Neural marketing, which involves techniques such as fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or EEG (electroencephalogram), is a hot topic in marketing. It can purportedly generate insight into consumer response to marketing variables while reducing the biases inherent in asking consumers their opinion, such as when they are not able or willing to give valid answers to questions involving perceptions, attitudes, or behavior. Further, consumers are driven in part by subconscious thoughts and emotions that neural marketing techniques can access. There are estimates that 95% of all thoughts are subconscious.

Neural marketing, in the right context, can measure variables like attention, engagement, emotion, pleasure/liking, and memory. Each of these can be an extremely relevant dependent variable of interest when testing or evaluating many marketing stimuli.

Here are several interesting anecdotes involving neural marketing:

  • The MiniCooper from BMW was designed with the aid of fMRI equipment. The physical characteristics of the model were linked to a highly likable and beautiful baby face. It was said that the resulting design made people feel like caressing the car.
  • Frito-Lay used EEG technology to learn that when Cheetos made the fingers of an eater turn orange a strong response was created.  The consumers liked the messiness of the product perhaps because it reflected an indulgent experience and because it indicated that the product really was infused with cheese. This insight was exploited in an advertising campaign.
  • Tests of neural activity associated with unknown songs predicted their eventual commercial success.
  • Campbell’s Soup used neural research to guide a redesign of their iconic packaging.
  • Neural research has helped practitioners design stimuli that lead to engagement on social media.
  • The Weather Channel has used EEG and eye-tracking to measure viewer reactions when showing different promotions to a popular show.

What is the future of neural marketing? Will it become an important and even game-changing technique? Or will it become more of an academic research tool that will be helpful commercially in niche contexts? I predict the future is more in line with the latter because of fundamental limitations.

  1. The equipment is highly intrusive which limits the stimuli that can be presented. The EEG measure requires wearing a hat with measurement devices attached. The fMRI is beyond intrusive. Respondents have to ride through a tunnel and endure the risk of claustrophobia and the loud, high-pitched noises that accompany most experiences.
  2. EEG technology is not capable of reaching the interior of the brain where an area reflecting pleasure and liking exists.  The fMRI is extremely expensive to own and to use, the polar opposite in terms of the cost of conducting something like Internet-based surveys.
  3. The results are ambiguous and probably unreliable even in expert hands. It turns out that a lot of emotions can activate most regions of the brain in addition to target stimuli; in fact, some may be the opposite of what is being hypothesized, for example, eliciting disgust rather than liking. It takes a great deal of skill and experience to design experiments that guard against spurious results and to interpret the results accurately. Research to determine if findings are robust is probably rare.

Neural marketing reminds me of motivation research that was introduced in the 1950s by Ernest Dichter. Like neural marketing, motivation research aimed to understand the subconscious and its impact on motivation and choice. Dichter, a clinical Freudian psychiatrist, used in-depth interviews to find out what was motivating people. He famously linked Campbell’s soup to a mother’s love. He was very good at translating his insights into why people buy into copy like “wash your troubles away.” In the hands of Dichter, the insights were magical. But, more generally, as time passed and it became clear that motivation research insights were often not reproducible, the method was all but discredited a few decades after Dichter pioneered them. However, it is clear that many of the current qualitative research techniques incorporate some of his methodology.

My take is that in the right hands and when addressing the right problem and context, neural marketing can be helpful but that it should not be oversold. And, at least with the current technology, it will be something of a niche technique. It will take significant advances in technology for it to do more—but I and others have underestimated new technologies before…