Why Neuromarketing Works Best

What motivates people to make the purchase decisions they do? In reality, people make their purchase decisions based on an innate, unexplainable, gut feeling, rather than by weighing the pros of cons of products every time. These purchasing decisions are actually made at a deeper level rather than being cut and dry.

Buyology by Martin Lindstrom explores and examines the hidden motives behind buying decisions by delving into the cutting-edge methods of neuromarketing. It assesses the workings of the brain and shows why traditional forms of marketing research such as surveys and questionnaires don’t always work.

Often, the brain’s decision and reasons to buy contradict what a buyer actually wants. In order to gauge this contradiction, Lindstrom believes that neuromarketing, a method based on sophisticated neuroimaging machinery, can lead entrepreneurs to information that can help in creating the best marketing strategies for their products and services.

The Influence Of Mirror Neurons

Studies have revealed that mirror neurons are the reason behind contagious yawning. When someone around us yawns, we feel an urge to yawn too. Similarly, seeing someone smile can put a beaming smile on the watchers face too.

In a study conducted on macaques by Giacomo Rizzolatti, a scientist, in 1992, showed an astonishing connection. He found that the premotor neurons in the macaques’ brain lit up while it reached for a nut, but also lit up while watching another macaque reaching for a nut too.

The study proves that these mirror neurons and certain regions of the brain were activated equally while the subject performed an action itself as well as when it watched another so the same action. The same can be said for humans, wherein, as we observe someone else performing an action, we re-enact the action in our brains too.

Marketing strategies and targeted advertising aim to stimulate these mirror neurons while making buying decisions. For example, the mirror neurons of the brain react to targeted gestures of someone sipping a cool cola in an ad. Similarly, attractive models in clothing brand ads target the mirror neurons, promising them a perfect look.

Mirror neurons, however, work in tandem with the happy hormone dopamine that creates a feeling of pleasure, influencing one’s buying decisions. The rush of dopamine is also the cause of the happy feeling we get after ‘retail therapy. It is this feeling that influences one to buy more than what rationality would otherwise allow.

Additionally, the same rush of dopamine can be linked to purchase decisions that indicate an increase in one’s social status. These choices are dictated by evolution. An increase in social status leads to an increase in one’s chances of reproduction. Biologically, the survival instinct of the body causes the brain to flood with dopamine, urging us to buy that bigger house or the flashy car.

Buyology by Martin Lindstrom
Buyology by Martin Lindstrom

Somatic Markers And Product Perception

We see many choices at the store. What makes us choose one particular brand every time as opposed to the other competitors on the shelf? 

Shortcuts that trigger automatic responses – the somatic markers of the brain – explain this. The brain processes a number of ideas and thoughts, condensing them all into a single response. Based on past experiences, the brain, rather than generate a new process every time, creates a shortcut leading to one’s buying decision.

A recent German study showed that about fifty percent of one’s buying decisions are made on spontaneous and unconscious reactions, due to the pre-made purchase-decision map already existing within the brain’s somatic markers. These somatic markers drive the preference of one brand over another. 

For example, researchers saw that buyers preferred Andrex toilet paper to Kleenex. While the results might seem strange, they were based on the fact that people liked the cute Labrador puppy mascot Andrex used. People linked the image of the puppy with toilet training, a young family, and these conceptual links strengthened the brand’s perception. 

These somatic markers are also what make people associate German products with technological superiority, making the brain’s somatic markers a veritable marketing tool. Thus advertisers often create associations between wildly different concepts to attract somatic markers of the consumer’s brains.

For example, Lindstrom convinced the manager of the struggling bank to paint everything in the bank a vivid pink. After a few months, the bank started flourishing because people associated the pink color with their childhood piggy banks. This shows how color can influence somatic markers greatly.

How Fear Works In Marketing

Using somatic markers to influence buying decisions can be relatively harmless. However, some marketing techniques are created to exploit certain negative emotions such as fear. When a person experiences fear, they tend to seek solace in pleasant experiences and solid foundations – often in retail therapy. As we have seen earlier, retail therapy induces the rush of dopamine that makes a person forget the stress caused by fear, pushing him/her to buy more.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s, 1964 iconic commercial ‘Daisy’ is a perfect example. The advert showed a little girl playing with daisies, just as a nuclear explosion erupts in the background. The message in the ad was clear – vote for Johnson or for nuclear war! Political strategist Tom Freedman studied the effects of the commercial on the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls fear) among voters recently. He found a noticeable activity increase in the subject’s amygdala – proof that the commercial was successful in winning Johnson the presidency in that year.

Somatic markers in the brain associated with fear can also link products with the absence of negative feelings. For example, diet products instill the fears of unwanted, undesirable consequences linking them with not using the product. This encourages buyers to purchase the products to avoid those negative consequences.

Similarly, Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears Shampoo works on the same concept. With promises of avoiding burning eyes in the bathtub, they have successfully marketed their product using the concept of fear.

Subliminal Messages In Marketing

Subliminal messages in advertising mean using auditory, visual, and other sensory messages directed at the subconscious. It is a concept that has been under the radar since 1957 when the concept was still in its nascent stages. The National Association of Broadcasters banned subliminal messaging even though the concept was determined to be fake.

If we consider any message in advertising that influences the subconscious to make purchase decisions, one can say that modern advertising does include subliminal messages, or any form of sensory stimulation that causes an obvious subconscious response, for example, the smell of the insides of a new car as a person takes the car for a test drive; we can say that subliminal marketing works.

For example, Marlboro’s owner Philip Morris pays clubs and bars to match their interiors with the brand’s colour scheme and put up ashtrays and other symbols that are similar to the Marlboro logo.

Neuromarketing research shows that subliminal messages work. A study showed that a simple grumpy or happy face affects how much a consumer is willing to pay for any product. Participants of the study were asked to see a sad or happy face, pour themselves a beverage, and then decide how much would they pay for it. Those who saw the happy face actually poured themselves more and were willing to pay double what the participants who sad faces were willing to pay.

It proved that simply seeing a smiling face at the checkout counter could greatly impact sales of a product.

The Impact Of health Warnings And Disclaimers

All cigarette packs have health warnings printed on them. Despite these warnings, statistics show that about fifteen billion cigarettes are sold on a daily basis. The question therefore is, do these disclaimers work at all?

A study asked smokers to see health warning images and rate their urges to have a cigarette. The brain scans of the participants showed that on a neurological level, the images had no effect on the participants’ cravings whatsoever. The study in fact showed that the nucleus accumbens – the brain’s ‘cravings spot’ – was actually stimulated by the images rather than repulsing the smoker.

Lindstrom, along with his research team conducted a similar experiment, showing participants a very repulsive ad. It featured a group of people sitting together enjoying cigarettes, while the cigarette emits disgusting green globs of fat, rather than smoke. As the group of people kept smoking, the globs of fat oozed out unnoticeably onto their clothes and surroundings. 

The aim of the ad was clear. Smoking causes globs of fat to circulate throughout one’s bloodstream causing damage to the arteries. Yet the ad had no effect on the study group. In fact, their brain focussed on the fun, social setup, and friendly atmosphere in the ad, increasing their desire to smoke.

Thus disclaimers actually promote addictive habits rather than discourage them.

Religion, Loyalty, And Marketing 

Marketing strategies aim at acquiring loyalty from customers. For example, if we look at the Oreo Cookie’s ‘twist, and lick’ or the ‘dunk in the milk’ way of enjoying the cookie cream, it has become a ritual. The strategy encouraged people to become ‘a part’ of the crowd that believes that these are the best ways of enjoying an Oreo. They ritualized the actions, making them almost religious, cementing customers’ loyalty to their product.

The major religions of the world work in a similar manner to ensure the loyalty of their followers. The Catholic Church, for example, encourages people to form emotional connections that make their beliefs strong and them loyal. Religions also create an ‘us vs. the others’ mentality to gain loyalty. Many marketing strategies adopt the same methods to create loyalty among customers. Similarly, major competing brands such as Coke, Pepsi, Visa, MasterCard, etc., create distinctions between competing products to define themselves. Such distinctions help in attracting a fanatical following of loyal users.

Moreover, iconography in marketing such as symbols, or the logo of a brand (the golden arches of McDonald’s or the Nike swoosh) is quite similar to the iconography that is present in religions. Symbols such as the Cross, angels, and the Crown of Thorns help followers associate feelings with religion.

There is a similarity between religious connotations and references and strong brands too, especially in the way the brain processes these messages. 

A study in neuromarketing showed that the brains of participants presented almost identical activity while they were viewing images of religious symbols and images of strong brands such as Ferrari, iPod, Harley Davidson, etc. Thus, emotional resonance and engagement with the marketing of strong brands are similar to one’s spiritual attachment was clearly evident.

Sexual References In Advertising

The use of sexual references in advertising is a thriving and age-old practice. However, are these strategies effective enough?

Take, for example, the National Airlines commercial that featured a sexy air stewardess claiming to “fly you like you’ve never flown before”, or Vulva, the perfume brand claiming to have captured the enticing scent of the vagina. Sexual references in many ads suggest ‘sex sells’, however, certain studies have claimed that sex has no effect whatsoever on customers buying decisions.

One study showed two groups of different shows with commercials in between. While one group watched some explicit scenes of Sex And The City, the second group watched the family comedy Malcolm In The Middle. The group that watched Sex In The City surprisingly was less likely to remember the commercials shown than the second group.

In fact, a study conducted by MediaAnalyzer Software and Research proved that sexual content in advertising actually takes a viewer’s attention off the actual product. They showed participants a few print ads that ranged from highly sexual to absolutely bland and asked them to specify which ads caught their attention. While the sexual ads gathered more attention, the viewers could not remember the brand names and logos of the ads, proving that sex does sell but at a price. This phenomenon was named the Vampire Effect, where explicit content actually sucks the attention of viewers away from products.

Nevertheless, sexual content, for its shock and controversial virtue can indeed be good for marketing. Thus, sex in itself sells, but it doesn’t help sell a product. It is rather the controversy that sells.

Neuromarketing And Market Research – Conclusion

It is proved that neuromarketing strategies can outperform traditional marketing tools such as surveys, mainly because most consumer choices are unconsciously made.

A comparative study showed participants 3 shows, How Clean is Your House, The Swan, and Quizmania.  After watching, they were asked to rate which show would they prefer to watch again. While traditional surveys pointed at How Clean is Your House and The Swan most preferred, brain scans later showed that How Clean Is Your House?  was a clear preference followed by Quizmania, with The Swan taking third place. 

Neuromarketing thus has the ability to gauge whether a marketing strategy could backfire or be ineffective altogether. It can also help determine the true motive behind purchase decisions, helping companies tweak their marketing and products accordingly.

By looking at the biological aspects of brain activity, neuromarketing proves to be a more accurate method to influence a customer’s purchase decisions.