Neuromarketing – Putting the Brain into the Marketing Equation

Neuromarketing is a relatively new research field which has been accelerating over the past few decades, along with the growth of neurosciences. It is a field that combines neuropsychology and marketing, and as part of the research consumers’ brain activity during their decision-making process is tracked. Using fMRI scans, EEG and a wide range of neural and physical parameters, such as eye movement and heart rate, we can gather insights regarding our consumer mind and the way we make consumer decisions.

Neuromarketing Basics: System 1 and System 2

The basic idea behind neuromarketing is that the “consumer brain” acts via two parallel systems – system 1 and system 2:

System 1: Immediate thinking system – it is subconscious, quick, instinctive, emotional and effortless. The main goal of this system is to spare the brain as much energy as possible by making intuitive decisions. Most of our decisions are made through that system, without us even noticing it.

System 2: Consideration system – based on conscious and rational thinking that can weigh pros and cons to form a decision.

The brain aspires to work with system 1 as much as possible, and only puts system 2 into action when needed. Indeed, while system 1 is always at work and makes decision for us without us even noticing, system 2 will go into action when we face a decision that requires thorough thinking on our part. In these cases, the decision has already been mostly made by system 1, and system 2 is stepping in to rationalize the choices made.

The understanding that this is how the “consumer brain” works is of utmost importance to both marketers and publishers. Marketers and salespeople tend to turn to “common sense”, and this must be reexamined due to the fact that system 2 – the consideration system – kicks into action only after system 1 has spoken. On the other hand, commercials aimed at activating system 1 have to take into account that if their products or services are expensive or long-lasting, the decision will also go through system 2 – which requires rational data to make or justify the final decision.

Advantages of neuromarketing research: removing conscious inclinations

How did brands and businesses learn what consumers want, think or feel, and how they make consumer decisions regarding purchases? Until the early 2000s, and in fact to this very day, research was mostly based on surveys, questionnaires and consumer focus groups. These research methods are problematic on two levels compared to neuromarketing:

The research is done on the conscious level: consumers are asked why they made a certain purchase or how they felt after watching a certain commercial, but these questions make the consumer extract replies from their consciousness. What you actually get are not real answers about their true decisions and feelings at the time of purchase, since much of that happens in the subconscious, but rather processed answers once they have gone through the rational “interpreter” trying to justify the choice in hindsight. You can partially overcome this hurdle through a few methods, but the main issue remains: we are basically asking system 2 about decisions made by system 1.

Research is done after the fact: consumers are asked to explain, in hindsight, why they chose what they did or felt what they felt. Our memory is not precise, and when we activate system 2 in order to extract the rationale for a decision made involving system 1 from our vague memory, what we get is not the real reason but rather the justifying, vague and inaccurate response.

Unlike surveys and questionnaires that consciously ask the consumer why they made certain decisions after the fact, neuromarketing allows us to inspect the unconscious (without being misinterpreted by consciousness) and in real-time (watching a commercial or product), while exposed to marketing stimuli or purchase decisions.

The Swedish Jam Affair: When System 2 Explains System 1

A famous experiment at a Swedish supermarket succinctly displays the problematic nature of the old type of research. As part of that research, consumers were asked to choose between two types of jams in a taste test (while another group was asked to choose plant scents).

Following the initial decision made by the consumers, the jam jars were switched without their knowledge and they were once again asked to taste the chosen jam and write down the reasons (when in fact they were sampling the other jam). About 70% of consumers did not notice the change and were impressively able to explain why they chose the jam they hadn’t actually originally chosen. That is what a system 2 explanation for a system 1 decision looks like: the consumer’s memory is limited and their inclination to justify decisions that have already been made is high.

The field of neuromarketing allows distributors to focus their marketing strategies, producing precise campaigns and making fewer mistakes when addressing their consumers.

Neuromarketing, Only for Corporations?

International corporations are already making use of neuromarketing, mostly over the last two decades, as neuro research develops on an immense scale.

What about small and medium businesses? You are not always able to finance designated neuromarketing research, but you should. There is a lot of research spreading throughout the world about neuromarketing, building a kind of collective crowd wisdom. In other words, closely following the world of academia and its research can provide us with an overall image, as well as guidelines to help us build marketing and publication systems that are also taking the consumer brain into consideration along with its subconscious parts.

What Will Future Market Research Look Like?

How will the consumer research market look in the near future? We should see a split between two types of parallel research, those aimed at system 1 and those aimed at system 2. Classic survey, feedback and focus group research will focus on system 2 (considering, interpreting and justifying), while new neuromarketing research will focus on system 1 and measure our physiological reactions in real-time, aiming to decipher the subconscious.

One thing is certain: we are living in a fascinating world of marketing in which disciplines from marketing, sales, psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics come together. The digital space is, in fact, the largest and most accessible experimental arena for psycho-marketing.

Today’s world of marketing has arrived at a fascinating junction, one in which AI edge technologies and machine learning help neuromarketing, psychology, and behavioral economics understand consumer behavior.

We exist at the very center of this junction, connecting technology with psychology, automation with individual choice, and data with content that motivates consumers to act.