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Neuromarketing in brand communication

Neuromarketing here. Neuromarketing there. Sick to the back teeth too, eh? This buzzword of choice for marketers. Already feeling peeved? Or are you triggered by: “Hey, you! Yes, you: Gizza (n)euro, would ya?” Neuromarketing is an interdisciplinary line of research between marketing and neuroeconomics.

Its aim – put simply – is to clarify what makes us more likely to buy something or more likely not to buy something.

(No) one definition of neuromarketing – an approach.

Neuromarketing is a sub-discipline of market research or – as its proponents believe – its spearhead. Cogitating in the conventional sense plays a subordinate role in the purchase decision – at least there are many places where you can find experts in marketing who are of exactly this opinion.

It’s not the conscious decisions that tempt us to choose a Coca-Cola, but the unconscious ones. Otherwise, we’d have preferred to drink Pepsi – as blind tests confirm time and again. Or water. Or even better, a great wine. A touch of sparkling wouldn’t have gone amiss. A Riesling, perhaps.

It’s the emotions, stupid.

How did Bill Clinton put it back then? “It’s the economy, stupid”. This is more or less how you could respond to all the stalwarts of “common sense” who still believe in “rational purchasing decisions”.

“Say what? This Porsche has 450 bhp? I’ve always been on the lookout for a Porsche with 450 bhp because >rational reason 1<, >rational reason 2< and finally >rational reason 3<”. And now we have to learn that >rational reason 1 to 3< bears no relevance at all, because we simply go for a Porsche, no matter how much horsepower it’s hiding under the bonnet. It’s always been that way.

We’re astonished to discover that it’s not suitable for transporting our family of five on holiday and back again. We can only use it to a very limited extent for our upcoming move. It is indeed no family estate car. And the finance deal to go with it barely coincides with our pay slip.

However – and this is the unbeatable argument – it’s a 911, it’s red and our lover looks smoking hot as her hair gets blown by the wind as we roar off into the sunset together with the top down (#familyleftwavinginthe rearviewmirror).

And, just like that, we bought it. And neuromarketing predicted exactly that? And neuromarketing can predict this for any other product? For every new product that is launched on the market? Certainly not.

Neuromarketing is worth plenty – and it’s expensive.

Even though imaging methods – such as magnetic resonance imaging – can show that small cars and sports cars appeal to different areas of a man’s brain, the results don’t allow us to draw any conclusions as to whether it was the Testarossa that appealed to us more than the Porsche mentioned above.

However, this can be decisive for the financier and client, given that, in neuromarketing, study after study costs real, actual money – i.e. it isn’t affordable for every client or principal.

Eye tracking may be a little cheaper, but the results are not much more meaningful, just different. The communicator knows whether he or she should position the logo in the top right-hand corner instead of in the bottom left-hand corner and whether the potential customer will react to the “Buy Now” button or not.

What’s the point, then, of deploying measures in neuromarketing that are not capable of achieving this? The exciting thing about neuromarketing is the question as to whether reactions to advertising, to communication, to still and moving images can be measured at all.

How do we react to certain stimuli? And do we respond better to certain signals? And can we use that for brand communication? The answer to these questions is most certainly yes. Yes, we can definitely see that certain forms of advertising appeal more to the customer’s brain than others. Yes, it’s true that certain TV ads work better on consumers than others.

Neuromarketing explores all these questions and finds scientifically relevant and validated answers that also afford some practical insight – even if it’s only why the iconic effect of Coca-Cola is more present with older consumers than with younger consumers, who simply no longer associate the PET bottle with the same emotions as their older counterparts, who primarily hold the glass bottle in their hands (something that Pepsi nevertheless doesn’t profit from directly).

Why is that? And what do these findings have to offer us now? What do the customers get out of it? The consumers? Or the corporate advertisers and all those in the agencies?

Priming? Want an example?

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to see neuromarketing in a broader context. How do we think? How do we perceive our environment? It’d be a little (but only a little) presumptuous to outline it all in one blog article.

But this much can perhaps be implied at this stage: We perceive virtually nothing of what is happening in our environment – as Thomas Metzinger has cleverly explained in his illuminating work on the issue of body and soul – “The Ego Tunnel” – for what we consider reality, for our dream experiences and for our increasingly digitalised, virtual world, which is revolutionising our conventional notion of consciousness beyond the spatial paradigm that can be directly experienced by human senses alone.

But we perceive that which we perceive more often. We retain and catalogue these experiences under positive memory if we associate them with good events (e.g. Christmas with delicious biscuits from mum), and under negative memory if we associate them time and again with negative experiences (e.g. Christmas with the not-so-festive, hunchbacked relatives).

One and the other are recurring events that we either look forward to with great joy, or dread with a quiet sense of horror. All events act on the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and sense of touch, and trigger fireworks in the synapses of millions of neurons in the brain of the customer – no, in the brain of every human being.

In psychology, this is referred to as priming. Images, words, smells and the like are priming stimuli. In his work “The Long Evolution of Brains and Minds”, the neurophysiologist Gerhard Roth has very clearly shown how the data highways in our heads are formed on the basis of this synapse fireworks display.

What is crucial: Everything we experience and perceive either stimulates our limbic system, our pleasure centre, or the amygdala – our fear centre. Either something attracts us or something repels us. Sometimes, we want to go there, and sometimes we want to flee. On the one hand, we have to have it; on the other hand, we find ourselves repelled. Sometimes, the one or the other impulse is very strong (then we just go ahead and buy it, like the Porsche), sometimes it’s very weak (then we don’t give a damn about sports cars).

According to this, everything we encounter, experience and perceive leaves a neuronal trace, however weak, a somatic state.

The Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls this somatic state “emotion” and distinguishes this emotion from the conscious sensation we have of our emotions. Emotion and sensation are, so to speak, two sides of the same coin: on one side a physical state that our consciousness then perceives as sensation on the other.

One can be measured with an EEG and visualised in the MRI, the other can be described in one’s own words. Both representations – in measurable procedures and in words – can have anywhere between plenty and nothing in common, and yet both refer to the same phenomenon.

What does all this have to do with neuromarketing?

Or, put differently: What does neuromarketing make of it? Something like this: All our experiences trigger emotions, which we perceive as sensations, either positive or negative in nature, depending on whether these experiences appeal to our limbic system or agitate our amygdala.

The sum of similar experiences determines our emotions and defines our options for action. It’s relatively simple to bring about certain actions in the context of a purchase decision by means of an A B test, which shows in a definitive comparison which buttons and purchase incentives have a particular appeal to customers and consumers on websites, in online shops or other portals.

Consumer neuroscience has already covered some real ground here in terms of showing what is possible in neuromarketing. Martin Lindstrom presented a bestseller in 2009 with “Buyology”, which pursues these unconscious stimuli and their effect right down to their finest ramifications.

In “Nudge”, the behavioural economist Richard Thaler – who was awarded the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics – and his co-author Cass Sunstein outline an economic model based on unconscious incentives that have an emotional effect on the respective target groups, yet serve perfectly rational economic goals. Neuromarketing only plays a marginal role here at best, but the results are interesting for both research disciplines.

The decisive factor in all these models seems to be that, in the human action cycle of stimulus and neuronal processing – controlled by the limbic system/amygdala – our decisions seem to have already been made before we become “aware” of them.

The conscious realisation that we are about to do “something” occurs a few milliseconds later – hence the rationalisation.

With that in mind: do good reasons for buying the Porsche or a bottle of Coca-Cola over, say, opting for the smaller car and drinking tap water, always only come into their own after the fact, so to speak? Does the gut always win? And never the brain? “It had to be this Gucci bag, what else am I going to use to carry my tissues around in when I get teary-eyed watching Titanic in the cinema at night?” That’s probably how it goes. We’re all probably familiar with the one or other shopping spree (“I’m gonna buy EUR 100 worth of chocolate now!”) that we later regret. It’s a bit like sex or afterwards (omne animal post coitum triste).

Rewarding and punishing factors in neuromarketing.

According to Peter Kenning, Chair of Business Administration at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf and a leading expert in consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing – with whom we collaborated closely at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen at the time – brands trigger a physiological relief of measurable pressure on customers’ decision-making processes.

In this context, brands are (also) measurably associated with emotions and brand-building advertising acts like a reward. So, in other words: Customers and consumers who buy brands feel good, they believe they are doing something good for themselves. The price, on the other hand, has something of an ambivalent effect, to the extent that, on the one hand, it harbours a deterrent, punishing effect (brands are expensive), while, on the other hand, it has a rewarding effect (because “I’m worth it”).

These findings stem from as early as 2010 and can be found in the interim assessment and outlook on neuroeconomic research entitled “Fünf Jahre neuroökonomische Forschung – Eine Zwischenbilanz und ein Ausblick” in “Wie Marken wirken. Impulse aus der Neuroökononmie für die Markenführung”, published by Manfred Bruhn and Richard Köhler.

The fact that methods such as those outlined there remain relevant in marketing is proven by Dirk Held and Christian Scheier in their 2018 study on how advertising works, entitled “Wie Werbung wirkt”, which demonstrates that previous market research has come up against its own methodological limits. The examples with the Porsche and Coca-Cola are also attributable to their work. Many thanks.

Neuromarketing is an important tool.

And now? So now we’re throwing away our rationality? Is our reason, our intellect nothing but a superfluous aberration? So should it just be all about neuromarketing from now on?

Hardly. This much can be said: Neuromarketing is an extremely exciting field of research that only a handful of people can afford, but whose findings can be used by all companies, customers and consumers alike. We’re gaining insight into the fact that advertising actually works – and we’re increasingly able to use neuromarketing to better assess how advertising can reach consumers with ever greater efficiency and precision.

For ourselves, there are very specific insights into the fact that we only reach our clients’ customers if we tell them a good story. No “yarn spinning” here, but rather a story that actually appeals to the target group, that triggers emotions and stays in the mind.

Everyone associates something positive with what is useful. It’s the benefit that we communicate whenever possible. We supply the properties and the technical data as a rationalisation afterwards.

Are there any further findings? This perhaps: We never tire of repeating them: The buying decisions in B2B are the same as in B2C, even if there are still many who claim that factual sales arguments apply in B2B, whereas emotional advertising is something for B2C.

That’s why we always talk about B2P - Brand to People. This is because this much should have become clear: It’s the emotion that counts. And not just in neuromarketing, by the way.


Christoph Siwek

Creative Consulting / Group Head Text