Neuromarketing's 'wild west' days may be coming to an end

It used to be you could slap a 'neuro' in front of any scientifically sounding approach and no one would question you. Not anymore.

Soothing, yet compelling, music -- selected by an expert -- on a website or in a showroom that entices consumers to spend more than they originally planned. Specially designed scents, perhaps banana bread, in a store. Websites making abundant use of the color red. Independent business owners serving muffins on a warmed plate and with warm napkins to appear trustworthy. 

If you encountered any of these this past holiday season, you were exposed to neuromarketing. 

Maybe it worked on you. Maybe it didn't. Neuromarketing, for all its aura of scientific rigor, has always had critics casting doubt about whether it really works. Now, though, it seems these questions are starting to be heard.

How it works

Neuromarketing is based on scientific studies in which researchers use such advanced technologies as sensors, functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography and steady state topography to measure biometric responses in a test subject to certain stimuli – perhaps the smell of meatloaf, or the sound of gentle rain. Stimuli that triggers feelings of warmth and safety — holding a warm pad, for example — are then incorporated into a marketing campaign or staging for a store.

It is also used to set a price for a product. You know the axiom that consumers will buy something that is $9.99 but not $10? That's neuromarketing at play.

Privacy advocates decry these tactics when they are used, as they almost always are, without informed consent. That argument, though, presupposes that these strategies work.

The truth is, in most scenarios, they probably don’t.

The motivation of fear

For certain stimuli, namely those that elicit fear-based reactions, neuromarketing can be spot on, says Dr. Bob Deutsch, a cognitive neuroscientist and the founder and president of the consulting firm Brain Sells.

Fear is the oldest and more primal emotion, according to Deutsch, making it a prime influencer of behavior. Fear also can be triggered by images or mostly unobtrusive objects, and that is where neuromarketing can earn its street cred. An image of an otherwise nicely furnished attic that has a few shadows in the corner might trigger a nanosecond of fear in a subject's brain. Ditto a pretty but deserted country road.

"Neuromarketing can tell you not to use those images in messaging," Deutsche says. "But as far as helping you design what you should use, it is fairly useless.

"Neuromarketers like to think they can assign a numeric value to human longing, but they can't."

Practical value

It is an interesting opinion from someone who counts among his clients Citibank, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, National Geographic Channel and Hershey's, companies that presumably are paying Deutsche for positive insights into their customer base.

Deutsche's perspective is that the product in question has to fit into people's lives, and not vice versa — an approach that neuromarketers should take if they want commercial success for their clients. "All the rest is just bunk," he says.

Consider the emotion of trust, he says. It is a very complex feeling that simply cannot be evoked in a person with a bakery smell or warm pad. "Marketers have to understand context. Right now there is too much emphasis on emotion."

'Neuro' hype

Dr. Michelle Murphy Niedziela, scientific director with HCD Research agrees with Deutsche and points out that others in the industry are starting to ask hard questions about this issue. "In previous years, it was the neuromarketing wild west with 'neuro-cowboys' making outlandish claims," she tells me.

Late last year, Niedziela attended an industry event and went away "delighted that the focus was on how to maximize the advances in neuro-related technology with proper research design and validation," she wrote in a blog post shortly after.

"Many of the key players and clients in the field of 'neuromarketing' were in attendance and this may be an indication of a shift that is much needed to help legitimize and advance the field," she wrote.

A lot of the industry participants at the meeting were asking hard questions about validation. That has been one of the biggest problems with neuromarketing, Niedziela says, the tools being used have not been proven to measure what they say they are measuring. "Yes, you can use a certain machine to measure brain waves, but how do you accurately interpret that data. That has been the crux of the problem."

Practitioners in this space – which Niedziela prefers to call applied consumer neuroscience – are focusing on better experimental designs, for starters.

It is possible, she says, to design an experience that shows that the difference between product A and product B when someone experiences them is X and that difference is due to the Y factor.

“It is possible to measure the consumer’s emotional state. But there is no ‘buy button’ in the brain, there is no ONE structure in the brain that signals ‘love’. Brain structures work in concert to create experiences and perceptions – you cannot simply prove that someone ‘loves’ their iPhone from an quick brain scan, for example” referring to previous hyped media about neuromarketing research.

“Humans are more complicated than that.”

EDITOR'S NOTE, 1/29/15: An earlier version of this story contained an inaccurate representation of Dr. Niedziela's position.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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