with all new things there are always problems.

The process employs several technologies to study consumers’ sensorimotor, affective and cognitive responses to marketing stimuli. People may lie but the body and the brain do not. The idea is that Neuromarketing gives a more honest answer to how people react to color, language, package design, etc. and to be fair, the process does just that. As Phil McGee, Director of Insights and Category Management at Campbell’s discussed when he was a Brand Show guest, Neuromarketing is great way of measuring patterns of brain activity and seeing what behavior centers of the brain light up when exposed to different stimuli. But the methodology has three limitations.

Culture and Context:
The first and most serious limitation to Neuromarketing is that the methodology overlooks the roles of context and culture. The brain responds to certain stimuli in the lab, but the measurements cannot adequately addresses the reasons behind those responses. The most valuable insights marketers and designers can use are those that answer “why.” Neuroscience doesn’t answer “why,” and when it attempts to do so the conclusions drawn are rooted in pre-existing cultural biases.

Unlike other organisms, human perception is filtered through symbolic thought. We assign meaning to things which in turn shapes how we react to colors, ideas, objects, etc. As such, the biological responses provided in a Neuromarketing project reflect a biochemical response to a single point of time and do not necessarily reflect the actual triggers behind those responses.  For example, the pleasure centers of the brain may light up when the participant sees a new package design for a brand of soup; the researcher assuming it’s due to color, shape or messaging.  However, it doesn’t address the fact that the pleasure center may not light up under actual shopping conditions.

Why? Because in the lab the person may be responding to idealized and subconscious memories of childhood or what it means to be a good mother. She may be simply responding to changes in light. But outside the lab, the shopper is part of a complex environment. Is shopping a task or a pleasure? Is the woman in this picture buying based on flavor and package design, or is she buying it because the product conveys status in a different cultural context? When Campbell’s Soup famously conducted neuroscience research in 2008, they equipped participants with special sensory vests and eye-level cameras in an attempt to register data in the actual shopping context. Unfortunately, even in the store the participants were overly aware of their role and the equipment – effectively invalidating the “reality” of the situation.

Biology of the Lab:
The second point is that people respond to laboratory settings in more than purely psychological terms. Once you have established a process that makes individuals feel like lab specimens, there are biological and psychological results. Frequently, cortisol levels rise, causing stress responses.  Once the questions begin and people begin to feel like they are providing valuable information (independent of their conscious answers), serotonin levels elevate and stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. So, the point at which materials are presented in the research can fundamentally alter the results.

Finally, there is the simple problem of inferring too much information from the data. Assuming that the data is important, researchers and more often, the consumers of it, assume connection that may not be there.  We fall into the logic traps of both fallacy of the false cause and the deductive fallacy. In other words, we assume causality when none exists. The data produced in Neuromarketing can tell us many things, but much of the relevance we attribute to it is grounded in the fact that we want it to tell us certain things.

The list could go on and on, but the point is simple: human beings are complex creatures and products of our cultural backgrounds. If you ignore context and meaning, then you have in fact missed most of what you need to know.  It is key to remember that while Neuromarketing is a marvelous methodology, it is still just one tool in the research and marketing toolkit.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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