Mind-ing One’s Business

Segmenting the market is passé- today, it’s all about segmenting the brain! 


Thanks to Neuromarketing, regions of the mind are now the battlefields where modern brand wars are fought. Coke versus Pepsi is perhaps the best example of such a collision. In 2004, Simon McClure and his associates conducted a path-breaking experiment studying consumer attitudes towards the two fizzy drinks. In a blind tasting of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the majority of participants preferred Pepsi. However, when brand names were visible on the drinks, most preferred Coke.

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Why was this insightful? During the blind tasting, the area of the brain associated with the decision-making process was activated. On the other hand, when brand names were visible, brain regions associated with emotion and memory were activated. This demonstrates the powerful nostalgic hold that a bottle of Coca-Cola has over us all – a consequence of years of repeated exposure to carefully crafted advertising stimuli, that makes us want to “Open Happiness”.

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The Coke-Pepsi conundrum is one of the most famous case studies in the ingenious field of Neuromarketing  an emerging branch of neuroscience in which researchers use medical technology to determine consumer reactions to particular brands, slogans, and advertisements. Combining principles of neuroscience, psychology, and economics, this is an ambitious and trailblazing crossover. EEG (electroencephalography), eye-tracking technology, fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) – these big words (and bigger machines) – refer to the tools with which neuromarketers minutely study brand perception. Thereafter, advertising campaigns are accordingly engineered, to maximize brand memory and product satisfaction.

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Neuromarketing gives us the opportunity to map out previously uncharted waters in the ocean of consumer behaviour, the hidden part of Freud’s Iceberg: the unconscious mind. Self-report measures, such as surveys, fail to capture the inner workings of different parts of the brain. “People are fairly good at expressing what they want, what they like, or even how much they will pay for an item,” says Uma R. Karmarkar, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who holds PhDs in both marketing and neuroscience. “But they aren’t very good at accessing where that value comes from, or how and when it is influenced by factors like store displays or brands. [Neuroscience] can help us understand those hidden elements of the decision process.” Neuromarketing is a giant leap of technological progress that surpasses such fallacies. It studies attitudes, behaviours, and responses that primarily drive decision-making, but that the consumer is unaware of. This opens up a whole new avenue for influence and gratification.


Gerald Zaltman is considered to be one of the first pioneers of neuromarketing. In the early 1990s, he developed the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET): a research tool that uses digital imaging techniques to produce summary images of consumer’s thought processes. Metaphors (or knowledge representations) about a brand are found in these ‘images’- which may be visual, verbal, mathematical, and musical, among other forms. They contain a customer’s experience, understanding, and memory. ZMET gives us a chance to tap into these hidden recesses and construct appropriate marketing strategies that complement, accentuate, and enforce these ‘metaphors.’

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Today, fMRI is a widely-used neuromarketing technique. This was used by McClure in the Coke-Pepsi experiment. fMRI can also give an insight into the ‘pleasure centers’ of the brain. “The more desirable something is, the more significant changes in blood flow in that part of the brain,” Karmarkar says. “Studies have shown activity in that brain area can predict the future popularity of a product or experience.” A group of researchers at Emory University conducted a lab experiment wherein teenagers listened to unreleased new songs while inside an fMRI machine. “The researchers found that the activity within the adolescents’ pleasure centers correlated with whether a song achieved eventual commercial success. Research showed that the OneRepublic song, ‘Apologize,’ performed especially well in both the brain scans and the market.”

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Another popular method is eye-tracking technology. The heat maps above show what consumers tend to unconsciously focus on when first exposed to an ad. When the baby faces the customer, their eyes are immediately averted to the facial features of the toddler, distracting them from the textual content of the ad. On the other hand, when the baby faces sideways and looks towards the text, the customers’ eyes also follow that direction. Thus, they are more likely to observe and read the ad. This is evidenced by the sporadic red patches in the heat map on the left. This version is more preferable, as potential purchasers actually engage with the relevant marketing content – the words describing the product. Thus, eye-tracking technology enables the researcher to discover attention centers. Studying this phenomenon can help brands to improve their posters and other visual marketing aids, in order to make them more effective and engaging.  

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EEG, on the other hand, spotlights other aspects of consumer reactions. In the EEG technique, electrodes are attached to the subjects’ heads to evaluate the electrical patterns of their brain waves. This allows researchers to track the intensity of visceral responses such as anger, lust, disgust, and excitement. In 2008, Frito-Lay hired NeuroFocus to look into Cheetos, the junk-food staple. After scanning the brains of a carefully chosen group of consumers, the NeuroFocus team discovered that the icky coating triggers an unusually powerful response in the brain: a sense of giddy subversion that consumers enjoy over the messiness of the product. In other words, the sticky stuff is what makes those snacks such a sticky brand. Frito-Lay leveraged that information into its advertising campaign for Cheetos, which has made the most of the mess.

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Neuromarketing is another win for startlingly innovative technology in the contemporary world, but it comes with its own share of ethical concerns. Many questions have been raised about how fair it is to consumers to use psychological tactics to mold behaviours that they aren’t even aware of. Some critics point out the creation of a dystopia where powerful neuromarketing methods may be misused by politicians and propagandists to deliberately mislead voters and/or create social unrest. Vicky Phan points out the anxiety towards neuromarketing “subliminally undermining free will.” Any new discovery always creates waves of unease over possible manipulation. Like always, it will ultimately come down to the intentions and inclinations of those holding the technology.


What should the attitude towards Neuromarketing be? Predilection, precaution or paranoia? You decide. 

-Toshita Sahni



  1. http://www.hrpub.org/download/20151231/UJM8-12105326.pdf
  2. http://acrwebsite.org/volumes/7644/volumes/v21/NA-21
  3. http://itsamarketingthing.wordpress.com/tag/coca-cola-vs-pepsi/
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/02/01/neuromarketing-tapping-into-the-pleasure-center-of-consumers/#5ec26c1f2745
  5. https://www.fastcompany.com/1769238/neurofocus-uses-neuromarketing-hack-your-brain
  6. https://d396qusza40orc.cloudfront.net/flex-neuromarketing/NEUROMARKETING%20COMPENDIUM%202014%202nd%20ed.pdf

Image Sources:

  1. https://www.coursera.org/learn/neuromarketing
  2. https://www.neuroscience.org.uk/tr/pepsi-vs-coke-a-neuromarketing-study/
  3. https://itsamarketingthing.wordpress.com/tag/coca-cola-vs-pepsi/
  4. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-conscious-and-unconscious-mind-2795946
  5. https://neuromarketinginstitut.com/eng/neuromarketing-in-business/
  6. https://awario.com/blog/neuromarketing/
  7. https://blog.alore.io/neuromarketing-in-b2b-marketing/
  8. https://www.unravelresearch.com/en/blog/neuromarketing-in-retail-increase-your-turnover-with-brain-research-eeg-and-eye-tracking
  9. https://soyummy.com/easter-cheetos/
  10. https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/neuromarketing-for-dummies/9781118518977/26_9781118518977-pp05.html


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