Twenty years ago, if you asked a marketer what neuromarketing is, it's likely that they would not have a clue. Today it is a term that most marketers will have heard, even if they are not certain how to define it and it is understandable why people get confused. The terms neuromarketing, consumer neuroscience and consumer psychology often get used interchangeably even though originally, they each had quite clear definitions. So, to answer the question ‘what is neuromarketing’, we need to first understand the difference between neuroscience and psychology.
At the simplest level, psychology is the study of the mind, whereas neuroscience is the study of the brain. Initially, this appears to be just semantics. After all, colloquially people frequently use the two terms interchangeably but when you dig a little deeper, the differences become quite important. Psychology is the study of human behaviour and all the mental and cognitive processes that lead to behaviour - meaning that psychologists study topics such as thoughts, feelings, desires, and decision-making. They may not be interested in the brain structures that are activated while we are making a decision, but it does not mean the insights are any less powerful.
In contrast neuroscience focuses on the biological and chemical processes in both our brain and nervous system. Neuroscientists focus less on behaviour but are more interested in understanding how our brain works at a base level. To answer these questions, they rely on tools such as electroencephalogram (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), or magnetoencephalography (MEG) transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Therefore, neuromarketing is the ‘application of neuroscience methods to analyse and understand human behaviour related to markets and marketing exchanges.’ This means that neuromarketing studies also depend on EEG, fMRI, or other similar tools. A good example of this in action is the study by Michael Koenigs and Daniel Tranel. They were able to show that patients who had damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) – (a region of the brain critically involved in emotion, emotional regulation, and decision-making) are immune to the Pepsi-paradox (the idea that most people prefer the taste of Pepsi in a blind taste test, but once they know which brand they’re drinking, they claim to prefer Coca-Cola). This neuroscience research provides clear evidence of the role of emotions in developing a successful brand.
However, some experts disagree with this definition of neuromarketing, arguing that it is too narrow. For example, Roger Dooley, the author of ‘Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing’ maintains that there are many consumer neuroscience studies that do not directly measure brain or neural activity. For example, studies that make use of Implicit Association Testing (IATs), eye-tracking, or other behavioural measures. But for me, this is not neuromarketing; this is Consumer Psychology.
So where does consumer psychology fit into the mix?
Unlike many domains of psychology which focus on a specific mental process (e.g., cognitive psychology, abnormal psychology, etc.), consumer psychology is an applied domain that borrows insights from all areas of psychology and applies them to marketing problems. For example, if you wanted to create an effective advertisement, a consumer psychologist might borrow findings from cognitive psychology to ensure your advert captures attention. To ensure your advert is memorable, they would review the literature exploring ‘learning & memory’ but ultimately, an advert is (or should be) all about persuasion. And here again, consumer psychologists should be familiar with the research into decision-making. In each case, psychologists are able to make significant learnings that change shoppers’ behaviour without having to understand brain structures or functioning.
Within psychology and neuroscience the distinction between the two disciplines is clear. It is something that virtually every first-year student understands, or should! So why in industry is there confusion? I can’t be certain, but my guess is that the answer comes down to marketing. There is still the belief that neuroscience is more ‘sciencey’ than psychology. Presentations with photos of fMRI scanners, animations of a brain with red and blue zones give the impression that the research is unquestionable and more credible. If this is the case, why wouldn’t marketers reframe how they present the research?
Does this make any difference?
Being pragmatic, and from a business perspective, probably not. As long as you are using high quality research to generate your insights, what you call it makes no difference. The key is taking academic insights and turning them into a profitable idea. That said, if you’re writing an academic essay – it is probably a good idea to use the right term!
Babiloni, F. (2012). Consumer neuroscience: A new area of study for biomedical engineers. IEEE Pulse, 3(3), 21-23. doi:10.1109/MPUL.2012.2189166
Dooley R. (2006). What is neuromarketing? Is ig time for an updated definition of “neuromarketing.” Available from: https://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/what-is-neuromarketing.htm. Accessed on 10/10/22
Koenigs, M. & Tranel, D. (2008). Prefrontal cortex damage abolishes brand-cued changes in cola preference, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3, (1), 1-6, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsm032