Neuromarketing is linked to neuroscience. The two terms are often used in the same sentence by many contemporary authors. They deserve their own definitions for clarification.

Neuroscience is the study of the brain and the nervous system (see Neuroscience).  Over the past 20 years, despite ever-improving brain technology, there is increasing awareness of the incredible complexity of the human brain and consequently, the difficulty of understanding the mental world of human beings. Neuroscientists have mapped the brain so that we now know which specific parts are responsible for movement, language, visual memory, short and long term memory, attention, emotional response and so on.  But understanding how the different parts of the brain interlink, how the unconscious works and indeed what ‘the mind’ actually is or where it is situated, remains a continuing challenge for the future. 

Neuromarketing is the specific practice of using scientific brain imaging techniques, eye tracking and other physiological measurements and applying these to advertising and brand issues e.g. measuring the effectiveness of advertising or brand response. 

There are a number of imaging tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and the electroencephalogram (EEG)` that have improved the ability of neuroscientists to understand where brain activity is taking place, say for attention, long term memory, emotional response and so on.  Other techniques can be used in combination such as eye-tracking and galvanic skin response (GSR) to zero in on understanding specific stimuli such as how a person is ‘reading’ a supermarket shelf, a section of a web page or print advertisement. 

Perhaps the most well known experiment was that conducted by the Baylor College of Medicine in the US, whereby Coca-Cola was compared with Pepsi in a blind taste test.  There was little significant difference between the two brands in terms of brain activity. But once the volunteers knew which brand they were drinking, the re-scan results were completely different.  The memory and affect (emotional) areas of the brain were activated in response to Coca-Cola packaging (but not so for Pepsi where the blind and branded response were similar) demonstrating the power of the Coca-Cola brand associations. (view URL).

Advocates of neuromarketing have embraced this new technology wholeheartedly and trumpet the end of market research, as we know it i.e. focus groups and ad tracking that rely on subjective questions and answers. Neuromarketing has been positioned as an objective and scientific measurement tool of brain activity (in response to stimuli of interest to marketers). 

Sceptics of neuromarketing, of which Acacia Avenue is one, focus on its weaknesses:

1. The scan images (and other data) show us that the brain has responded but not what that response means to the particular individual, or what they are feeling/thinking as a result. 

2. The interpretation of the experimental results is subjective. A neuroscientist can talk in terms of this brain activity being associated with this or that system (memory, emotion, retention etc), but it is by no means objective.  Two different neuroscientists might come to different interpretations 

3. Scanning subjects is expensive.  The samples are small.  The context in which advertising or brand response is being assessed (inside an MRI scanner and/or watching an ad/reading a print ad with electrodes on your head) is not at all realistic. It concentrates on a few individuals and yet today we know that much of what resonates is the result of what others around us are saying, doing and sharing.

4. Studies are set up as experiments, so the variables have to be simple e.g. is this colour better than that?  Is this name superior to these three?  Where is attention focused on this ad vs. that one?

Overall, neuromarketing is still in its infancy and has not yet proved that it can do a better job than good quality contemporary market research.  But perhaps using the two together may help us understand brand and communications responses in an enriched way.



Further reading:

1. Carter, R (1998) Mapping the Mind, Orion Publishing Group

2. Burne, J (2003) A Probe Inside the Mind of the Shopper, The Financial Times, 27 November

3. Damasio, A (1995) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Quill

4. Du Plessis, E (2005) The Advertised Mind, Kogan Page

5. O’Regan, R (2009) How much value can Neuromarketing add to your consumer research? Marketing NPV Vol 5, Issue 3

6. Wight, R and Nolan, V (2010) Neuromarketing: useful or useless?  Admap, January

7. Page, G (2010) Neuroscience: A New Perspective, Millward Brown Points of View, June

8. Penn, D (2010) Neuroscience can add insight when used in tandem with conventional research, Admap, January