The Seductive Allure of Neuromarketing?

These days, everyone I encounter in the marketing industry seems to be obsessed with neuromarketing, or at least with the idea of using physiological measures to test products and marketing stimuli, casually using terms like “behavioural science” at every opportunity. I can follow the logic – if we can develop unique insights into the internal workings of our customers’ minds, we can influence their decision-making and increase competitive advantage.

It’s an approach I would advocate too, under the right circumstances, and there’s little doubt that consumer neuroscience has led to some very interesting and useful advances in what we know about shoppers. The problem, however, is that it is being over-used and over-sold. The fact is that neuroscience isn’t always the best way to investigate a problem, though it is invariable the most expensive one, and a lot more helpful data could be obtained by simply asking people through surveys or good old-fashioned focus groups. Suggest that to some organisations, though, and they will switch off. They’ve bought into the neuromarketing promise and, in some cases, listened to the snake-oil salesmen peddling these high-tech solutions. Only one major brand (and it’s a huge one) has ever admitted to me that they are sick to death of being offered this and are up to their ears in eye-tracking data and the like that is proving of very limited predictive value.

What’s going on here is what Im, Varma and Varma have called the Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations (SANE). Their study was focused on education, but the findings are equally appropriate here, I think. Compared to use of traditional evidence sources such as statistical tables and graphs, inclusion of neuroscientific explanations and illustrations (e.g. fMRI scans) in research reports made educators significantly more likely to accept and implement the report findings, even when the explanations themselves were completely unnecessary and did nothing to enhance the evidence-base at all. This is exactly the problem brand managers now face – those wonderful brain scans and eye-tracking heat maps make the consultant sitting in front of you seem more scientific and credible, but very often they have nothing new to add and, worse still, they may even be presenting ideas that are based on false assumptions and/or a complete misunderstanding of the cognitive neuroscience literature.

So, as with everything in life, when brand managers meet neuromarketers it needs to be very much a case of “buyer beware”.  And if you are under any doubt as to the dangers inherent in misrepresented or poorly understood neuroscience, there’s a fascinating TED Talk from the renowned Molly Crockett on some of the misuses of her own research.

Categories: General