The ‘f’ word, or fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging – is increasingly being adopted as a neuroscientific marketing tool by chief marketers of global brands. The cost of fMRI scans has to date been seen as somewhat prohibitive, but recent studies show that the technique can not only help predict consumer behaviour and preferences more accurately than more traditional research tools but also more cost-effectively by using smaller sample sizes.
Most people know what an MRI scan is – in fact, many of us will have had personal experience of MRI scanning machines being used to detect vascular or arterial medical conditions. Functional MRI (fMRI) scanning is a very similar, non-invasive technique which has the added benefit of revealing brain activity in real time, and where in the brain it happens by identifying and measuring changes in localised neuron activity and bloodflow, among other indicators.
fMRI’s potential as a marketing tool was initially tested in a series of experiments to determine the effect of branding on the brain and how it might influence consumer preference. The famous ‘Pepsi Challenge’ was repeated while scanning the participants’ brains at the same time. Presented with anonymous colas, more people preferred Pepsi to Coke, and their brains’ reward centre – the ventral putamen – showed a response level of five times higher than those whose preference was Coke, showing indisputably that Pepsi was the favoured cola, on the basis of taste.
Then the tasting experiment was repeated, but after first identifying the respective brands this time. Nearly all subjects said they preferred Coke, despite the majority of them earlier preferring the taste of Pepsi. The subjects were obviously influenced by their knowledge of, and experience of, the Coke brand. And interestingly, on this occasion different parts of the brain were stimulated into activity – particularly the medial prefrontal cortex, an area known to be involved in our sense of self-image, how we see ourselves. It is known that these two receptor areas within the brain – content and cultural influence – combine to shape perceptions and to modify behavioural references for even a very basic reward.
Exactly how Coke achieved a position of such influence is not fully understood, even by Coke itself … therein lies the Holy Grail of marketing. But the answer must be a combination of name, consistent advertising, packaging, PR, distribution, product placement and so on … cultural messages which have been proven to influence consumer behaviour and the decision-making process.
In another fMRI study participants were invited to taste two identical wines – one being first identified to them as different and more expensive than the other. Neural data from the fMRI scans showed that the higher price actually made the wine taste better in the participants’ brains by changing its neural signature.
fMRI and other similar brain-scanning techniques seek to establish how a brand might best build an emotional relationship with its customers, identifying the most receptive areas of the brain to receive such a message. Market researchers and brand owners are taking these neuromarketing techniques very seriously.
Neuroscience marketing analysts claim they can use the information gathered by fMRI and other techniques to identify consumer preference triggers, and then apply this knowledge to help marketeers formulate more effective brandbuilding campaigns. fMRI is becoming a regular tool for testing packaging, advertising and other promotional material, helping brand owners to build strong relationships with their existing and potential customers.
But, call me old fashioned – surely there can be no prescribed formula for producing effective, creative brand communications. No matter how much we may come to know about how and where the brain responds to cultural messages, in order for brandcomms to break through the plethora of commercial messages out there they must challenge, amuse, shock, or intrigue the audience. And that means being bold, different, unpredictable.
In my book, creativity will always prevail over science.
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