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  The Science of Branding   The Science of Branding  Edwin Colyer  
         
 
The Science of Branding Most people prefer the taste of Pepsi, and yet the majority still buy Coke. Ever since the famous findings of the Pepsi Challenge, marketers have argued that their work must make a difference. How else could Coke come out on top?

Read Montague, Director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine, has now provided proof that branding plays with our brains. Last year he decided to repeat the Pepsi Challenge, but scan the activity of the brain at the same time. Using a non-invasive technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the scans reveal which parts of the brain are active in real time.

 
When Montague gave a taste of an unnamed soda to his volunteers he found that more people preferred Pepsi. On the scan images the ventral putamen, one of the brain’s reward centers, had a response that was five times stronger than for people who preferred Coke.

The shock came when Read repeated the experiment, this time telling volunteers which brand they were tasting. Nearly all the subjects then said they preferred the Coke. Moreover, different parts of the brain fired as well, especially the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with thinking and judging. Without a doubt the subjects were letting their experience of the Coke brand influence their preferences.

The work of Montague and other studies prove that branding goes far beyond images and memory recall. The medial prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain known to be involved in our sense of self. It fires in response to something -- an image, name or concept -- that resonates with who we are. Something clicks, and we are more likely to buy.

But the secret of Coke’s marketing success has yet to be solved. “We’ve shown that the Coke brand has a powerful influence,” says Montague. “But we haven’t asked what that is yet. Is it something simple and stupid like the red can, the curvy script or the hard consonants, or something much more complex.”

Still, the idea that neuroscience has applications for business is causing a wave of excitement in the marketing sector. It prompted the BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences to establish a Neurostrategies division and conduct fMRI research.

“Our thinking is to understand the brain’s involvement as thoroughly as possible,” says Joey Reiman, BrightHouse’s CEO. “We try to understand the images of activity in the brain that show how people feel about things.”

If it all sounds a little too Orwellian, then you are in good company. Commercial Alert, the anti-consumerism activist group, says that neuromarketing, the application of neuroscience to marketing, will only add to the ills caused by modern marketing.

A BrightHouse press release states that “Thought Sciences marketing analysts use [fMRI]... information to more accurately measure consumer preference, and then apply this knowledge to help marketers better create products and services and to design more effective marketing campaigns.”

Could brain imaging show marketers how to effectively control our minds? BrightHouse’s Reiman says no. “There is no possibility that in my lifetime we’ll be able to peer into brains and make them buy more. But businesses that do not use neuroscience are experimenting with failure. These studies will help to position companies as more consumer friendly.”

 
Chris Frith, Professor of Neuropsychology at the Institute of Neurology in London, prefers to look beyond the hype. “People have the idea that because you are using big, expensive equipment it is more real than asking what people think. They think they’ve got an easy way to get the information they want -- a short cut. But it is very important to consider the subjective measures. If we see from scans that someone is happy, but they say that they aren’t, who do we believe?”

Montague agrees that ultimately behavior is what matters. “Brain imaging isn’t more accurate than other techniques. You’ll never get rid of psychology and behavioral studies -- that’s your ultimate end. But you do want more insight and imaging can provide it.”

Montague predicts that fMRI will become a tool for testing packaging, advertising and other promotional material. “If I’m an auto manufacturer and want to change the curvature of the wheel well of my car model, how will my target 35 year old male respond? I’ll supplement my research with fMRI. And if I was buying something, I’m OK with them using brain imaging to make me happier.”

Reiman meanwhile prefers to dwell on the fundamental nature of neuromarketing research to date. “Nowadays market research is about how better to sell products. We are doing the inverse: finding out how better to form relationships with customers. This MRI work is fledgling. These are the first baby steps. We can’t understand thoughts, but we can interview the brain and we expect what we find will change the way companies work.”    

[15-Mar-2004]

 
  
  

Edwin Colyer is a science and technology writer based in Manchester, UK.

     
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