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Neuromarketing: the way into the customer’s brain

© Jan-Oliver Hess

Neuromarketing: the way into the customer’s brain

High quality and customer benefits are essential to a product’s success. But in an environment that offers numerous alternative products, this is no longer enough. Good distribution and successful marketing are also important. One term keeps popping up more and more frequently: neuromarketing.

Neuromarketing is supposed to use scientific knowledge to find the “buy button” in the customer’s brain. We asked Jan-Oliver Hess whether this really works – particularly for the organic products market – and if yes, how. Hess is an author, speaker and BrainBranded Communication expert with the Swiss agency Nordjungs.

BIOFACH: For years, sales in the organic product market have been consistently growing. Are organic manufacturers doing better marketing than conventional food and beverage manufacturers?

Jan-Oliver Hess: The constant increase in sales in the organic product market is not so much a question of more or less successful marketing than it is of consistently taking advantage of the momentum that organic and eco products have had over the past years. After all, it’s not just about the manufacture and distribution of high-quality products but, to a considerable extent, it’s also about addressing the right consumer or buyer group at the right time and in the right place.

For years, all the statistics have been telling us that buyers and consumers increasingly demand that companies be ecologically and socially responsible. This is no longer a mere trend. It’s an ongoing social movement that’s reflected in the steadily growing number of LOHAS (editor’s note: Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability), meaning people who practice environmentally conscious and socially responsible consumption. In other words, there’s never been a better time for organic and eco products.

Credibility and trust play a key role in the organic sector

A growing number of conventional food manufacturers, producers, and retailers also appear to be aware of this and are also offering organic brands or organic products. How can the exclusively organic brands hold their own against them?

Conventional food manufacturers and producers – as well as discounters and brand names – have a tremendous economic advantage. Thanks to scale effects, market power, brand recognition, effective and efficient distribution channels and organizations, they can gain a foothold in the – for them – “new territory” of organic products relatively quickly and with a manageable level of risk. However, there are two essential aspects that are decisive for the buyer and consumer typologies in this product group and that can be better, more easily and more convincingly satisfied by exclusively organic brands: credibility and trust. This advantage needs to be consistently exploited in terms of positioning, branding strategy, and market communication.

Can neuromarketing increase this advantage and offer organic products and brands a chance to differentiate themselves from conventional ones?

To answer that question, we need to briefly clarify what neuromarketing is. Strictly speaking, neuromarketing is the use of equipment and technological procedures from neuroscience for market research purposes. In the public consciousness, it’s mainly associated with impressive images of “brains at work” that can now be produced using brain scanners (fMRI = functional magnetic resonance imaging).

In its broader definition, which is how we understand it, the term neuromarketing means applying the wide range of knowledge from the neurosciences as well as from behavioural economics, behavioural biology and behavioural psychology to marketing, and to market communication in particular. Ultimately, it’s simply an approach to thinking and acting that we call BrainBranded Communication – (marketing and market) communication from the customer’s (brain’s) perspective.
So there’s only one answer to your question: Yes, because if you want to motivate people, you have to know what motivates them.

These are the three basic insights for successful neuromarketing

How should we understand that? What goes on inside the brain of a customer who’s in the process of making or has to make a buying decision?

The recent “decades of the brain” gave us about 95 percent of our knowledge about the brain. Numerous discoveries won Nobel Prizes and three basic – and today largely uncontested – insights emerged:

  1. We’re not as rational or as governed by reason as we believe(d) – the homo economicus is an illusion.
  2. The actual decision-making centre of our brain is the “limbic system”, the seat of our emotions.
  3. The unconscious is much more important and powerful than we formerly believed, which is why we’re also not fully in touch with the basic decision-making processes in our lives.

This is also why people are so very bad at explaining the true motives behind their own actions. Our mind rationalizes only those decisions that have been emotionally and implicitly defined for it. As a brief formula for success, we might say:

Product, service and brand promises must be compatible with the particular target group’s emotional, value and motivational system and be “rewarding” to increase the likelihood of a purchase or other desired behaviour.

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Can you be more specific? How can brands influence the purchasing behaviour of consumers?

Neuromarketing has now come of age and established itself as a fixed and effective discipline for marketing and market communication. During the “neuro hype” that prevailed over 15 years ago, we believed that neuromarketing would take us directly inside the consumer’s brain and lead us straight to the customer’s “buy button”.

But much to the disappointment of marketers, and fortunately for consumers, this has not been the case, because there is no “buy button”. Nevertheless, what we now know about the functioning of our brains – in addition to their weighing an average of 1.4 kilograms and being filled with 86 million neurons – is enough to take effective – meaning behaviourally relevant – action in marketing and market communication.

Staying with our image, there is not one but hundreds of “buy buttons” that we can activate using the appropriate clues and codes, signs and signals, emotional triggers, nudges, and many other actions provided by neuromarketing in the broader sense. One example we might mention here is the Limbic Model developed by Dr Hans-Georg Häusel and perfected by Gruppe Nymphenburg, which provides a consistent evaluation, decision-making and navigation model for strategy, positioning, product design, communication and channels. But there are now numerous other methods, models and procedures that are, to a certain extent, ideal for effective market communication.

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Are there any examples of how neuromarketing is being used in the food and beverage industry?

Applied neuromarketing in the broader sense has already invisibly inserted itself into our everyday lives in such a way that we often don’t notice it anymore. Here’s an example we’re all familiar with: the supermarket. In an average supermarket, over 10,000 products vie for our attention. Research has told us that stress, time pressure, and complexity can inhibit buying behaviour. That’s why German supermarkets leave nothing to chance:

  • In the entrance area, we’re greeted by healthy and appetising-looking fruits and vegetables.
    This activates the stimulus and pleasure system in our brains and puts us in a good mood – and suddenly the stress of shopping disappears. At the same time, a “presumption of freshness” is established that will be extended to the rest of the products.
  • The arrangement of product groups is connected to our eating rituals of breakfast-lunch-dinner-snacks and helps us to get our bearings.
  • The scent of bread from bread ovens stimulates hunger and relaxation, while the oversized trolley suggests that we really haven’t bought very much after all, and so on.
  • Organic products are preferably arranged on straw bales and in woven baskets, as well as on wood floors with signage on chalkboards. These are all triggers that say natural, fresh and local – meaning that they must be good for me and my family.

Guilty as charged. What are the prerequisites for successfully using neuromarketing?

Those who work with neuromarketing professionally and are serious about it know one thing: Neuromarketing actually places people at the centre of all thinking and action. Only those who genuinely try to understand people – in this case, consumers and buyers – and their behaviour, and who offer products and services based on this target group’s perspective, fulfil an intrinsic need in this target group.

Only when promotional activities and marketing communication coincide with people’s individual motivational, emotional, and value systems can neuromarketing be behaviourally relevant, which is to say effective. This means that people are no longer simply a means to an end but are the focus. There can be almost no higher form of appreciation – and not in the sense of customer lifetime value.

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So what’s the best way to proceed if you want to use neuromarketing?

In any case, you need to find an experienced consultant to whom you can pitch your initial questions and expectations. Then you’ll be able to make a fairly good assessment of the chances and risks involved in a neuromarketing campaign and take other actions – which don’t necessarily have to be very time-consuming, expensive or resource-intensive. Neuromarketing in the broader sense isn’t a short-term “pimping” of your own corporate, product or communication activities. Instead, it’s an approach to thinking and acting that must be strictly and consistently implemented.

The initial use of this approach often requires a change of mindset. One welcome side effect is that all the employees involved in it not only learn something about their customers but also learn about themselves – particularly about the many intrinsic cognitive distortions, heuristics and errors in reasoning that we rely on to navigate our daily lives.

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Can neuromarketing also be applied to (stationery) retail or is it suitable only for manufacturers/producers?

As for manufacturing and producing, the applications of neuromarketing in the broader sense for retail are almost incalculable. I already mentioned the example of the supermarket. In stationery retail and point of sale, neuromarketing in the broader sense can be used to even greater advantage because all the consumer’s senses can be addressed. And we know from research that the effect of communication via the different senses is exponential rather than additive. This effect is called multisensory enhancement. In the food and beverage industry in particular, tremendous success is possible using:

  • visual (light, imagery, colours),
  • auditory (music),
  • haptic (materials, possibility of touching),
  • olfactory (smell) and
  • gustatory (taste) signals and codes.

This is also the greatest – and perhaps the last – real advantage that stationery retail has over online retail.

In closing, let’s take a quick look at this from the consumer’s perspective.
Is neuromarketing dishonest and can it cross ethical lines?

An integral feature of marketing is its goal of influencing people’s (choices and decision-making) behaviour. Neuromarketing is no different. If you regard the attempt to influence people as manipulation, then you might consider it morally and ethically reprehensible. And, of course, the attempt to manipulate is always intrinsic in (neuro)marketing. But as long as this influence isn’t directed against people’s actual emotional, value or motivational system – even if they aren’t aware of being influenced – then neuromarketing in the broader sense is neither dishonest nor unethical. And, as I said before, neuromarketing in the broader sense can be behaviourally relevant and effective only if it obeys the principle that people are not a means to an end but are the actual focus.

And one final reassurance: Neuromarketing in the broader sense can’t motivate anyone to behave in ways that they absolutely reject or that are against their will – except through sheer force. That’s why we need to “embrace” the topic of neuromarketing in the broader sense so that we not only develop a deeper understanding of its methodology but also become acquainted with ourselves and our own susceptibility to manipulation.

Thank you for these profound insights.

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