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What is Neuromarketing?

11th December 2013 | Anne-Sophie Bayle-Tourtoulou, Michel Badoc

What is Neuromarketing? How can it help my business? What are some of its limitations? The authors of new book Neuromarketing in Action answer some frequently asked questions.

Neuromarketing in Action (9780749469276)Neuromarketing, which is a virtual customer approach method based on the study of the brain, raises a lot of issues for users, legislators, consumer protection organizations and, above all, customers and marketers. Here, authors of new book Neuromarketing in Action – neurosurgeon Patrick M Georges and marketing professors Anne-Sophie Bayle-Tourtoulou and Michel Badoc, all teaching at top European business school HEC Paris - answer the questions most frequently asked by customers, as well as companies, and in particular those relating to its legitimacy, relevance or ethics.

What is Neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing, contrary to what some would have us believe, is not a science. It is only an intelligent, focused, marketing-oriented interpretation of major scientific texts on how the brain works. It is the knowledge of the brain’s information-processing mechanisms that could inspire the companies whose business is to communicate with the brain, that is to say all companies.

If you want to get into Neuromarketing, read Neuromarketing pioneers: neurologists Read Montague, Steven Pinker and Antonio Damasio, or current gurus such as Martin Lindstrom, considered by Forbes magazine as one of the planet’s hundred most influential people. They all write books (most of which are listed in the References section of this book) with titles such as ‘How do we decide?’ or ‘Why do we buy what we buy?’ Read them, keeping in mind your questions concerning a company that must satisfy the customer’s brain, and you will enter the realm of Neuromarketing. As these books are somewhat technical and cover a multitude of domains still irrelevant to the company, we have read them for you, extracting from this ocean of neurological knowledge the pearls that will make marketers happy.

We do not present these recommendations in the form of ‘scientific commandments’, as we have not yet reached that point, but far more modestly, in the form of new ideas to help your creativity in product and service innovation, in developing a brand appealing to customers, in improving one-to-one sales in retail outlets, in designing communication campaigns, in optimizing the internet, etc.

This knowledge of the human decision-making process simply generates sensible ideas, not guarantees, for salespersons and marketers. The term ‘Neuromarketing’ will probably disappear in a few years, as it will be amalgamated into basic marketing.

How can I find out what Neuromarketing tool and insight about the brain is useful to my company?  

It’s easy: put a neurosurgeon at the same table as two marketing professionals, or read this book which is a dialogue between a brain specialist and two marketing professors.

The brain specialist will talk about frontal lobes, dopamine and so on, while the marketing professors will bring this back to topics more relevant to the reader: How do we decide? Why do we buy what we buy? Why do we remember certain things and not others? How can we write so that the brain can clearly understand?

The brain specialist will not have all the answers but will certainly provide leads, which will result in ideas for new messages, new selling methods, and new products better adapted to the customer’s intelligence, which is never bad for sales. The marketing professors can use tools to assess how to transform the marketing discipline and adapt it to the Neuromarketing approaches.

How can companies benefit from neuroscience?

We have increasing knowledge of how our brain and intelligence work, thanks to new techniques and researchers’ renewed interest in these last uncharted territories. This knowledge is beneficial to marketing, as investigations not only concern the search for disease treatments but also look at healthy people who must make decisions. Neuroscience can inspire marketers. How do you convince your managers and customers? How do you design a best-selling product? How do you design a communication campaign that will be well memorized and lead to product purchases and brand loyalty?

What are some of the techniques behind Neuromarketing?

As we describe in Chapter 2 of Neuromarketing in Action, new research and techniques have emerged in different domains:

  • Radiology and neurology provide images of the brain (in the process of making decisions) thanks to progress in radiology and electroencephalography.
  • In biochemistry, chemical dosages of hormones that motivate us are developed and measured in our blood, saliva and urine.
  • Computer science sees the rise of customer behaviour models established by computers, expert purchasing decision systems, and sales aids via artificial intelligence.
  • In microelectronics, telemetric micro-sensors measure our secretions and how our senses are oriented at all times. They reveal more about our actual thoughts than any of our interview responses.

These are just a few of the simplest examples, you can find more in the book.

Is Neuromarketing credible?

Reasonably so, for two reasons: this book’s recommendations are based on research published by neuroscience professors from the most prestigious universities, whose books are seen as references.

These publications contain bibliographical references to our decision-making processes. But, more importantly, these recommendations have been tested in the field. Thus, the world’s leading hotel operator revamped the customer reception of its largest hotel chain; a leading specialist retailer reorganized its stores; a major bank redesigned its websites; and a sales company reviewed its customer approach in light of these recommendations. And it works: it sells, not always but most often.

Is Neuromarketing ethical?

Consumer associations have been concerned, and rightly so, about Neuromarketing, calling it an invasion of the brain’s privacy, a drug, brainwashing or propaganda! Should a code of conduct be respected when using neuroscience for commercial purposes? Yes. For example, seven-day purchase cancellation clauses protect consumers against overly psychological selling methods. Neuromarketing techniques can be subconscious and manipulative. They can be misleading. Consequently, it has ethical obligations. To protect customers, certain commercial practices derived from Neuromarketing should be banned by law.

Research and knowledge must not be halted. Knowledge is not a crime, but the use of knowledge for unethical or criminal purposes must be limited or banned. Censorship must intervene at the marketing application stage, not at the neuroscience level. Neuroscience is only a tool that the company can use to motivate or manipulate customers. What is the difference between motivating and manipulating? While the techniques are the same, motivation means that both parties share the benefits, whereas manipulation means that one of the parties gets everything. Neuroscience, when used ethically, can be beneficial to all, consumers and salespeople alike.

The real issue is that marketing often already constitutes Neuromarketing, that many advertisements are manipulative, that the photograph of the inside of the car is often taken with a wide-angle lens, that the burger on the poster is often slightly bigger than the one you buy, etc. The issue of ethics has applied to marketing for years. Marketing has been using Neuromarketing for years without acknowledging it. So the ethical issue is not new; it is and should be a concern for all marketing professionals in their everyday decisions.

Does Neuromarketing spell the end of traditional marketing studies?

Not at all. It is simply an additional point of view. Marketing does not have to scan its customers. This is what laboratories are there for, testing standard customers and products and then publishing the results. The only difficulty is that marketing must learn to decipher the jargon of the scientific journals dedicated to cognition – which is where this book can help.

Who uses Neuromarketing?

In the United States, it has been widely documented that the advisers to George W Bush and Barack Obama used Neuromarketing studies in their respective campaigns. In the film industry, trailers of new films are tested to see if they light up the areas of the brain that are generally activated in people who have just been shown trailers of the greatest films.

A growing number of marketing departments in companies pay for private cerebral imaging studies on a panel of test customers before launching a new perfume, a new TV series or a new car. The brain provides the marketing function with much more accurate responses than traditional, interview-based surveys. Certain marketing departments use costly but accurate functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before launching expensive products, and resort to electroencephalography, more affordable but less accurate, to test less expensive products.

Does Neuromarketing have limitations?

It is theoretically limitless, but let customers believe in their freedom! Make sure you put a different logo on these two identical television sets, so that they can choose! Do your customers decide freely? No, their genetic history and education determine their future. Their environment limits their possibilities. But in practice Neuromarketing can never be 100% accurate, and there are some limitations:

  • While 80 per cent of our purchase decisions are predictable, there is still some leeway. Customers are intelligent and calculating and quickly outwit the traps of Neuromarketing – except perhaps when they believe they are smelling the delicious odour of fresh bread when it is in fact a chemical smell (identified by code FR115 among professionals).
  • Neuroscience can make mistakes or lack statistical validity. The statistical significance of certain studies is not always established, owing to the limited number of subjects studied, in which case the hypotheses presented during these studies are not confirmed. However, ‘hypothesis’ does not mean ‘without value’. It means it is an option worth exploring, the challenge of an expert who is well versed and well read in the domain, which is better than nothing.
  • The laws protect those most in need. A reflection period, a ban on certain advertisements, and obligations to inform fortunately limit certain Neuromarketing practices.
  • Businesses are ethical. A lot of businesses refuse to use overly attractive packaging, shelves giving the best exposure to high-margin products, overly eye-catching stores or overly streamlined products. Businesses only exist because of the customer’s brain as it is, with its need for sex, food, dominance, memories or emotions. Neuromarketing has the means to satisfy the brain, but it is up to its sense of ethics to decide whether or not it should. While deceiving customers can have positive effects in the short term, this policy is more often than not catastrophic in the medium and long term. We believe it would be a mistake for Neuromarketing to go down this path.


Neuromarketing in Action is out now and is available to buy here.


About the Authors: Professor Patrick Georges is a neurosurgeon, with a passion for improving management and business organization through the development of the concept of organizational intelligence. He is the author of several works, includingThe Six-Figure Manager, published by Kogan Page, 2013. Professor Anne-Sophie Bayle-Tourtoulou has taught marketing across several programs of the HEC Group for many years, with a focus on the retail sector. She has worked on various projects in this sector, including product ranges, retailers' own brands, pricing and promotional policies. Professor Michel Badoc has taught marketing for many years, mostly at the institutions within the HEC Group, but also schools such as the CESB and ENASS. He also develops appraisal and consultancy activities for companies in Europe and North America.

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