What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Marketing

Marketers have seen trends and theories come and go over the years. Neuromarketing—or the use of neuroscience tools and theories to better understand consumers—is the new kid on the block. Does it have staying power? Will it revolutionize how we think about marketing?

It’s too early to say whether neuromarketing will revolutionize how we communicate with consumers. But having worked in the field since its early days (about 15 years ago), I think neuromarketing can definitely help us think differently in some ways. 

Neuromarketing can give us a new perspective on some old issues and confirm some things that we might have always suspected but lacked the hard evidence to prove.

Here’s a look at what neuromarketing can teach us.

Persuasion isn’t rational

It’s debatable whether those effects can be called persuasion at all.

If you ask three-year-olds why they want something, such as an ice cream or a toy, they typically say something like “because I do.”

By the time these children turn five, they will start to give reasons. Is that because they suddenly have reason motivating their behavior? Or have they just learned to put verbal rationalizations on their emotions? I would argue the latter.

Moreover, through this last century of research in psychology and neuroscience, we’ve learned more about how our emotions and non-conscious minds drive our behavior. There are now even serious debates in neuroscience circles about whether we can even be said to have conscious free will over how we act.

Yet much of market research is based on the practice of asking people why they do things. Insights can be generated this way… but so can misleading rationalizations. What gets measured gets attended to, but if we only measure the conscious mind, we miss the potentially decisive role played by the non-conscious mind.

One implication of this is that we may need to abandon the old model of needing to “persuade” consumers.

Persuasion is a notion based on the assumption that behavior is always driven by conscious, rational choices. The idea is that consumers rationally weigh options, listen to arguments made in favor of a brand or product, and make a decision.

Though that may happen sometimes, consumers probably don’t want to expend the time and effort to do this for every purchase choice. Instead, consumers’ non-conscious mind nudges them in one direction or another according to gut feelings or associations that the product has built largely non-consciously in their mind, and which get triggered at the supermarket shelf.

Low-level visual and sensory features can be more important than you might think

Relatively small design tweaks to an ad, webpage, or package design can make all the difference. Most marketers have known this, but the market research tools haven’t always been able to prove it.

One of the strengths of neuromarketing research is that it can measure and quantify the differences of relatively small visual changes to a design.

For example, research shows that designs that place images to the left of text perform better. This effect is called “processing fluency,” which is perhaps the most important neuromarketing concept of all.

The idea is that consumers have a preference for simple, easy-to-understand designs. Our brains usually confuse something being easy to understand and its being familiar. We have a bias toward the familiar. Because of a quirk in our visual system, we find decoding images easier when they are in the left of our visual field, and text if it’s in the right. The effect is not huge, but it’s large enough to create an impact on designs that have to communicate to thousands or even millions of consumers.

Understand the balance between simplicity and novelty

Is it better to make your communications simple and clear, or more involving, disruptive, and intriguing?

Neuromarketers struggle with this conundrum. The temptation for marketers is to err on the side of being novel and disruptive. The battle for consumers’ attention grows fiercer every year, so why not be different to stand out?

Research is showing that there’s a subtle interplay between these two opposite strategies. Be too simple, and you risk being boring. Be too disruptive, and you risk being confusing. Yet the two approaches can be combined.

The overall design of a product, webpage, or package can be what neuroscientists call “prototypical.” It can look like a typical example of what consumers expect, though the details can be more elaborate, unexpected, or intriguing. That results is something easy to process yet still interesting.

Another solution to this conundrum lies in the life cycle of a product or campaign. In the early stages of release, when something is new, people may prefer familiarity over novelty, but later on as they get more accustomed to it, people prefer a less typical design. There is some evidence for this design life-cycle trend in car sales.

A more nuanced, and evidence-based understanding of the relationship between simplicity/familiarity and novelty is coming out of neuromarketing research.

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As neuromarketing research matures, it likely will generate more shifts in how marketers think. As with any new science, though, its claims need to be tested rigorously and skeptically.

Many practitioners are already latching on to neuroscience as a way to provide a sheen of glamour and authority to their research claims. (Even scientists aren’t immune to being seduced by the power of brain scans. One interesting piece of research showed that science papers were rated as more persuasive by scientists merely when they were illustrated with a brain-scan image.) Nevertheless, a wealth of insight awaits marketers in better understanding consumers’ non-conscious minds.

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