Christine Born and her colleagues at the Ludwig-Maximilians University Hospital in Munich, Germany carried out functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies on 20 adult men and women. While in a scanner, the participants were shown a series of logos of well-known and lesser-known car manufacturers and insurance companies. Each of the 16 visual stimuli was displayed for a period of 3 seconds; as they viewed the logos, the participants were asked a number of questions to determine their perceptions of each brand.
Strong (well-known) brands elicited activation of the inferior frontal gyrus, anterior insula and anterior cingulate gyrus on both sides of the brain, and activation of the precuneus in the left hemisphere. All of these areas are associated with positive emotional processing. By contrast, weak brands activated the precuneus in both hemispheres. Activation clusters were larger for weak brands, and included brain regions involved in working memory and negative emotional responses. In other words, it seems that strong brand names, with which the participants are more familiar, were processed with less effort than weaker ones.
“This is the first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) test examining the power of brands,” says Born. “We found that strong brands activate certain areas of the brain independent of product categories.”
Traditionally, the use of “expert power” was used to try and persuade consumers which products to buy. Experiments performed by French and Raven in the early 1960s showed that the opinion of someone perceived to have some expertise is more persuasive than the opinion of a non-expert. The most familiar type of expert power for most of us is a commercial in which an academic, a doctor or a sportsperson endorses a product.
The study by Born et al is an example of neuromarketing research. This field, which has emerged in recent years, is an interdiscip- linary approach which combines methods from marketing, neuroscience and psychology in order to gain a better understanding of how the brain processes brand-related information. It is an attempt to probe inside the mind of the consumer, with the aim of producing a neurobiological model of decision-making and persuasion, so that the effectiveness of advertising can be improved.
One very well-publicized neuromarketing study was carried out by Read Montague, of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, who tried to determine the neural correlates of taste preferences by applying functional imaging to the “Pepsi Challenge.”
In blind studies in which participants did not know which beverage they were tasting, activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC) was correlated to the participant’s preferred drink. It was also found, however, that when subjects were told that one of the drinks was Coca-Cola (even if it wasn’t actually Coca-Cola), they were more likely to show a preference for it, and that VPC activity was accompanied by activity in other areas believed to be involved in reward. If, by contrast, people who preferred Coca-Cola were told that they were drinking Pepsi, this was not seen. These results were attributed to Coca-Cola’s ‘brand effect’ – the image of ‘living life to the fullest’ which is used to market the drink. It is this due to this brand effect that Coca-Cola out-sells its main competitor, despite the fact that most people who take the Pepsi Challenge say they actually prefer Pepsi.
According to Born, “The vision of this research is to better understand the needs of people and to create markets which are more oriented towards satisfaction of those needs. Research aimed at finding ways to address individual needs may contribute to a higher quality of life.” Even though there is little evidence that neuromarketing actually provides a better understanding of the effects of branding on the brain, this statement strikes me as being a little naïve. I am inclined to think that neuromarketing research is being done for the benefit of the seller rather than the consumer.
Critics already equate neuromarketing with coercion, behaviour modification, and even brainwashing. They fear that any significant findings in the field could be used to link positive neural responses to negative values, or for purposes such as political propaganda. Others object to neuromarketing on ethical grounds, arguing that medical technologies should not be put to use in this way. Many scientists are skeptical of neuromarketing, and claim that, because cognitive neuroscience is still a new field, these worries are premature. It is, they believe, over-optimistic to think that brain imaging can tell us much about decision-making processes, because any observed correlations are found under controlled laboratory conditions, and cannot be extrapolated to behaviour in a more natural environment.