There have been claims that the use of neuroscientific tools for consumer research will lead to the discovery of the fabled ‘buy button’ of the brain. The area that if strategically targeted and stimulated by branding, product design and advertising, will leave consumers stupefied and unable to resist the urge to buy.

However, since these outlandish claims were made, consumer neuroscience – neuromarketing’s parent discipline – has shown that the consumer decision-making process is underpinned by a wide range of brain structures. As a result, the existence of such a distinct holy grail of marketing is highly unlikely.

If the buy button was never anything more than a pipe dream, what now for neuromarketing?

As happens all too often with findings from cognitive and affective neuroscience, the potential applications of neuromarketing are sensationalised in the media. This sensationalism is endorsed through flagrant use of reverse inference (a questionable method of data interpretation that is discouraged in academic research) whereby experimental findings are portrayed as empirical fact.

A clear example of this is Martin Lindstrom’s New York Times op-ed article, audaciously entitled, “You love your iPhone. Literally”.

This claim was based on the observation that upon presenting the sound of a vibrating iPhone to iPhone users, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analysis revealed increased activation in the insula, an area claimed to be “associated with feelings of love and compassion”.

From this, Lindstrom concluded that the iPhone users were in love with their phones. The problems with drawing such a conclusion are self-evident, not least because the insula is known to serve a number of functions including the perception of pain and loss. 

Neuroimaging does indeed offer some important methodological advantages over traditional qualitative methods of consumer research. However, as with the use of any developing technology, this excitement and optimism must be balanced against acknowledgment of the limitations of such applications.

This is because neuroimaging remains, at present, only a relatively indirect measurement of what’s going on inside the brain. 

The understanding granted by fMRI has been likened to that gained by watching the outside of a house on a dark night. Lights go on and off in different rooms and we can draw conclusions, such as where the kitchen is or when someone goes upstairs, but we still don’t really know what is going on inside.

Nonetheless, the culture of hyperbole has spread from the popular press to the corporate world, with many neuromarketing ‘companies’ cropping up across the globe claiming that neuromarketing is the magic bullet that will miraculously solve their clients’ marketing issues.

These companies use their own privately owned neuroimaging machinery to tackle their clients’ problems and charge an extortionately high price to do so (sometimes upwards of $100k for fMRI services).

However, the use of neuroscience technology is far from plug and play, marketers can’t simply buy MRI scanners and start running experiments.

Experimental design, the practice of selecting the right questions to ask in order to yield the most accurate and useful answers, and data analysis, the process of interpreting the vast quantity of data involved in neuroimaging, are skills that take many years of training and practice to acquire. 

This issue is compounded by the fact that due to the confidential nature of client data, none of the research these companies conduct is peer reviewed.

In the academic world, peer review is the process whereby experimental design and data analysis are scrutinised to ensure that the results and conclusions of any study are accurate and reliable.

Without peer review, anyone can design and interpret an experiment in order to falsely obtain any result they want. This is not neuromarketing. This is neuromarketing 1.0. It’s methodologically confounded and it hasn’t delivered on its fantastic promises.

Consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing

The term consumer neuroscience has been used interchangeably with the term neuromarketing in the academic literature from the time neuroscience tools were first applied to consumer research.

However, it is neuromarketing, the headline-friendly buzzword, that has caught the imagination of the press and the public, with provocatively titled books such as, ‘Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in Your Customer’s Brain’ and,‘Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing’ selling in large numbers.

It is perhaps in an attempt to distance themselves from such rampant sensationalism and ill-practice that leading consumer neuroscientists are, in the most recent literature, explicitly distinguishing between the terms consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing.

I agree that while consumer neuroscience should refer to the application of neuroscientific methods for peer-reviewed academic research into consumer behaviour, neuromarketing should refer to the application of theory and findings from consumer neuroscience in corporate managerial practice.

These clarified definitions pave the way for a new perspective on neuromarketing: Neuromarketing 2.0. For neuromarketing to offer any benefit to marketing professionals, a more patient, thoughtful and insightful approach than that used by the likes of Lindstrom and the neuromarketing companies must be adopted.

With the recent emergence of a consolidated framework for value-based consumer decision-making, consumer neuroscience is beginning to reach a tipping point whereby researchers can progress from mere identification of neural correlates of consumer behaviour to a more theory-driven approach. As this approach is adopted, increased theory-based confidence in the function of individual brain regions in consumer behaviours should lead to a gradual maturation of the literature. 

Consequently, the insights drawn from this literature will become more valid and therefore more valuable to marketing professionals. So rather than using extravagant and superfluous machinery, neuromarketers should instead focus on keeping their fingers on the pulse of the fascinating insights that are being delivered by consumer neuroscience and use this information to guide and inform their product design, advertising and marketing strategy.

For example, Reimann and colleagues have shown that products presented in aesthetically designed packaging (think Apple) activate the brain’s reward system whereas products in standardised packaging do not.

Activation of the reward system is a powerful psychological signal that has a significant positive influence on purchase decisions. So, the insight to be taken away here is that product packaging , if carefully designed, is able to heavily influence the consumer decision-making process and is therefore an area worth investing time and money in.

Somewhere around 2009, neuromarketing arrived in the public conscious with a tidal wave of enthusiasm. However, three years down the line, the waters have receded and people are gradually coming round to the realisation that neuromarketing is never going to deliver on its sensational promises of mind reading and unearthing the buy button. 

Neuromarketing 1.0 failed because it promised too much. Neuromarketing 2.0 provides a new perspective, from which we can start fresh, clear aside the hype and pick out the pearls of wisdom from consumer neuroscience that are of genuine value. 

Brain image credit: IsaacMao via Flickr