The number of scientific articles on neuromarketing has almost become unmanageable by now, coming from neurosciences as well as economics since the 1990s.
While economics, with its behavioral models, provide theoretical and practical problems, neurosciences investigate how the brain works and how this controls human behavior. Neuromarketing is a branch of neuroeconomics that deals with the analysis of economically relevant behavior from the consumer's point of view and makes use of neuroscientific methods.
Here, the classic questions of consumer behavior are linked with neuroscientific research: sales policy measures – such as advertising effectiveness, pricing, and placement – are examined regarding their neural effects and insights are gained about the functioning of the human brain which decides and controls behavior. By focusing on the human brain as the place where the purchase decision is made, the previously unopened black box, which has so far been located between the marketing stimulus and the observable reaction of the consumer, is to be broken.
A fundamental condition for the development of the research field of neuroeconomics and neuromarketing is the technical availability of methods that enable a look “into the brain”. Functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRI), a method that has been known as magnetic resonance tomography since the 1950s but has its breakthrough with the discovery of the “Blood Oxygen Level Dependent Contrast” (BOLD) effect in 1990, is leading the way. The BOLD effect means that different oxygen concentrations in the blood are measured, and since brain regions that are being stimulated need more oxygen-rich blood, they can be “located” with a suitable technique. Functional magnetic resonance imaging does not provide information about what is being thought, only that a certain part of the brain is active. This research has attracted the attention of the public through “neuro-imaging”, e.g., the visual representation of a brain in which different areas are highlighted in color. Images of this kind can now be found in almost every report on neuromarketing, as they are extremely concise and seemingly intuitively identify what (or at least how) is being thought.
The combination of economics, psychology and neurosciences is characteristic of neuromarketing, which becomes obvious when one realizes that human information processing is at the center of interest in these three research areas. By researching brain functions, a bridge can be built between the three disciplines, because human behavior is ultimately controlled by the brain. The first two disciplines mentioned make the theoretical contribution and help the neurosciences to interpret empirical approaches. For marketing and dialogue marketing in particular, this research field results in a number of new perspectives: The classic AIDA model (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), which depicts the buying process as a series of steps running one after the other, should in future only be heuristic, but no longer have any explanatory value. In fact, it turns out that (purchase) decisions are made very quickly, spontaneously, and often all at once without going through all stages. Likewise, the long prevailing model of the rationally calculating “homo economicus” weighing its benefits and costs will also be a thing of the past. People are subject to systematic bias when they make decisions: they are risk-taking or risk-averse, they evaluate a possible loss more strongly than a potential gain, they choose different alternatives – given the same chances of winning – simply through a negative or positive formulation of the problem. Rarely do they make decisions as one would predict with thoughtful reflection. Instead, the focus has shifted to the importance of intuition and emotion for decision-making processes.
“Gut decisions” enable us to act very quickly and usually appropriately under time pressure. These are judgments that pop up quickly in consciousness, the underlying motivations of which we are not aware of, but which are strong enough to respond to. Emotions are a central variable in the process of information processing: they accompany all cognitions, occur before the cognitions and are processed more quickly.
The fact is that neurophysiological advertising perception and impact research in dialogue marketing can open up new opportunities for communication research. Not to mention that applied market research can be used in the long term by empirically validating psychological concepts and established dialogue marketing theories. The aim is always to use the temporal and spatial activity patterns of brain regions to provide information about which mental processes are involved in the data processing. This is possible because psychological concepts are mapped in the brain in certain spatio-temporal activation patterns. This research field is still in its infancy, but it reviews, validates and supplements existing knowledge of brain research and helps to describe the basic neural processes that are necessary to understand information processing more precisely.
This essentially also applies to marketing, because here, too, well-known concepts are being scrutinized – such as the extent to which brands can actually be seen as “personalities”, how purchasing decisions can be predicted, or how emotions are related to brands. In the future, with these methods, marketing-relevant concepts such as wishes and rewards, or loyalty and aversion, will certainly move more into the focus of research. However, to derive a paradigm shift for marketing from the findings of this exciting and time-consuming research is grossly exaggerated. In the future, the practical work will still be about product, price, place, promotion, and this research will not find the “buy button” either. So, the expectations that came with this new method will certainly have to be scaled down to a reasonable level.
The established research methods used to date, e.g., surveys, observation and consumer panels, will not become obsolete because of this research. Instead, neurophysiological perception research is a useful addition to these methods when it comes to the content of consciousness that cannot be grasped well with the known methods. If consumers have little access to their thoughts and feelings or cannot verbalize them, and therefore classic interview concepts from market research cannot adequately explore consumer behavior, then neurophysiological research can contribute to a better understanding of human experience and behavior.
By Daniela La Marca