Brands Pick Consumers' Brains — and Scan Them

Brain scanning is being used to help predict how shoppers will respond to products and shopping environments.

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Aradhna Krishna, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the editor of “Sensory Marketing: Research on the Sensuality of Products” (Routledge Academic), to be published in December, said some brands have established strong sensory signatures that are immediately recognizable and an important part of their DNA.

“For hearing, think about the roar of a lion: You know right away it’s MGM Studios [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer] when you hear the lion roar,” she said. “Visually, think about the color pink for breast cancer. You see pink, you think breast cancer. You think Susan Komen [breast cancer research].”

Another visual example is Christian Louboutin’s red-soled shoes. “You see those red soles, you know they’re Louboutins,” Krishna said. “If you can have a sensory signature…the consumer is automatically cued into the brand.”

Effective advertising in a shaky economy “depends on awakening raging desires,” said Robert J. Thompson, professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. “Having fewer assets doesn’t mean you’re going to desire less.”

One reason for Americans’ reputation as an optimistic people is their enduring belief that “a new car, a new dress, a new house will make us more loveable,” Thompson added.

However, new marketing techniques are not slam dunks.

Paco Underhill, managing director of Envirosell research and consulting, said he is skeptical about whether neuromarketing will become a relevant, affordable tool that’s “here to stay.” When a cap with inputs is placed on a shopper’s head and they are told their brain’s responses are being recorded through a remote device on their hip — or by someone trailing them with equipment — there’s a sense of doing something unfamiliar.

“That’s not really shopping,” Underhill said.

“I’m fascinated with the depth of the information, but one question is: Once I use it, can I use it again?” Underhill said of recording subconscious responses to products and environments. “The first time you visited Niketown, you were floored. How did it look the 12th time? There isn’t always such a clear connection between stirring these feelings, and needing and wanting stuff.”

In the near-term, neuromarketers may play more on people’s anxieties, given uncertainties such as the economic environment and swine flu virus, for example.

Fear tends to feed on itself and create a sense of hypervigilence in people, Lindstrom said, noting: “Companies are riding this, from packaging design to verbal messages.”

But such tactics to reassure could backfire. RLM’s Laermer said he was “annoyed” upon visiting Starbucks coffee shops with ceilings “constructed to create a sense of din — even with a relatively few people there — to give patrons a sense of being in a coffee house….I want a sense of reality, a sense that what’s being said is something they believe in.”


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