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  • Writer's pictureMehdi T. Hossain

Neuromarketing: Part 1

I have been fascinated with Neuroscience lately. It is amazing how the brain works, and how the different areas of the brain coordinate to inform each other in forming judgments. For example, the executive functioning area of the brain (e.g., DLPFC) coordinates with the emotional center of the brain (e.g., Amygdala) to form value judgments occupying the VMPFC. This specific area of the brain, VMPFC, is of particular interest to the science of consumption since valuation is at the center of all consumption. I have been curious about the neuroscience behind branding. A brand is so much above and beyond just a name. It has several elements including logo, slogan, fonts, sound, color, and so on. I have wondered about the neuroscientific explanation behind processing all these brand elements. The neuroscientific introspection into branding is not new, but our knowledge is far from complete. I still wonder how the role of various centers of the brain varies across contexts. For example, what is the role of the valuation center (i.e., VMPFC) when consumers compare a generic brand with a premium brand? How does it change subject to an external threat such as an economic recession when generic brands have advantages due to budgetary reasons? What is the interconnectivity between the pain center, the emotional center, and the value center in decisions under threat? I’d assume that people’s brand valuation would change under threat versus non-threat, such that the emotional center (i.e., Amygdala) will play a stronger role in influencing the value center under threat (vs. non-threat). What is the role of the pain center then? That is, given the emotional reaction, will consumers experience more pain or less pain when violating their budgeting principles (i.e., spending more than budgeted, such as the toilet paper stockpiling incident during the pandemic)? And how will the coordination between the pain center and the emotional center determine the valuation under threat? Such knowledge would be invaluable to marketers since marketers will be able to better predict consumer demand during uncertain times (e.g., the pandemic). 

      The application of neuroscience in marketing is not new. However, academic research on Neuromarketing is far from its maturity. There are several contributing factors. First of all, marketing and neuroscience are distinctively different fields. For a marketing scholar, it takes years of training on an entirely new subject matter, a risky direction, that could potentially be deemed an irrational pursuit for a professor chasing tenure. Second, probably more significant, is the cost of conducting studies. The areas of the brain that are relevant to consumption decision-making are deeper structures, which require sophisticated Neuroimaging techniques. Such techniques could be quite expensive to apply. Even if the expenses are secured through external funding, there could be questions about natural setups in studies. For example, an fMRI study or an MRS study would require million-dollar machines that are not portable. So consumers cannot be studied in their natural consumption environment. FNIR is a more portable and much less expensive technique, but it is not as efficient in studying deeper structures of the brain. In addition, there are Neuroimaging-specific deficiencies. For example, the same brain area could be engaged in processing several psychological factors. How could one disentangle the effects of each?

     A potential solution is a triangulation of behavioral studies with Neuroimaging studies such as Social Neuroscience. These studies should involve a field behavioral study, a lab behavioral study, a Neuroimaging study with a portable technique, and another Neuroimaging study with a more sophisticated MRI and MRS technique. Some marketing scholars who are reading this post up to this point are probably laughing at me, and rightly so. Imagine what could be the cost of such a study. I estimate that just the study-related costs would be close to 200k. A scholar in a college of business doesn’t engage in grant-based research and probably gets about 5-10k from the college on average if lucky. This is why partnerships with the industry are so important for colleges. Research at the College of Business is not traditionally funded through federal funding agencies (e.g., NSF, NIH). One way to overcome budgetary limitations, and be able to conduct insightful neuromarketing studies is partnerships with industries. Marketers would benefit from deeper academic insights and research skills, and business academics will be creating impactful and actionable knowledge.

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