The application of neuroscience methods to marketing – neuromarketing – is growing in popularity. Marketers hope that neuroscience will provide them with information that is not obtainable through conventional marketing methods such as questionnaires and focus groups. Can neuroscience be the holy grail of the study of consumer behavior?


Methods used

There are a number of well-established methods for measuring and mapping brain activity. The most commonly used methods applied in neuromarketing include electroencephalo-graphy (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) but other (“non-neuro”) methods like eye tracking, face reading, and measuring physiological responses are growing in popularity. In my experience combining methods is crucial for gaining insight in something as complex as liking and wanting. Each method (including the traditional ones like interviews and focus groups) can give valuable information. The combination is like bringing the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together.

Limitations of using neuroscience methods for neuromarketing

EEG is a relatively old technology in neurology, but it is still considered a good way to measure brain activity. However, the limitation of EEG is that it does not have good spatial resolution, which means it cannot precisely locate where the neurons are firing in the brain (especially in deeper, older structures).

While EEG measures the electrical activity in the brain, MEG measures the magnetic field created by neuronal activity. MEG has excellent temporal resolution and better spatial resolution than EEG. However, like EEG, MEG is limited to picking up activity at the surface of the brain. Another disadvantage of MEG is that the technique is expensive and therefore not readily available to the average marketer or market research agency.

fMRI measures the change in blood flow in the brain. fMRI has the major advantage of being able to image deep brain structures, especially those involved in emotional responses. Although it is often claimed that fMRI is a non-invasive method, that is, of course, not the case. A scanner is not a supermarket or a home situation where factors like the presence of other people or the abundance of other products than the one your company is interested in can influence choice behavior. This technique is also expensive, which is another disadvantage of using fMRI.

The major drawback of all three methods is that the data are difficult to interpret. It is one thing to see which parts of the brain become active in response to a stimulus; it is another to interpret what this means or what you can do with it. Neuroscience is a discipline in itself and although there is a wealth of scientific information about the brain and specific areas such as the reward center, the translation of all this information into predictive models that explain why we buy certain products and not others is still extremely hard. And let’s face it: marketing is not interested in science or complexity. The average marketer wants a solution that is easy to understand and says ‘this advertisement will generate lots of traffic to our website’ or ‘this package will increase sales’. Rather than trying to understand complex neuroscientific data, there is a temptation to oversimplify and over-claim. And there is the threat. If we keep in mind that hidden “buy buttons” are a fantasy, neuromarketing is here to stay and will evolve in a discipline that can fundamentally change how we design, promote, price, and package our products.