Neuromarketing: the approach that unites neuroscience and the study of the consumer

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The counterfeit or “fake” product

The question with which I would like to begin the piece of today on the subject of the definition of the discipline of Neuromarketing is the following: what distinguishes the original product, authentic, compared to the counterfeit one?

To explain how this question of mine arises, I tell you a story: often, when I happened to visit some beaches in our beautiful country, I had the opportunity to meet street vendors who offered me the purchase of clothing with logos and luxury brands, at a really cheap price. It certainly didn’t take a degree in psychology to understand that the proposed clothing items were, of course, counterfeit. While refusing to buy the items, I saw many other buyers come forward to buy them.

Working at TSW with several clients operating in the luxury sector, I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes the research that large companies in the sector develop to produce increasingly evolved articles: not only at the level of materials, which are increasingly resistant, always more beautiful and pleasant to touch, to look at, even to feel with the sense of smell, but also in trying to become more and more adherent to the desired and the needs of those who will then go to buy those items. I was deeply impressed by the investments that large companies spend to study not only with the aim of constantly developing their products (or services) in terms of materials and functionality, but also how development is always related to its customers, recipients of the products (or services). Obviously, all these costs of “research and development” (or “R&D”, as the Americans say, an acronym which has now become a widespread term also in Italy to define the division or the office which, in medium and large companies, is constantly involved in innovation) and is reflected in the purchase prices, and I have understood that behind the shining windows there is a whole range of products that over time has produced a consolidated history of research of the excellence, in every single detail, for every single facet, of the product: from its presentation (communication, visual merchandising, marketing, just to mention a few sectors), to its production (research of materials, search for a design and functionality more and more innovative and high-level, just to name a few of the many factors that do not exhaust all the induced behind-the-scenes and that often the final consumer does not even know). This, briefly and in short summary (I could have written a whole piece on this), is the distinctive trait that allows us to discern between an “original”, “authentic”, “true” product and a “counterfeit”, or “fake” product. The original and authentic is the result of a long evolutionary journey of research and study that has led to excellence. The counterfeit one, is nothing more than a more or less successful copy that tries to imitate and mimic the authentic product, hoping that the inexperienced eye of a consumer will not notice a big difference, convincing him to buy it since the price will be one of the main levers to entice him.

The distinctive trait of the product and service of value or “authentic” compared to the “fake”

The point is that this “distinctive trait”, between “original” and “imitation” product, is not only valid for luxury items, but also for many other business sectors. To take another example, let’s consider a wine company that has produced a great wine that has become successful: here other “similar” products will appear on the market, trying to emulate the successful product in some way and / or in some way perhaps taking up the colors or the configuration of the packaging, or resuming some other aspect, either in terms of communication, history, origins, geographical origin, or even taste, fragrance, etc. But only a good connoisseur will be able to recognize the good wine from the low-level wine that seeks to imitate that of value and value.

Now I finally come to the point: this “distinctive trait” that allows us to discern between the quality and intrinsic value of a product or service compared to those that simply imitate quality and value, also applies to “research and development” in the field consumer survey techniques, increasingly based on scientific methods, on skills that are difficult to find on the market, that allow to exploit complex and ever-changing technologies. For about a decade, we have been witnessing in particular a sort of new fashion, that of applying research neuroscientific to the study of consumer, understood as one who consumes of products, such as foodstuffs, or other consumer products, such as clothing, or benefits of certain services, such as those via the internet, buying shoes or an insurance policy, or opening a bank account via a web portal.

A new approach that applies neuroscience techniques to study consumer reactions: the birth of Neuromarketing or “Consumer Neuroscience”

For 15 years now, the terminology label, or in any case the most common name, to define this “application” or “approach”, is known as “Neuromarketing”: the possibility of studying phenomena traditionally investigated by Communication Sciences and from Marketing, thanks to the application of techniques and knowledge typically used by neurosciences. For example, this discipline studies and evaluates the effects of brands on people through the use of MRI scan (of which we give an image below).

Above, you can see a person being introduced into the classic “tube” of magnetic resonance, around which the large magnet revolves creating a large magnetic field capable of orienting the atoms that compose the tissues of the entire human body. Specifically, at the brain level, neural cells (neurons) that, due to being more activated than others as they are more directly involved in certain mental phenomena under investigation, consume more oxygen. Thanks to the fact that the oxygen atoms, through their specific orientation with respect to the other atoms that make up the tissues, are easily identifiable and detectable by the machine, it is possible to study “in vivo” the areas that are activated or that “respond” most to certain stimulations, without even touching the individual who is exposed to certain stimuli.

In 2004, an American research group, coordinated by Professor Red Montague, head of the Virginia Tech Research Institute’s Center for Neuroscience, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, published an interesting research result in a scientific journal, “Neuron”, renowned in the field of neuroscience, with the emblematic title: “Neural Correlates of Behavioral Preference for CulturallyFamiliar Drinks”.

This article, for the first time in the history of science, shows how the use of functional magnetic resonance, traditionally used by neuroscience to study the brain, has been used to study the brain function of a group of American individuals during the tasting of two very popular drinks in America: Coca-Cola and Pepsi. In fact, already in the 1990s, another scientist, Gerald Zaltman, professor of economics at Harvard, had used magnetic resonance imaging to study the impact of metaphors in the brain. I duly cite it only as a pioneer of a type of study (applying techniques borrowed from neuroscience) that only really paid off in the following years. Very briefly, the first phase of Professor Red Montague’s study compared the brain images of people who drink Coke with those (of the brain of the same people) who drink Pepsi, without people knowing or having information about the brand (as we would say in scientific jargon in blind conditions); the results, detected also through interviews and questionnaires, show that the participants in the experiment claim to prefer Pepsi (it seems because it is more sparkling and more sugary) than Coca-Cola. In particular, in the brain, more than one area was activated left frontal lobe, with respect to the right frontal lobe (see image below, on the left side of the image).

Above, on the left of the image, we see how in the participants’ brains, in “blind condition (i.e. without knowing the name of the drink), on the average the “orbitofrontal cortex“ in the left hemisphere when they drink Pepsi (this activation reveals greater preference for Pepsi compared to Coca-Cola). On the right of the image, we can see how in the participants’ brains, in “informed situation (the participants know the name of the drink they drink) on average the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is activated more (always in the left hemisphere), but also the hippocampus – seat of memory, when they drink Coca-Cola, reveal a preference for Coca-Cola compared to Pepsi and simultaneous activation of brain memory areas (greater biographical experiences associated with Coca-Cola than Pepsi: a brain measure of “brand equity”, given that Coca-Cola has been on the market for much longer than Pepsi).

This different activation in frontal lobes of the brain is the basis of a measurement that is very much in vogue in Neuromarketing, called “brain asymmetry”: when the left frontal lobe is activated more than the right, the person reveals a greater preference for the stimulus or for the situation that is experiencing. On the contrary, when the right frontal lobe is activated more in the brain than in the left, it reveals instead one aversion towards the stimulus or the situation to which it is exposed. The statistical correlation between neural data and data provided by the questionnaire was positive, allowing us to demonstrate that the output provided by magnetic resonance equivalent or even exceeds the one provided by traditional techniques based on interviews and questionnaires. But the funniest part is yet to come: in the second phase of the study, to the same people were re-sampled the two drinks, this time while they respectively saw the brand: Coke (The writing, with its classic colors, white on a red background), projected onto a screen visible from the inside of the magnetic resonance tube) and Pepsi (the writing with the classic colors of Pepsi when they tasted Pepsi). What came out?! Exactly the opposite of what emerged in the first phase: preference for Coca-Cola compared to Pepsi! In particular, brain images have not only shown how one area of the left frontal lobe is more active than the right for Coca-Cola, but also that another area of the brain, called hippocampus, was activated more on average when the Coca-Cola brand appeared compared to Pepsi. The hippocampus, by definition, is indicated by neuroscience to be the memory center. What does it mean? Translated into simple terms, the people who drank Coca-Cola and saw the Coca-Cola brand at the same time, automatically retrieved information from their memory that could impact the perception of preference. In other words, since Coca-Cola has historically been on the market for much longer than Pepsi, it has produced a wealth of experiences stored in the memory of people who are activated when they are exposed to the brand. Pepsi, having entered the market in more recent times, cannot count on the same level of “brand equity” (the value of the brand generated by the actions of the brand over time, in terms of communication, placement, etc.). Think about yourself where the neurosciences came from: the possibility of evaluating the brand equity factor of a brand in terms of memory information that can be activated in the synapses of people’s memory. It sounds like science fiction, but that was 14 years ago. Since then, the research has continued.

I make only a brief introduction: the scientific literature reports that the first researcher to have coined the term was the Dutch Professor of Marketing, Ale Smidts, in 2002, in a publication on the theory of being able to scientifically measure the effects of communication campaigns thanks to the use of methods typically used in neuroscience.

Neuromarketing as a rib of Neuroeconomics

As if that were not enough, again in 2004, a well-known professor in neuroscientific circles, Paul Glimcher, head of the “Center of Neural Sciences” of New York University, together with another professor from a department of economics, Aldo Rustichini, professor of Economics at the University of Minnesota, published an article on Science (one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world) entitled: “Neuroeconomics: The Consilience of Brain and Decision”. You should know that although Neuroeconomics and Neuromarketing have been born almost simultaneously, in chronological terms, on the one hand the development of the neuroeconomics as an autonomous discipline has quickly produced its own well-defined scientific status and I would even say almost undisputed; on the other hand, neuromarketing has instead caused a strong scientific debate that has raised many doubts above all on the part of the neuroscientific circles towards those who tried to apply methods and tools to measure the effectiveness of advertising, that of communication and (I write a scabrous word) the increase in sales. All this information, if you are interested in learning more about it, can be found in an article published in 2007 in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, one of the most important international scientific journals in the field of psychophysiology, a branch that merged with that of Neuromarketing. In this article, entitled “ What is Neuromarketing? A discussion and agenda for future research”, the birth of this new discipline is discussed in scientific terms, illustrating not only the difficulties and the scientific debate regarding the ethical issues and the fascinating potential, but also the possible fields of application of neuro and psychophysiological techniques in the field of consumer psychology, especially where emotions play an important role, such as the evaluation of trust that a brand or one slogans can arouse in people, the pricing, or the possibility of identifying the optimal price with which to propose a new product or service on the market; or, to study the negotiation processes between a buyer and a seller; and finally, dulcis in fundo, to study marketing actions on society, with a discussion of the implications from an ethical point of view, with the clear indication that if these applications are aimed at improving products and services and generating better experiences that can positively impact society and increase knowledge, then it is worth developing all this disciplinary hybrid that throws new bridges between different sectors of human knowledge.

An important point in the development of Neuromarketing is that unfortunately in this pioneering field there are still no official “permits” or “licenses” that certify that the promoter of this type of study is actually an authentic expert. For this reason, we are witnessing the birth of many professionals and many organizations that offer Neuromarketing services, or “neuro-something”, without simultaneously providing a level of expertise and skills that qualify the collection, analysis and above all the interpretation of “neuro-something” data.

The “fake news” that have made Neuromarketing a “borderline” or pseudo-scientific discipline: how to evaluate if the person presenting this service is a qualified supplier

To take another example, I also happened to see flyers and Neuromarketing advertisements in which is promised the possibility of finally revealing what was the “button” to be pressed in the consumer’s brain to make him buy more. Obviously, it’s not that simple: this is really a “fake news”. Till today, Does not exist a “button” in the brain that allows consumers to buy more, regardless of many other factors. This way of presenting the Neuromarketing subtends a reductionistic and simplistic vision of the people before, and of the consumers then, which are much more complex than they may appear at first glance. Neuromarketing cannot achieve such a reductive goal. It can indicate whether a communication, a logo, an advertisement can excite, on the basis of biological surveys, whether they are inside the brain (measuring brain activations directly) or inside the body (sweating of the skin, heartbeat, breath, etc..) and, by virtue of the ability to generate optimal emotions, indicate a greater probability of being able to influence the consumer’s behavior or choice, which, if exposed to optimal emotions, experiences optimal experiences and therefore decide to make their own choices on the basis of these experiences. I could write a piece also on this chapter, but I prefer to get to the point.

Taking up the incipit of the article you are reading, it therefore becomes more difficult for companies or organizations that wish to acquire qualified Neuromarketing services to distinguish the “original product” (service qualified by skills, experience and a serious path in the field) from the “counterfeit” or “imitative” one (which is not based on a competence matured through a serious scientific path, but on the basis of the possibility of acquiring technologies and to try to jump into the market), and that promises impossible but high-sounding targets able to attract inexperienced buyers of the field. There are in fact on the market those who propose themselves with beautiful slides (but without a substratum of skills acquired in qualified research centers, through appropriate education and training courses); those who propose themselves with scientific publications (but without business skills and using a scientist’s language that the corporate world not only does not understand but that often fails even to value and understand); those who propose themselves without the one and the other, going to the point of jeopardy; and those who finally manage to unite (ie “consilience”, taking up an article in Neuroeconomics cited above) both competences: skills acquired thanks to the adoption of authentic scientific competences, combined however optimally by the presence and long-standing experience in the arenas of the market and business. The consumer and the careful organizations have the possibility to discern all the offers present on the market: just take a look at the curricula of the professionals that are proposed on the market and their scientific publications associated with the offers of Neuromarketing services (especially those in scientific journal international). Certainly it is not enough to distinguish the service from a genuine and qualified professional at a glance, compared to the “tarocco” one, but it is at least a more effective way to select its suppliers and provide itself with services that are undoubtedly innovative, but with some extra guarantee on their reliability. As for the articles of excellence in the field of clothing, also in the field of research there are people who have studied the application methodologies and the best way to interpret the results, developing competence in the field, in recognized research centers, through a long way of studies and application tests that have led to higher quality (while those who show a short period of study and application of techniques or methods, can only make use of a “fake” mode of presenting and proposing). These are the elements that should be valued when it comes to discerning the best suppliers, able to guarantee the most qualified service.

Another way to discern between “authenticity” and “fake” is the ability to consider objectives with which certain techniques and methodologies are applied: an account is to improve the quality of an experience, one thing is to promise that the button will be found in the brain able to show more a product, regardless of the type of experience that the message or the product they generate on the person. Usually, an authentic approach has value and quality as the ultimate goal, while the “fake” approach has mere profit or simple economic interest.

From Neuroscience laboratories to the application of neuroscientific techniques to the study of the consumer and the user experience.

To conclude, it is not always possible to study the effects of a commercial or a brand shown on the packaging of a product with the functional magnetic resonance. Neuromarketing, however, can use other tools, such as the electroencephalograph. It is a much less expensive technology (the average resonance costs something like 400 euros per minute) and less evolved than the magnetic resonance, but still able to detect the brain activations on the superficial part of the brain, especially the part of the frontal lobes, where many studies based on magnetic resonance (such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi) have indicated which place of biological changes to monitor to detect the emotional “approach” (interest in the stimulus or situation to which the person is exposed) or “avoidance” (disinterest if not even annoyance or in any case manifestation of a negative emotional reaction towards the stimulus or situation to which the person is exposed). Below we give an image of a portable and wireless helmet that measures brain waves:

headguard which measures brain waves, especially those emitted by frontal lobes

If, in addition to the helmet, we also combine a bracelet that measures skin perspiration, reverberating the level of stress, that is the moments or situations where the average level of people exposed to a certain situation or stimulus tends to increase, also indicates the most “relaxing” or at least less activating states where average levels of people tend to decrease compared to the general average of the whole experience.

Device that can be carried through his own collocation on a bracelet to monitor the average levels of skin sweating (skin conductance).

You should know that the sweating of the skin is controlled by nerve centers present in the oldest part of the brain, also called “reptilian brain”, which we share with living organisms that appeared on earth long before man, like those belonging to the genus of reptiles, The reptiles, from the Latin reptilis = “creeping”, represented the first class of vertebrates released from the aquatic environment and therefore adapted, for the fundamental biological functions, to life in a strictly terrestrial environment. I was saying, that in the human brain, the sweating of the skin, which serves primarily to “cool” the body before an increase in metabolic activity inside or outside the body, to maintain the temperature and homeostasis. In psychophysiology, the microscopic variations of sweat can also reveal emotional reactions, as they are controlled by the “amygdales”. Below we give an image of the activation of amygdales in a human brain, taken by functional magnetic resonance. Of course it would be great to be able to monitor the activation of the amygdales through a functional magnetic resonance, but the measurement of the skin through the bracelet is still an indirect measurement of this activity, that is, it is able to reveal the intensity of the emotional reaction, even if not always in a specific way, that is in such a way as to qualify if the activation is positive or negative, if not for the most “activating” cases, for which the scientific literature has shown that the highest activation levels are on average more typical of negative emotions than positive ones.

Representation of the activation of the amygdales, the part of the brain that mediates the emotional activation reverberated by the sweating of the skin.

Concluding this article on the application of neuro- and psychophysiological measurements to the world of consumer experience analysis, this field is still a virgin, and seems to promise a future application of Neuromarketing, or rather, of the “Consumer Neuroscience”, really rich and a harbinger of new and fascinating discoveries, and that puts the person back at the center, because only thanks to the possibility of involving people in the studies it will be possible to exploit all this knowledge and these techniques to derive a design that improves the daily experiences not only of consumers, but also of all people who use products and services.

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23 November 2018 Maurizio Mauri

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