To some, marketing is a mix between a science and an art. However, that line has begun to sway further towards science as we approach a deeper understanding of human behavior and how to predict it.

As marketers seek to better figure out how people think, neuromarketing is the next step forward. Neuromarketing is an emerging field that uses science and data to quantitatively and objectively understand consumer preferences, aiming to target products to consumers in the most direct and resonate way possible. It combines elements of neuroscience, psychology, and marketing together.

Although in the past neuromarketing has been described as “snake oil,” today’s neuromarketing has very real uses and applications - and the proof to back it up.

The idea of using the brain as a shortcut to better product sales has been around for a while: you may even remember the old idea of subliminal messaging in movie theaters. In 1957, James Vicary, a marketing executive, flashed images encouraging moviegoers to drink Coke and eat popcorn—much to public dismay.

Worksheet for kid business plan from The CEO Kid with popcorn
Photo by The CEO Kid / Unsplash

Luckily for those uncomfortable with this kind of manipulation, this example of subliminal messaging was never found to be genuinely effective. Instead, most modern examples of neuromarketing techniques center around physiological measurements.

Before neuromarketing was solidified as a concept, consumer research in the 1960s used pupillary dilation and electrodermal responses. Later, eye-tracking and heart rate measurements were introduced. In the 1980s, facial electromyography (measuring emotional response by attaching sensors to different parts of the face) was combined with skin conductance response (using sweat as a measure of arousal) to measure emotional responses and their strength.

Though these types of experiments don’t measure brain activity, they’re all good ways to tap into the nervous system, which is reflective of what’s going on in people’s heads.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer / Unsplash

Today, the most popular tools for peeking into the consumer’s mind are brain imaging techniques, like electroencephalography (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Like those of the past, these techniques provide objective physiological data and eliminate the bias present in standard self-reporting measures (surveys) typically used in marketing. They’re a direct window into brain activity, though different methods have different benefits and uses.

EEG is used to measure voltage fluctuations on the scalp. It detects electrical changes in brain activity very quickly, but doesn’t give very specific spatial information. In contrast, fMRI tracks blood oxygenation in the brain—compared to the EEG, it provides more specific information on where in the brain activity is happening. PET, on the other hand, is a nuclear medicine imaging technique used more sparingly as it exposes participants to radiation. It is slower than an fMRI, but gives very good spatial information.

Neuroscientists can make up for the weaknesses of each technique by combining different methods—by using both EEG and fMRI, you can have the speed of the former and the greater specificity of the latter.

Neuromarketing strategies can be applied in many ways including product strategy, pricing, and positioning to messaging, communication, and distribution. It gives you a look at what’s happening inside the brain, and marketers can then determine what is most likely to resonate with the brains of their audience.

When put into action, these techniques provide valuable insights. In one study, scientists used an fMRI scanner to look at brain activity while consumers rated different advertisements based on attractiveness. They found higher activation in brain areas that involved the perception of rewards and the integration of emotions in decision-making when people looked at the advertisements they found attractive.

In a different study that looked at learning and used PET, brain activity decreased after people practiced Tetris daily for 4-8 weeks, even though their performance improved. This suggests that learning results in more efficient use of the brain: a key principle for marketers to understand when it comes to understanding someone’s cognitive load and how to create intuitive experiences.

For more information on Cognitive Load and how it can be applied in marketing, please see our blog How to Use Cognitive Load Theory in Marketing

All this said, these tools are also expensive, slow, and not optimized for the individual or for digital marketing. While they provide valuable insights, they aren’t always well-suited to scale up to personalization needs of today’s digital brands. Yes, you can rapidly distribute the learnings from a neuro-study, but we know everyone’s brain is processing information differently.

Just as measuring the nervous system with eye trackers and skin measurements can provide evidence of what’s going on in a person’s head, you can also utilize someone’s digital signals to know what makes them tick.

At Sorter, we use data science combined with psychology and personality science to understand the way people think, enabling brands to create neuro-informed campaigns that are both scalable and individualized.

Sorter’s philosophy is to integrate neuromarketing’s breakthroughs with an interdisciplinary blend of data science, psychology and behavioral economics. Each of these fields has something significant to contribute to the science of marketing. Combined, they allow for the most tailored experience for consumers and the way that they think.