Neuroscience – as clear as mud? That is entirely understandable. Many practitioners (NBI included) make use of the prefix “neuro”. We add it to a term like “economics” and think the world speaks “neuro”. Unhelpful. So, let’s give you a quick translation.
This is a new science to many people. First, let us consider what we mean by neuro-anything. Then, we will take a quick look at the terms neuroscience, consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing. This should make things a little easier. Finally, we will get an expert opinion on why we need the science at all.
As you will see from the discussion below, when we speak of “neuro” anything, we are talking about the science of the brain. So far, so good. What we really mean is that we have taken deep, academic science (about the way the central nervous system works) and applied it to how we behave as humans. We then apply this to one of many fields, such as marketing, sales, leadership, and so on, to get a better idea as to how the brain is working, why and what that means in the applied field.
So what is neuroscience?
This first term is important. It is an academic field, and it is the province of researchers. Think lab coats, expensive measurement equipment, computer programs and lots of technical jargon. It means that we can tap into the science, knowing that there is intensive scientific and academic rigour, and peer-review. We need that. We do not want to be guessing or pretending…
“Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system that seeks to understand the biological basis of behaviour”
This tells us that the central concern of neuroscience is the study of the structure and function of the parts of the nervous system, including the brain, and what that means in interpreting behaviour. Plassman et al (2011) say that their definition of neuroscience (above) is “too broad for the study of consumer neuroscience”. But it does provide scientific foundation. They distinguish between clinical and non-clinical research. Neurology (clinical research) “studies how nervous system disorders, trauma, tumors and injuries affect cognition, emotion, and behaviour in patients” compared to otherwise healthy subjects. Consumer neuroscience is an example of non-clinical research.
Consumer neuroscience is also academic research, but it brings the pure science into contact with consumer psychology and even neuromarketing (more about that in a moment). We use our cool technology (functional MRI, eye-tracking, facial coding, EEG, galvanic skin response and cardiac variability) to measure how people respond to products, advertising, brands and so on.
This level is important too, because we take what is learned deep in the brain (for instance) and see how it stacks up against what people actually do, or say they do or intend to do. So, what we are looking at here is consumer decision-making. But it is still largely academic.
Let us move out of the lab and into the real world… Here we take the academic research, and make it commercial. Essentially, we use our academic understanding of human biology, behaviours and decision-making, and apply it to business challenges.
We are after what Martin Lindstrom calls the “buy button”. Much is written and said about this. Essentially though, there is no one place or centre of the brain where we make purchase decisions. We are, however, influenced in our buying decisions. Uma Karmarkar of Harvard Business School gives a hypothetical scenario: a provocative image of Angelina Jolie biting into an apple, apple juice running down to her chin, followed by her asking how much you like Mac computers. She posits that you will now rate the computers more highly, and says she would have just used your brain to influence you.
We use neuromarketing to understand why. We know about the four P’s (heck the seven P’s, the ten C’s…) of marketing. We now want to know what matters to your brain. What matters, what works, what doesn’t, and what is causing the consumer to switch, or switch off? To get to this, we must start with the science. Do you need to know the science? No, but your consulting firm does. And it is important that you know that it is there, at the very heart of their every recommendation, and why.
Selecting a neuromarketing company
Uma Karmarkar holds two PhD’s (in marketing and neuroscience) and was interviewed by HBS Working Knowledge:
“For businesses looking to enlist the services of a neuromarketing company, she advises watching out for consulting firms that claim to offer such services but don’t really have the technology or expertise to back up the claim. Rather, look for a company whose employees have a healthy, skeptical respect for neuroscience.”
She goes on to say:
“The rubric for picking a good [firm] is making sure it was started by a scientist, or has a good science advisory board… It’s easy to feel like you’ve discovered some big, important truth when you see that the brain has done something that correlates with behaviour. And it’s just as easy to overstate our conclusions.” 
A new science, but still a science
Whether it is neuromarketing, or neuro-anything else, make sure you know that the people whose services you are paying for know what they are doing. That they have the expertise, the technology and the capability to deliver. You shouldn’t be having to guess, and nor should they.
- Plassman, H, Ramsøy, TZ & Milosavljevic, M. 2011.
Branding and the brain: a critical review and outlook
- . Journal of Consumer Psychology:sl. [O]. Available: doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2011.11.010
- Lindtrom, M. 2008.
Buyology: truth and lies about why we buy
- . New York: Doubleday.
- Ariely, D & Berns, GS. 2010. Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging business.
- , April (11):286.
- Nobel, C. 2013.
Neuromarketing: tapping into the ‘pleasure center’ of consumers
- . Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. [O]. Available: www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/02/01/neuromarketing-tapping-into-the-pleasure-center-of-consumers/