The Neural Networks Behind Buying

If the marketplace looks flooded now, imagine what it might look like if every product that was ever released, were to be on store shelves.


Startlingly, however, as many as 8 of the 10 products that roll out in the U.S., stumble and fall soon after launch.

Per the IXP Marketing Group, of the roughly 21,000 new brands that are introduced worldwide a year, the bulk of them slip into oblivion even before they get a serious dekko.

So, who’s to tell whether a new product will fly or flop?

Traditional marketers use an assortment of tools such as focus groups, opinion polling, surveys, individual interviews, to gauge whether an unborn good (or service) will at least, be viable, if not a smashing success.

In “Buyolgy,” brand maven Martin Lindstrom, teases out the reasons why “companies are woefully bad at predicting how we as consumers will respond to their products.”

Through an unlikely marriage of “science and marketing,” he demonstrates that the traditional marketing research toolbox cannot extrapolate with accuracy, what will tickle the customers’ fancy.

Because how we say we feel about a product may not translate into how we actually behave around it, consumer research is often not the best weathervane of our genuine likes and dislikes.

These methods don’t get it, he says, since they barely scratch the surface of a consumer’s conscious mind, and don’t manage to go any deeper. Reality, however, is a bit more complicated. Unbeknownst to a purchaser, there’s a “multitude of subconscious forces” that propels him or her to buy (or not).

“Neuromarketing,” an emergent field in marketing is a far more accurate reader of the “thoughts, feelings, motivations, needs, and desires of consumers,” and can illuminate our “seemingly irrational” buying habits.

In a revolutionary, $7 million, never-done-before, and the largest ever neuromarketing study, Lindstrom and his team, comprising 200 researchers, 10 professors and doctors, and an ethics committee, set out to uncork some of the mysteries of why we buy and what we buy, through a series of experiments spread over three years.

It drew 2,081 volunteers from five countries: America, Germany (because it’s the most advanced country in the world as far as neuromarketing is concerned), England, Japan (because there’s no tougher place in the world than Japan to launch a new product), and China.

“If you think of the brain as a house, any and all previous experiments were based on looking through a single window, but our wide-ranging study promised to cast its gaze through as many windows, cracks, floorboards, attic windows, and mouse holes we could find,” Lindstrom writes.

For analysis, the research relied on data from two of the world’s most expensive and cutting-edge brain-scanning machines: 102 fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans and 1,979 SST (Steady State Typography, which is the advanced version of electroencephalograph).

Some of the questions he sought to answer were: How effective is product placement? Are brand logos as powerful as they’re believed to be? Does subliminal advertising exist? Does religion play any part in what we pick up? Does sex sell?

A staggering 15 billion cigarettes are sold every day—that’s 100 million cigarettes a minute.

The number sounds all the more jarring when juxtaposed with the fact that cigarette boxes come with clear warning labels on the fronts, sides, and backs, spelling out the hazards of smoking.

Lindstrom’s findings revealed that far from deterring smokers, they, in fact, fanned a desire to smoke, by activating a region of the brain known as “the craving spot.” Who knew?

The rationale behind embedding a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses (in “Top Gun” (1986)) or the USA TODAY newspaper (in “Minority Report” (2002)) or Aston Martin (in a James Bond film) is to etch the product in the moviegoers’ memory. If they remember it, they’re likely to buy it, so marketing theory goes.

Though product placement didn’t exist in its present incarnation until the mid-1980s onward, it certainly isn’t new.

“Even the pioneering Lumière brothers, two of the world’s first filmmakers, included several appearances of Lever’s sunlight soap in their early short films. It turns out, they had an associate on staff, who moonlighted as a publicist for Lever Brothers (now Unilever).”

Today, it’s become a riotous affair. Take Sylvester Stallone’s 2001 film, “Driven” (2001). It managed to cram in 103 brands in 117 minutes, almost inflicting visual assault on viewers.

Lindstrom sought to ascertain the efficacy of product placement by studying a sample of “American Idol” watchers.

Which of the show’s three main sponsors—AT&T, (formerly Cingular Wireless), the Ford Motor Company, and Coca-Cola, each of whom forks over an estimated $26 million annually to have their brands featured in one of the highest-rated shows in television history—was the most successful in placing their products? He found Coca-Cola did the best, while Ford, the worst.

The results revealed that product placements do well only when they’re seamlessly woven into the fabric of a movie plot or a television program. If not, they’re regurgitated as “white noise,” and “instantaneously forgotten.”

Researchers generally agree that it takes as little as 2.5 seconds to make a purchasing. In another eye-opening study, Lindstrom got to the root of why in the first place, we’re tempted to own an iPod when see a fellow subway rider listening to one? Why do tears well up in our eyes when we see a heroine in a movie weep?

Blame the “mirror neurons,” a cluster of neural network that makes us “unwittingly imitate other people’s behavior,” which is a “huge factor in why we buy the things we do.”

Lindstrom predicts, soon, more and more companies will be “trading in their pencils for SST caps.” But the path to that shining future runs through a dark forest of resistance.

The word “neuromarketing” has a sinister aura about it, evoking images of Orwellian mind control by dirty politicos, “corrupt governments,” and “crooked advertisers.”

He assures that “neuromarketing is a tool—like a hammer. In the wrong hands, yes, it can be used to bludgeon someone over the head, but that’s not its purpose, and it doesn’t mean that hammers should be “banned, or seized, or embargoed.”


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