How marketers are tapping neuroscience to give us what we want

There’s nothing like getting right into people’s heads when you are trying to sell something to them, which is why companies are tapping into neuroscience and behavioural economics to work out how to improve their marketing.

Neuroscience uses brain imaging to take a sneak peek at which areas are activated as people watch television commercials or engage with a brand.

Behavioural economics looks at the psychology of how people make decisions — in order to craft effective messages to encourage them to behave in a certain way. Governments around Australia — including the Federal Government — have set up “behavioural insights” units in recent years to push people to do things like pay their tax on time. If people are sent a tax bill that carries a message that most people pay their tax on time, then compliance goes up because people don’t want to be out-of-step with everyone else.


Richard Silberstein CEO of research firm Neuro Insight, which tracks brain activity to measure the effect of advertising and media content. Pic David Geraghty. In the commercial world, the use of psychology in marketing is becoming more sophisticated. Professor Emeritus Richard Silberstein is CEO of Neuro-Insight, a market research company that uses brain imaging to get information about subconscious responses. Silberstein says his company has been able to create a virtual reality shopping aisle. “You can give some advice in shopping centres about the optimum location of signage and advertising. We’ve done that sort of work with things like packaging as well,” he says.

However, more of Silberstein’s work is in looking at what is happening in the brain when people look at advertising. This is important because, while an advertisement may look very effective, it could actually be sending customers to the competitors. Silberstein says it is important to understand how memory works in order to make an effective ad. The branding or message has to get into long-term memory, otherwise it will have no impact at all on buying behaviour because people will just forget.

However, it is common for TV commercials to tack their buying message on the end of an ad, like a footnote. And, because of the way the brain works, the key part of the ad will not be registered. This is because, when the brain recognises something has come to an end (such as a story), it will go “offline” for a few seconds while processing the memory. While it is doing that, it is not paying attention to the brand message tacked on to the end.


Silberstein says an ad for Evian Water in 2013 in the US, using dancing babies, seemed highly successful.

“It was a cute ad, people loved it. In its first year, it had something like 60 million downloads. It was wildly popular,” Silberstein says. But it didn’t work. The image of a bottle of water and message did not appear till the music stopped and the screen went white at the end. Sales fell the following year by 4 per cent and it lost market share, he says.

“With a popular ad, if you haven’t got the brand linkage right, you are just making entertainment and, in fact, you are probably helping your competitors.”

The brand has to be woven into the storyline in order to be effective. Silberstein says the marketing and advertising industries have traditionally relied on focus groups to gauge the customer reaction, however people are not good at understanding and expressing what is going on in their own heads.

“Here’s the point, between 85 and 90-plus per cent of new products do not achieve what they are meant to achieve, if not, in fact, fail,” he says, adding that if focus groups could really tell marketers what was going to work, new products would have a much higher success rate. Chairman and co-founder of MarketCulture Strategies, Dr Linden Brown, says all effective marketing campaigns and strategies come from “deep cultural insight that needs to be able to create both a logical and more important and emotional connection”.

“There are different ways to understand consumer psychology. [It is] important to get to the root of understanding how consumers think and behave. And once you obtain insights, whichever method you use, you can understand how customers are thinking and why they behave in a certain way,” he says.

“That’s the basis upon which you can both create new value and market to that particular customer group in a way that will resonate with them.” Brown, the author of 14 books on marketing and strategy, says companies are starting to create “customer cultures” — improving their understanding of the people who buy their products and services. “The thing that is my focus and actually excites me the most is that marketers and senior leaders are starting to understand that you need a customer culture, which is the underpinning of marketing, right across the entire business,” he says.

This content was produced in association with the CBA Innovation Lab. Read our policy on commercial content here.

Originally published here

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