This is the first in a series of posts on the application of neuromarketing in seven marketing areas: branding, product innovation and development, advertising, retail shopping, online shopping, and entertainment.
When first exposed to a brand, the mind may create a memory of that exposure. This memory may connect various elements — maybe an advertisement promoting the brand, a product offered under the brand, a package design, or a consumption or usage experience. Whatever elements are stored in memory, they’re connected and together form the brand memory.
When exposed to the brand again, new memories may be stored, expanding the earlier brand memory. Connections may also be made between that brand memory and other memory patterns. For example, when an advertisement shows a brand in the context of a beach holiday, the viewer’s mind may make a connection between the brand and its network of beach holiday memories.
As this process unfolds, the brand memory is shaped and reshaped. As it expands and diversifies, the meaning of the brand changes and diversifies, too.
This process takes place naturally in our minds. In turn, brand marketers want to influence the process by creating exposures that are meant to connect the brand memory with particular values, emotions, capabilities, and so forth. They do this through advertising, product and package innovation, shopper marketing, online engagement, and other means.
The problem for marketers is how to measure brand memory. For example, when a marketing campaign tries to connect the consumer’s brand memory with a particular attribute or quality, marketers want to know if these connections actually exist in the consumer’s mind, or if they’re stronger after an advertising campaign or new product launch.
Neuromarketing is at work in branding research today, helping marketers understand how brand memories are formed, how they can be shaped, and how they’re impacting consumers’ emotions, attitudes, and, ultimately, purchase decisions.
Brands are about connections
Traditionally, marketers have focused only on explicit memories — that is, memories that can be clearly and definitively remembered. This is why most marketers assess the effectiveness of their marketing initiatives by measuring various forms of recall — ad recall, product recall, message recall, and so on. The underlying assumption is that if a consumer can’t recall an exposure to the brand, then the marketing initiative had no impact.
Brain science research tells us that there is another type of memory, called implicit memory. These memories are nonconscious and, thus, inaccessible to recall. But they nevertheless exist in the consumer’s mind and can have a profound impact on how consumers feel about brands and what they choose to buy. The big problem for marketers is that consumers simply aren’t aware of these influences.
Because brand memories form networks with connections to other memories, it’s possible to activate a brand memory by activating a connected memory. For example, if advertising has consistently and over an extended period of time connected a dog-food brand with the idea “We’re for Dogs” (as the brand Pedigree has), we can expect exposure to Pedigree products on the supermarket shelf to remind shoppers of their emotional relationships with their dogs, and connect the brand to those emotions. Alternatively, simply seeing a dog outside the supermarket may prime shoppers to seek out and buy the Pedigree brand.
Making connections like this sounds easy. In reality, it’s not. First, as researchers have discovered, consumers often resist marketing messages. Second, and perhaps more important, competing brands are often all trying to establish similar brand connections in consumers’ minds, often with similar, related brand messages.
How brands impact our brains
Numerous research studies have demonstrated that brands can have a significant, even dominating, impact on the consumption experience. An example often cited for this effect is an experiment in which consumers were asked to taste wine presented in a bottle with a prestige brand label or a budget brand label. When tasting from the budget brand bottle, people rated the tasting experience quite poorly. And when tasting from the prestige brand bottle, they rated the wine quite positively. Of course, the researchers gave them the same wine in both cases, so what they tasted was completely determined by their brand expectations.
Using a neuromarketing approach, the same experiment was repeated with consumers having their brains scanned in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine while they enjoyed their wine. The results were quite stunning: Participants actually experienced the taste of the wine differently when it was presented as a prestige brand instead of a budget brand.
This powerful impact is sometimes called the placebo effect of branding. Like a placebo pill, the brand doesn’t actually change the physical experience, but it does change how consumers react to the experience. Researchers have suggested that this is an example of how people consume concepts rather than just physical products. You may attribute your satisfaction with a product (or the lack of it) to its physical consumption or usage, but in fact, the concept that the consumption experience represents is impacting your response the most.