Why Marketers Should Ignore Neuromarketing

There’s been some buzz around Neuromarketing lately.  I sat in on a panel on Neuromarketing at South By Southwest Interactive this year and until then I assumed that only folks doing TV ads for large companies would be interested in it but at SxSW I heard marketers at smaller companies talking about it.  This frankly, scared me.  I believe marketers should ignore Neuromarketing (at least for now) and particularly marketers at smaller companies.

What is Neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing involves measuring brain activity in response to marketing.  The metrics that are most commonly tracked are emotional engagement, attention and memory.  Anyone who has ever run a focus group will tell you that customers often can’t express clearly what their purchase motivations are.  Neuromarketing attempts to go directly to the subconscious to figure out how we respond to marketing with the goal of improving it.

Are your Neurons connected to your Wallet?

So it seems logical that if the parts of your brain that are concerned with engagement, attention and memory are all firing away like crazy when you are exposed to marketing, that would mean that the marketing is good right?  Not so fast.  It turns out that all of that brain activity is one thing – motivating you to actually do something (like typing in godaddy.com or buying a bag of Doritos) is another.

Take the Super Bowl for example.  For the past several years, a “neuromedia” research firm has recorded brain activity while people watched the Super Bowl ads and then ranked them by “neurological engagement.” Unfortunately that engagement didn’t necessarily translate back to a desired behavior.  In 2008 GoDaddy’s ad ranked near the bottom of the engagement chart yet the ad generated 1.5 million hits on their site – a staggering marketing success.  Here’s what Roger Dooley at the Neuromarketing Blog had to say on the subject:

The truth is that at the moment, we don’t really know what all that brain activity means. That doesn’t mean the experiments are a bad idea – it just means that we need to keep working to establish a correlation between the brain effects of the advertisement and the ultimate achievement of the advertiser’s objectives.

This is an old quote (2006) but the panelists in the SxSW session this year re-iterated the fact that so far, we haven’t been able to connect the dots between brain activity and behavior in a way that marketers can use.

But Wait, Does that Mean I Don’t Have to Worry About Subconscious Factors?

Don’t get me wrong here – as a marketer I care about what’s going on inside your head.  But frankly, I only really care when it drives behavior.  In particular, buying behavior.  There are a lot of important things that marketers can learn about behavior from the neuroscientists of the world.  In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely gives a host of great examples of how people behave in irrational ways with practical implications for marketers. Examples include:

  • If there is a default option, people are more likely to pick it.
  • People’s preference for a one product over another can be dramatically changed if presented with a third, decoy option.
  • The price that a product is initially set at, can anchor consumer expectations for what a product is worth.
  • If there is a free option, people will pick that one.
  • People ascribe a much higher value to things that they already own than they do to things they have not yet purchased.

Notice that each of these examples is centered around behavior and not brain activity – because frankly, at the end of the day, that’s what we, as marketers really care about.

You’ve Got More Important Things To Worry about.  Like Selling Stuff.

Neuromarketing, although interesting, is not something that marketers can use in a practical way today.  One day our brain activity may tell us something about how we decide to purchase things but until it does – don’t worry your precious marketing neurons thinking about it.

Hey, you made it all the way to the end! You should subscribe!  You can sign up for email updates, subscribe via RSS or follow me on Twitter.

26 thoughts on “Why Marketers Should Ignore Neuromarketing”

  1. Great Post, RG.

    If you like Neuromarketing and you want to be fascinated (but maybe a little overwhelmed by the research), a good addition to Ariely’s book is How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market by Gerald Zaltman.

  2. April – great insight. I have to admit, I haven’t expereinced NeuroMarketing especially via TV as I DVR everything out and watch the content I really care about. (SMILE)

    I wonder if this approach is consistent with many of the marketing mistakes that companies make.

    Thanks for posting.

    1. Hi Jim,
      Thanks for the comment. Like I said in the post, there may well be something we can learn from brain activity someday, but for now, I think it’s interesting but not exactly useful for me as a marketer. I’m all for trying new things in marketing, but I like to be able to measure if those things work or not.
      April

  3. Hi April,
    I work in neuromarketing, so thought I would chime in since your new friend Quince seems to be the only guy taking the ‘pro-neuromarketing’ position!

    Fact is, neuro research works hand-in-hand with consumer behavior research. There is no need to draw a heavy line between them. We have done plenty of research that correlates neural responses and behavior, including buying behavior. We have found that when a message activates attention and emotional engagement, it also facilitates memory … and that memory is more likely to show up as recognition (often in the absence of explicit recall) in a point of sale setting.

    You’re not going to see a lot of this work publicized … ironically, because it works, not because it doesn’t.

    There is also a ton of academic research going on that looks at the neural underpinnings of valuation, judgment, and behavior. Just google “neuroeconomics” to take a sip from the fire hose. Solid, replicable neuroscience is at the root of all these applications, whether looking at cognition, judgment, behavior, or all three.

    1. Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I had to get rid of Quince – his was getting pretty personal, was attacking me personally (not my post) and frankly wasn’t adding to the discussion.
      It’s interesting to think that the reason we haven’t seen more positive results about Neuromarketing is because it’s working so well. There was a question of ethics raised in the SxSW panel – perhaps folks are worried about a backlash if there are positive results.
      I’d love to see some of this research.
      April

      1. You have touched upon something that has become a bit of a personal crusade for me – helping people understand that neuromarketing is not about turning people into “zombie consumers”. If you really drill down into what is known about nonconscious and conscious processes, any fears about “mind control” will quickly be replaced by a renewed respect for how smart and adaptive this system really is.

        Nonconscious processes are not “gateways” for getting nefarious ideas INTO our minds, they spend most of their time keeping distracting stuff OUT. This is why good advertising is actually very hard to do. And why market research exists.

        I recommend your readers take a look at an article in the New Scientist a couple of years ago titled “The subconscious mind: your unsung hero” by Kate Douglas.

        On your ethics question, remember it is MARKETING that is trying to persuade people. All neuromarketing does, like any other research technique, is try to figure out whether it’s working or not. So far, I think we’re helping make ads less irritating and more informative, and products and brands better at communicating their value propositions. The consumer still decides.

        One thing is clear: our subconscious minds is working for us, not for the advertiser. If neuromarketing can help save the world from one more bad ad, I think it’s more than justifying its right to exist!

  4. Dear April,

    I was reading this blog and was very intrigued at this convo. I agree with Steve in regards to the over all acceptance of this new discipline in Marketing. I have been doing market research for over a decade now and I find neuromarketing a great tool to compare reports with. Like every good market researcher, I look at various platforms before I come to a conclusion. I use neuromarketing to confirm why my reports generate the way they do. In this aspect, I can use neuromarketing to the fullest potential, considering the factors of actual science to give my busy mind some closure to the subject. I had a campaign I was working on, which we found an increase of sales in women, which I had to find out why. At the end of the research, I was surprised to find that the increase of sales had much to do with the women’s menstruation period. And undoubtedly, science tied in to my research. I have a profound respect for the new research and I plan on integrating it with my future reports.

  5. Hi April,

    I am an academic interested in the field of neuromarketing. I have no economic interest in it (at least in this moment).

    I agree that what you say is valid for most marketers. I think that for most enterprises is expensive and some kind of tentative research whose funds could be put into another use (selling, for example).

    But there are big companies over there. For them, making their ads a little bit more engaging could translate into revenue of millions of dollars. Same is true for film making industry. The quality of their product is something they should care about a lot.

    If you are a marketer in one of those companies, for example, you should not ignore neuromarketing.

    1. Hi Sergio,
      Thanks for the comment. It’s when you say “…could translate into millions of dollars” where I have a problem. I have yet to see where the link between brain activity and purchases has been explained. When someone can show me that the stuff that neuromarketers measure translates into sales, then I will start to pay attention to it. Right now it’s a leap of faith I can’t make (and in my opinion nobody, even big companies should).
      April

Leave a Reply to Sharon Landis Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *