Neuromarketing: More brain, more gain

Written by Chris Powell

Have you ever wondered why consumers prefer the brands they do? Consider the perennial paradox of Pepsi versus Coke. Even though Pepsi continually trumps its arch-rival in blind taste tests (recall the long-running “Pepsi Challenge” ad campaign), Coke outsells Pepsi by a significant margin. Does Coke know something that Pepsi and the rest of us don’t?

In 2003, Read Montague, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, set out to find the answer by recreating the Pepsi Challenge while monitoring the brain activity of a group of test subjects with an MRI machine. About half his subjects preferred Pepsi in blind taste tests, and it produced a stronger response than Coke did in the part of the brain thought to process rewards. Yet, when the subjects were told which beverage they were sampling, the preference for Coke rose substantially, and the brain regions governing high-level cognitive thinking became more active.

Montague ascribed the effect to how strongly Coke’s brand resonates in the culture and the warm and fuzzy associations established by its marketing (think: polar-bear cubs and Santa Claus). Marketers who soon picked up on his study, and subsequent research, developed a new tool called neuromarketing, designed to help them understand and influence customers’ buying decisions.

Doing your own research is out of reach for entrepreneurial firms that can’t afford to rent $2-million MRI machines and lab facilities. Still, firms of any size can easily adopt the principles behind the science. “Often, surprisingly simple studies can yield important insights,” says Roger Dooley, author of the neuromarketing blog

Patrick Renvoisé, president of San Francisco-based neuromarketing firm Sales-Brain, says three parts of the brain are involved in decision-making. The new brain is responsible for rational thought, the middle brain for gut feeling and the old brain for basic survival functions. But it’s the old brain that has the final say, and is therefore the focus of neuromarketing.

Renvoisé and other neuromarketers agree that the old brain responds best to six key stimuli. The key to successful marketing, therefore, is to take into account these attributes of the old brain:

IT CRAVES CONTRAST: Apple’s popular “I’m a Mac. And I’m a PC” campaign plays off the idea that people won’t always buy a product until they have something to which they can compare it. However, not all choices are created equally. When researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management gave people a choice between two equally preferred options, subjects became irritated over the difficulty of choosing—which increases the risk that the customer will make no decision. Introducing a third but clearly worse option made choosing easier, even pleasurable.

IT PREFERS TANGIBLE BENEFITS: The old brain is far more responsive to tangible attributes of a product (e.g., “toilet paper that feels like cashmere”) than abstract characteristics (e.g., “toilet paper that will bring you eternal happiness”).

IT PREFERS THE VISUAL: Using pictures in, say, product demonstrations could be your fast track to reaching customers since the old brain processes visuals before anything else. And if you can deliver your core marketing message through images (think: Nike’s swoosh), just do it.

IT REMEMBERS BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS: Customers will use their first experience with your firm to filter what follows. So, they’ll see everything that follows a bad first impression through a negative lens. And they’ll leave with, and hold onto, the last impression, whether it was a bad customer service experience or a complimentary mint.

IT’S EMOTIONAL: The best way to trigger an emotional response in the old brain is through sensory stimuli such as the smell of a certain perfume, the sound of a song from adolescence or the view of a familiar mountain range. “We make decisions based on our emotions first, and then we invent the rational reasons for our choice, like €˜This beer tastes better’ or €˜That sports car gets great mileage,'” says Dooley. The more senses you can associate with your product or service, the more you are likely to drive buying decisions.

IT LOVES GAIN, HATES PAIN: As is fitting for an organ that has been on the evolutionary timeline for several million years, the old brain is constantly calculating the net gain or pain that will accrue from every decision. But Dooley says putting your product on the right side of the pain/gain equation often comes down to positioning. For instance, changing your service’s “$5 fee” to “a small $5 fee” can make a big difference in sales.

Ultimately, triggering the right response in the old brain before your competitors do could launch you light-years ahead of them. That’s because whoever triggers a reaction first tends to maintain consumer loyalty.

So, perhaps Coke didn’t know anything different than Pepsi after all. It just got there first.

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