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July 12, 2005
The Brand and the Brain: What science is telling us about consumer behavior

Recently a team at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas studied the brain scans of 67 individuals who were asked to do blind taste tests of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Participants were split virtually 50/50 over which soft drink tasted better. But when the same people were tested again and told which brand of soft drink they were drinking, 75% said they preferred Coca-Cola.

Coke vs. Pepsi
Why did the test subjects change their opinion? Why would they be split 50/50 in blind taste tests, but prefer Coca-Cola three to one in the non-blind test? Because two different parts of the brain control taste preference and brand preference. During blind taste tests, something called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex lights up, which helps drive sensory preferences such as taste. But when consumers know which brand they’re drinking, the medial prefrontal cortex lights up, which helps drive brand preference.

In other words, because of Coke’s brand image, about 75% of the population think they prefer Coke over Pepsi even though blind taste tests show that only about 50% do.

This is not entirely surprising. If you ask consumers what images pop into their heads when they think of Coca-Cola, they’re likely to say Polar Bears, Santa Claus, “Mean” Joe Green, and a whole slew of other warmly embraced American icons. If you ask the same consumers about Pepsi, the imagery isn’t quite as deeply-rooted – they might indicate they link Pepsi to a pop star, but they won’t link Pepsi to the kind of emotional American icons Coke has linked itself to.

Implications for marketers
As you might imagine, this study has powerful implications for Coke, Pepsi and anyone else interested in selling more product. This budding field is called Neuromarketing, and it relies on a brain-scanning device called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI. Scientists have used fMRIs to track which regions of the brain light up when people recognize a face, hear a song, make a decision, pay attention or sense deception.

Neuromarketing is currently the domain of larger corporations with significant marketing research budgets. But traditional forms of research have shown that the more emotionally charged a commercial is, the more likely the message is to be imbedded in a consumer’s mind. That’s because in order for a long-term memory to be created, it must first have an emotional component to it. (This explains why most people recall the Taco Bell Chihuahua or the Energizer Bunny – both of which tickled our emotional funny bones – but can’t recall the last Tylenol commercial they saw.)

Criticism of Neuromarketing
For all its positive potential, Neuromarketing has its critics. An organization called Commercial Alert has called it “Orwellian” and has sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation asking for an investigation into Neuromarketing. The group’s executive director asked for the investigation because he believed marketers could “trigger neural activity so as to modify behavior.” But Dr. Steven Quartz, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, disputes such a claim. He points out that “It’s pure fantasy to suppose that Neuromarketing is about embedding subliminal messages.”

How is Neuromarketing currently being used?
For those with the research budgets to support Neuromarketing, it can be a powerful tool. In Hollywood, movie trailers are now being tested using the fMRI method. Producers have found that a trailer’s success is directly related to whether it engages people on an emotional level. DaimlerChrysler took fMRIs of men’s brains as they looked at different images of cars. Not surprisingly, the sexy, racy sports cars activated the men’s reward centers.

At Harvard, researchers found that in young heterosexual men, their brains were highly activated by beautiful female faces. (Which begs the question: “Did they really have to spend money to figure that out?”) And Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta is studying how people’s opinions are swayed by others. The research could shed light on products that become fads.

Implications for marketers.
These studies validate what many marketers have known for quite some time:

1. Marketing messages that touch an emotional hot spot are often highly effective.

2. Marketing messages that provide information in a straightforward or mundane fashion are often ineffective.

3. Marketers who find an emotional hot button can use that information to drive sales and change consumer behavior.

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Jamie Turner is the Chief Content Officer at BKV's 60 Second Marketer. He is the co-author of How to Make Money with Social Media and is an in-demand marketing speaker at events, trade shows and corporations around the globe.
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