The brand and the brain

Carbonated drink poured into a glass.

Do you prefer Pepsi or Coke?

In 2003, Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor University in the USA, decided to find out which one people really preferred. He put participants into a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine, fed them soft drink through a straw and watched how their brains reacted.

His results gave marketers everywhere a warm inner glow. When the participants didn’t know what they were drinking, about half preferred Pepsi. But when they knew they were drinking Coke, nearly three quarters thought it tasted better. The fMRI showed that when the participants thought they were drinking Coke, their medial prefrontal cortex – which controls higher thinking – lit up. Montague’s conclusion was that “brand knowledge for one of the drinks had a dramatic influence on expressed behavioural preferences”. The implication is that the brain reacted positively to the brand name. When Montague published his results in the October 2004 edition of Neuron, marketers paid attention. Neuromarketing was born.

In a world where it’s hard to tell the difference between one item and another, marketing seeks to build an emotional connection between product and consumer—a bridge known as a ‘brand’. To be successful, a brand has to hook itself deep into the mind and act like a mental flashcard. Think running and the word ‘Nike’ comes up. Envisage a computer, choose Apple. Have thirst, drink Coke. Successful brands bypass rational thought—and neuromarketing could unlock the secret to burying brands deep into the brain.

The right equipment

Using fMRI is expensive, however, as it costs several thousand dollars per participant. But now, as the headline says, there’s a better way to read minds. It’s called Steady State Topography (SST), and it was born here in Australia.

Developed by Professor Richard Silberstein of the Brain Sciences Institute at Victoria’s Swinburne University of Technology, SST maps the brain’s electrical activity, as picked up by special headsets and transmitted to a computer. “As a scientific technology, it’s almost 20 years old,” says Silberstein. “It relies on recording the brain’s activity, which was discovered in 1929 with EEG.”

SST goes beyond EEG to track the waves associated specifically with attention and thinking process. Silberstein originally developed SST to study normal brain processes, wanting to see “how the brain organises itself while performing the everyday miracles we take for granted, like holding something in your mind, and being able to focus your attention.”

Silberstein is particularly interested in how these ordinary abilities go badly wrong in diseases like schizophrenia and ADHD, and he’s used SST to track the physical origins of both auditory hallucinations and hyperactivity. Swinburne University is keen to commercialise such research and “it struck me SST has implications outside the laboratory, in media and entertainment and market research,” says Silberstein. So his company, NeuroInsight, went to find a research company who might be interested.

The timing was perfect, because the news about Montague’s experiment had excited international attention. And SST has a huge benefit over fMRI: it’s not only cheaper and easier to use, it’s also more dynamic, because fMR can only measure blood flow, not brain activity itself. “Blood flow increases as brain activity increases,” says Silberstein. “It’s an indirect measure. You’re not able to capture those important changes that occur on a fraction of a second basis.”

But with SST, marketers can see the brain in action. “It enables you to observe the important and rapid changes in brain activity that are associated with thinking, feeling and perception,” says Silberstein.

The implications for advertising research are profound. Attention, attraction, repulsion and memory all become discernible to the trained eye—the imprint of the brand made visible. Market researchers can now see exactly whether consumers are forging emotional connections with the brand name and storing it into their long term memory or not. All it takes is a few participants wearing the headsets while they watch some ads.

Research company Colmar Brunton agreed to try SST. The results delighted them. “We had people fall asleep in the session!” says Phil Harris, their Director of Neuroscience. “Just like they do when they go home and watch television.” Harris says they discovered that SST fleshes out, and occasionally contradicts, what people say during qualitative research. “We see responses that go against what has turned up in groups, particularly with sensitive topics like sexually suggestive content.”

“This is the last frontier for advertising,” says Peter Pynta, National Director of Channel Nine’s Nine Insights, who have used SST to track the relationship between television viewers, programs and ad breaks.

What they found.

Some of the insights, it has to be said, aren’t that insightful. Pynta keeps an example on his computer of SST in action that he loves showing people. On the left hand side is a male brain, on the right a female brain. Neither brain is doing much, until they’re shown an ad for women’s underwear. As soon as the semi-naked model appears the male brain becomes incandescent with interest. The female brain flashes here and there, but not a lot happens until the brand name appears. The bloke brain couldn’t care less about brand, while the female brain carefully stores the name away in long-term memory. No surprises there.

But the insight that people become more alert during ad breaks was a surprise. Pynta explains that while people metres can show how viewers stop watching television when the ads come on—between five and seven per cent—they can’t show what the remaining viewers are doing. Over the years, many advertisers have suspected that viewers mentally switch off when the ads appear—but it turns out the opposite is true. “Memory encoding and engagement increased and stayed at a high level during the ad break, and then went back to its normal level during the program,” says Pynta.

He suggests there may be an evolutionary explanation. Possibly it’s in our interests to become hyperaware when the environment changes, so anything that breaks into our thinking process, the way an ad does, gets more attention, not less.

And the SST insights kept coming, such as the revelation that people react differently depending on whether they are ‘in market’ or ‘out of market’. Someone who’s already thinking about buying a car will instantly react to a car ad, where someone who isn’t might not even notice it.

There are some things that SST can’t tell advertisers. “We don’t have measures for abstract emotional states like empathy,” says Harris. “That’s where you need qualitative research.”

Harris and Silberstein are emphatic that the technology simply records what’s going on in the brain, but doesn’t manipulate it. But the technology can show which particular advertising moments viewers will respond to. “It’s critical that people are connecting with the brand and storing the information away,” says Harris. “There’s no point in an ad that entertains, if you can’t remember who it’s for.”

This is where the findings become practical, because ads can be rejigged and made more powerful as a result of SST findings. When testing showed that a particular ad was failing, for example, SST uncovered why. It turned out that the brand name was being shown at the same time as a beautiful landscape, which was occupying the viewer attention. A quick editing splice separated the brand name and the beach, and the brains of the viewers were soon faithfully storing the brand in their long-term memories. For Channel Nine, this is proof that their advertisers are getting value for money—and they’re beginning to realise that SST can help pinpoint the exact moment when a program should be broken for an ad break.

The implications

Not everybody is happy about neuromarketing. The US group Commercial Alert began to lobby Congress and the American Psychological Association against neuromarketing, soon after its appearance in 2004.

“Those at stake in this new research predictably (and understandably) try to make it sound like nothing special,” wrote Gary Ruskin, Commercial Alert’s Executive Director, in an open letter to Senator John McCain. He went on to say that neuromarketing raises several large problems, including increased incidence of marketing-related diseases, more effective political propaganda and more effective promotion of degraded values.

Silberstein says NeuroInsight has adopted an ethical policy to ensure the technology will not be used to evaluate products like tobacco, or anything marketing related to children under the age of 14. Yet according to its website, Colmar Brunton proudly works with gaming and lotteries clients. And the company has even produced a White Paper arguing that gambling needs a ‘brand makeover’, to improve its image and make it more attractive to the general public. So would it use SST to fine tune gambling advertising? Or what about political marketing?

“We coordinate with NeuroInsights policy on this,” says Harris. “We won’t use it on products and services if they could be damaging.”

NeuroInsight may not be able to control how the technology is ultimately used. Earlier this year, Silberstein and Pynta showcased SST at the Cannes Advertising Festival, where it had an enthusiastic reception from an international audience.

So where to from here? “We’re going to integrate it more with the products and services we’re offering,” says Harris. “We’re looking at using it for new product development research, for labelling, features and product concepts.”

SST isn’t the only new tool in the neuromarketing bag, either. Face reading may play its part, too. This July, a Cambridge professor of computer technology, Peter Robinson, unveiled a prototype face reading machine at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. Originally designed to help people with autism, it consists of software that measures and analyses facial expressions, as captured by a camera. This could mean that a shop camera may one day be able to read customers’ expressions correctly, and then flash up an ad that matches their mood.

And market research might go deeper yet, right into our cells, according to Ian Walkley. He’s the managing director of Colmar Brunton’s Brisbane office, and he’s written a White Paper on the possibilities of marketing according to DNA preferences.

“Knowing the cost of acquisition is much higher than retention, it would be great to be able to identify people who have a higher propensity of being ‘born loyal’ and establish the minimum requirements to keep them loyal,” says the paper, Coming soon: segmentation by DNA. “This would enable us to concentrate more on the ‘vulnerables’ – again, is there a gene that predicts ‘vulnerables’?”

Because if there is, there’s a whole phalanx of marketers waiting for them.

This article originally appeared in a 2007 edition of Fast Thinking magazine.