What drives a person to not only buy something, but to choose one product or service over the other? The usual answers that come to a marketer’s mind when asked that question include need, price, availability, and brand familiarity.

But what if it goes deeper than that? What if consumer decision-making is driven by biology — specifically neural activity in the brain?

This idea is the basis of neuromarketing — sometimes known as consumer neuroscience — a field of study that incorporates biology and brain activity to predict and even influence consumer behavior and purchase decisions.

The Science Behind Neuromarketing

While the term neuromarketing was first introduced in the early 2000s, consumer neuroscience began to emerge in the 1990s, when measuring brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines became more accessible. 

Consumer neuroscience examines fMRI scans and electroencephalogram measurements of people’s brain activity when they are given or shown stimuli, such as an advertisement, product packaging, or something to drink. It could also include verbal prompts to monitor reactions. The brain activity seen on the scans shows what a person is feeling in that moment. 

Consumer neuroscience also includes physiological tracking — measuring facial expressions, eye movements, pupil dilation, heart rate, or other physical reactions people experience when given the stimuli. With eye tracking software, marketers can use heat maps to see what consumers are most drawn to in ad campaigns or websites and the journey they take to ultimately purchase something or disengage with digital assets. 

Examples of neuromarketing research include: 

  • Serving Coca-Cola and Pepsi to subjects in an fMRI machine. When the drinks weren’t identified, the researchers noted a consistent neural response. But when subjects could see the brand, the part of their brains associated with emotions, memories, and unconscious processing showed enhanced activity, demonstrating that knowledge of the brand altered how the brain perceived the beverage. 
  • Scanning the brains of test subjects while they tasted three wines, each labeled with a different price. Their brains registered the wines differently, with neural signatures indicating a preference for the most expensive wine. In actuality, all three wines were the same. 

Why is Neuromarketing Important?

By understanding what people react to based on biology and not conscious choices, marketers can essentially predict consumer behavior. When marketers can predict behavior, they can take steps to market their products — from the price to packaging to product marketing campaigns — in ways that elicit emotional responses and compel consumers to buy, thus increasing sales and revenue. 

There is a truth to neuromarketing that can’t be replicated by traditional marketing research tactics like focus groups. People may not always tell the truth in focus groups, or they say things they think others want to hear. 

Neuromarketing techniques remove the human choice element in market research and expose a person’s real and unfiltered responses. This helps marketers gain a more complete understanding of consumer motivation and buying behavior, which drives marketing decisions and budget spending.

How is Neuromarketing Used in Business Today?

Businesses are turning to neuromarketing to guide critical marketing decisions. In many cases, neuromarketing techniques are replacing traditional marketing research tactics. 

Here are five ways businesses are using neuromarketing to improve their marketing efforts and drive sales. 

1. Testing Ads 

Marketers can get true, unbiased responses to ad campaigns by showing different ads to test subjects and scanning their brain activity or tracking their eye movement while they view the ads. Based on the scans and other physiological and emotional reactions, they can determine which campaign — or which campaign elements — resonate more with consumers.  

2. Improving Packaging Design

When test subjects are given early prototypes of a product packaging, brain scans can help marketing and design teams gain insights into which version people are more likely to pick up and buy. Package design includes color, images, and size and shape. 

3. Enhancing Website and App Design 

Neuromarketing can help guide website and app design. Brain scans can show which design elements are more likely to engage users and drive clicks and purchases. Facial coding can also show how people view websites and apps, which can inform where to put different pieces of content. 

4. Informing Rebranding

From start to finish, neuromarketing can guide decisions on rebranding. This includes whether a rebrand is needed, which visual elements and messages work better for the new brand, and how to use the new identity in marketing tools and other brand assets. 

5. Optimizing Conversion Rates 

It’s estimated that 95 percent of decision-making is made unconsciously. Neuromarketing can help marketers understand what drives a person to make those unconscious choices to buy or not buy a product. Brands can then adapt their marketing materials and tactics to enhance elements that inspire people to buy.

Examples of Neuromarketing in Action

  • Through neuromarketing techniques, Frito-Lay learned that matte bags with pictures of potatoes did not trigger a negative consumer response, whereas shiny bags with pictures did. Based on those insights, they changed their chip packaging design. 
  • The National Cancer Institute used fMRI scans to test three anti-smoking commercials that included a telephone hotline. The subjects were heavy smokers who indicated they wanted to quit. The National Cancer Institute ran all three ads, but the ad to which the test group reacted favorably corresponded to an increased hotline call volume when it ran.
  • IKEA has designed their stores in a way that showcases everything they sell before a consumer can actually leave the store, thus increasing the likelihood of a purchase. The layout was developed using neuromarketing research.
  • Neuromarketing research has shown that people react favorably to movement and speed. This knowledge guided FedEx to include a hidden arrow in its logo that represents quickness, which garners favorable reactions — and subconscious brand trust — among consumers.
  • People also react favorably to color. Through research on brain activity, businesses know that the color red signifies strength. It’s easy to see why red is the favored logo color of so many iconic brands, including Coca-Cola, Target, McDonald’s, and Netflix.  

The Ethics of Neuromarketing

In general, people like to think that they make purchasing decisions — and really any decision — consciously after considering all of the options and facts. Neuromarketing exposes the fact that people can be influenced on an unconscious level. This realization can lead not only to privacy concerns but also to people feeling like they are being manipulated by brands they trust, which could make them avoid those brands entirely. 

For example, in 2015, one of the main political parties in Mexico used neuromarketing to learn more about voters’ interests and reactions to campaign ads. When the information leaked, there was a backlash from Mexican citizens. The candidate apologized, but the revelation likely cost him votes. 

Since the very first advertisement, businesses have been trying to persuade people to buy products. Neuromarketing uses the technology of the time to help marketers understand their customers better and deliver a more favorable experience. Currently, brain scans and physiological responses are being performed on test subjects who all have likely signed an informed consent document.

While it may seem like a logical progression of the marketing and advertising discipline, companies that use neuromarketing techniques should have robust and ethical protocols and a crisis communication plan in place in case of public backlash.

How to Study Neuromarketing

People working across marketing disciplines could benefit from understanding what drives consumer behavior. Harvard Division of Continuing Education Professional & Executive Development offers a 2-day Consumer Behavior Course: Using Neuromarketing to Predict and Influence Customers.

The course covers a wide range of topics to help participants understand the psychology of consumer behavior and how to apply it. Participants will come away with a new set of tools for creating marketing campaigns that effectively resonate with the consumer base, capture market share, and ultimately drive profits and sales.

The program includes a discussion on corporate responsibility, marketing ethics, and specific guidelines for utilizing psychological techniques while safeguarding consumer and societal well-being.