Advances in Neuromarketing and Your Buying Decisions: What Can’t Speak Can’t Lie

Spend Matters welcomes this guest post from Diarmuid O’ Donoghue and Khushboo Kadmawala, of GEP.

Do you really think that you make your own buying decisions? I urge you, think again.

In an infamous Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola experiment, researchers discovered that the motivation to buy a Coca-Cola was driven more by the brand image than by the taste itself. Researchers conducted a simple two-taste test using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — a tool that measures brain activity by changes in blood flow — one blind and another wherein the subjects knew what brand they were drinking. In the blind test, the volunteers showed activity in the “reward center” of the brain when drinking Pepsi; however, when they knew which soda they were drinking, the scans showed brain activity in the centers for memory and emotions in favor of Coke.

This clearly drew the conclusion that people liked the taste of Pepsi, but they were more inclined “to believe” that they preferred Coke. As Dan Hill simply puts it, “Human beings are not truth machines.” Hence, what we speak may not be necessarily true, but what these neuromarketing tools indicate don’t lie.

So, coming back to our question, are your own preferences the real indicator of your buying decisions? Let this example of Frito-Lay, the junk food giant, spill the beans for you. To reposition its target audience, Frito-Lay made use of electroencephalography (EEG), a tool to measure brain signals, to find out the reaction of adult consumers toward their top-selling cheese puffs brand, Cheetos.

Before the test, it was a general belief that consumers largely disliked the residue cheese dust from Cheetos. The test results, however, revealed something completely unexpected. It was determined that the consumers show a strong positive response when their fingers turn orange due to the residue cheese dust — consumers enjoy the messiness of the product.

With that insight, Frito-Lay went ahead with ad campaign “The Orange Underground,” wherein the brand mascot Chester Cheetah encourages viewers to commit subversive acts with Cheetos (including sticking Cheetos up the nostrils). Despite negative response from focus groups and critics claiming it to be “mean-spirited,” the EEG results proved that people who watched the ad showed positive feedback and connected Cheetos with desirable deviant thrills. This test explained how people may not be ready to accept or even know that they enjoy the residue cheese dust, or even give in to the fact that they liked a commercial involving a man flouting social norms. Neuromarketing tools are advancing to decode the underlying motives of consumers and use them to influence their buying decisions. The ad later led to a 30% increase in sales of Frito-Lay, followed by winning the 2009 Grand Ogilvy Award.

Yes, you can believe that advertisers are using EEG, fMRI, eye tracking, facial coding and skin sensing technologies to control and manipulate your mind into buying products — again, not just buying them but also predicting the future of sales of the product. In another interesting study by Innerscope Research in 2012, 40 film trailers were shown to 1,000 people while recording their heart rate, breathing, how much they sweat, motion responses and eye-tracking patterns. They found that if a film’s trailer fails to reach a specific emotional engagement threshold (65), “it will very likely generate less than $10 million in revenue on opening weekend,” but a trailer that exceeds an engagement threshold of 80 “will very likely earn more than $20 million the first weekend.”

Neuromarketing, once believed to be pseudoscience, is now gaining traction with solid evidence, enabling marketers to reduce the amount of guesswork in identifying what may sell and what may not and build a more comprehensive marketing framework to achieve greater insights.

Taking advantage of consumers’ inability to express and frame their experience about a product, and understanding that there is a lot more information calculated and evaluated by the human brain during these experiences, neuromarketing has a huge ability to find out this hidden information in much easier and cost-effective ways, as compared to conventional methods of market research.

So, next time when you think you’ve made the right purchase decision, think again, because what cannot speak is actually speaking louder than your thoughts.

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