Is Big Brother Watching you? The emerging science of Neuro-Marketing…

One of the most exciting areas of scientific discovery over recent years has been the enormous progress scientists have made in understanding of how our brains work.  This has been made possible by huge advances in the quality of brain imaging. Modern scanners mean we can now see which parts of the brain are active at any given time. So we can measure where in the brain activity is triggered in response different kinds of stimulus.  The latest most powerful machines enable us to see individual neural pathways, so that we can effectively ‘”follow” thoughts around the brain as they occur.

How is this relevant to Marketing, you might ask?

Well, scientists are beginning to use this technology to analyse the process that we go through when selecting one product or service over another. So marketers are now able to get inside our heads and examine our innermost thoughts about things they’re trying to sell us.  This is scary stuff. 

Fifteen years ago years ago branding was the reserve of big corporations like Unilever and Coca-Cola. Small to medium-size companies didn’t be to know anything about it. All we needed to do was get the customer’s attention by creating a distraction and then shout loud enough to get our message across. That was the era of push marketing.

But now, in the age of the Internet, those days of high-pressure salesmanship are gone. Effectively, the whole world has become one big supermarket where brands offering all kinds of products and services sit on the shelves vying for attention. These days everyone in business has to build a successful brand if they want to survive and prosper.

So what have the men in white coats found out? The latest research shows that purchase decisions are taken unconsciously. So at the moment we decide to choose product A over product B our conscious mind is not charge. Brands battle away for our attention at a subconscious level. The one that wins is the one that bubbles into consciousness at the right moment. That sounds a bit frightening at first, but the unconscious mind goes through a very efficient decision making process which provides a logical evaluation of the brand against our needs. It is so efficient that it’s been likened to a Google algorithm.

The research suggests that there are three golden rules which we need to follow if we are to develop a successful brand:

  1. Distinctive Relevance:  Brands that are strongly relevant to what we are looking for run more smoothly over the brain’s internal wiring, so they create more noise inside our heads. But relevance on its own is not enough. Brands that are not distinctive tend to block to each other out in the battle for attention. So in order to maximise the chances that our brand will be selected it needs to be distinctively relevant to our target customers’ needs.
  2. Coherence: The more coherently our message is communicated the more likely it is that our band will be chosen. The reason for this is that when brain cells communicate with each other repeatedly in a consistent manner, communication becomes more efficient. This means that it is easier for the brain to retrieve the brand and it’s more likely that it will be chosen. This seems obvious when you’re planning a single campaign. What’s not so easy is to maintain a coherent set of values across all media over time.
  3. Participation: The brain will tend to prefer brands which communicate with customers interactively. Branding is just like learning in this respect. If you attend a workshop without taking notes you will find that you won’t have retained very much after couple of days. However, if you go to the same workshop and take lots of notes you will retain much more. But if the facilitator encourages questions, games and other forms of participation you will retain more still. The reason for this is that interaction encourages the brain to form new cell connections. In the case of the workshop this encourages the retention of information. In the case of a brand, it improves the chances that one brand will be selected over another in the battle for awareness.

So how does this change things. What does all this tell us? It’s long been understood that successful brands work by weaving together a series of attributes that fit easily with what the customer is looking for to satisfy a particular need or want. This is the so called “brand promise”. The brand promise needs to be sufficiently relevant to convince us that the branded product or service can do what we want, but sufficiently distinctive to get our attention. Nothing new there then. As far as coherence is concerned, many writers on the subject branding, notably Al Ries and Seth Godin , have long been encouraging us to narrow our focus and avoid inconsistency. And the emergence of social media has provided a platform on which brands of all kinds have started to interact with their public. In fact, if you look around you, you can see successful bands such as Apple, Nike and Adidas doing all of these things successfully.

Maybe what’s new is that many things which have long been regarded as best practice have now been given a scientific basis. Of course, the scary aspect of neuro-marketing is that companies with unlimited resources, like Coca-Cola, now have the means to “bench test” their marketing before launching it into the field. Depending on the test results they could then refine their message to make it more effective. This is beginning to look like manipulation. However, neuro-marketing only provides a tool by which you can evaluate the effectiveness of a brand, it it doesn’t generate the ideas needed to build a successful brand in the first place. For that you still need creative input.

And whilst, in theory, bench testing should give large corporations an unfair advantage over smaller competitors the internet and social media have created so many opportunities for the savvy entrepreneur, maybe it’s only fair that a big corporations get something back…

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