How neuroscience can contribute to brand success

The measurability of emotions is one of Benny Briesemeister’s  research foci.  At the Center for Applied Neuroscience at the Free University of Berlin, the scientist with a pronounced weakness for advertising, bridges the gap between neuroscientific theory and economical practice.

The term neurosciences refers to a discipline that has been  gaining popularity and influence over the past few years. It encompasses those parts of biology, medicine and psychology that deal with the exploration of the structure and function of nervous systems.  The focus of neurosciences, characterized by recent methodological advances, is the exploration of the human central nervous system, most notably the human brain. Brain research assumes considerable importance due to the assumption that human experience and behavior – aside from reflexes – is completely and exclusively dependent on brain activity.  By implication, this means that according to our current state of knowledge, neuroscientific methods are the most direct and available access to the comprehension of human experience and behavior – the reason for your success. The high validity and resilience of the collected data does not only make neuroscientific methods interesting for basic science but for application-oriented disciplines as well.

First studies on depressed patients for example suggest, that through targeted training of neuronal processes, symptoms can be reduced below the level of clinical abnormality – entirely without any behavioral therapy or pharmacological treatment. Research about brain-wave-based differentiation of actually experienced memories in comparison to suggestions, meaning subjectively experienced memories that are objectively false, can potentially support forensics. An online study of awareness and memory processes, made possible by neuroscientific methods, would likely be of interest not only to educational institutions. Respective technologies do exist already – what we still need is the transfer of the methods to practically-oriented issues.

The Center for Applied Neuroscience at the Free University of Berlin, founded in 2012 by a few colleagues and myself,  decided on the mission to bridge this gap and to prematurely track down developments like these at the intersection of scientific-fundamentals research and non-academic applications to be able to support its journey in terms of content, structure and personnel. The center’s goal is to develop viable business models from scientific ideas. Currently, we supervise several projects of clinical-diagnostic  orientation – one with a forensic focus as well as a project for neuroscientific marketing support.  Particularly in this field, available neuroscientific methods  provide interesting options.

Neuroscientific Methods – an Overview

In order to understand how neurosciences can support marketing, it is helpful to first learn more about the methods available, including their specific assets and drawbacks.

functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRT)

Over the past few years, fMRT technology developed into one of the most widely used neuroscientific methods and is also responsible for the „colorful“ brain images popular in the media. When scientific journalism talks about „brains canners“ they are referring to this technology. The signals measured by the fMRT are ultimately not based directly on neuronal processes, but on the metabolic processes triggered by neuronal processing – or more precisely, on the changes in the blood’s oxygen saturation. This has benefits but also drawbacks. To begin with, fMRT allows for a spatial resolution in the millimeter range, facilitating the examination of very small and deep-set brain structures.

The nucleus accumbens, for example, known as the reward center of our brain and playing a role in decision-making processes like purchase decisions, can in fact not be examined with any other method. However, the high spatial resolution correlated with a relatively poor temporal resolution (approx. one picture of the entire brain every two seconds). While it is no problem to examine static pictures such as brand logos this way, videos cannot be examined in detail. Appropriately employed, fMRT can also contribute

to marketing.  For instance, a study published in 2012,  suggested that brain activity can better predict the success of ad campaigns than the evaluation of experts and consumers.  However, it is important to note that examinations like these are very complex and therefore cost-intensive; and that the collected data cannot always be interpreted conclusively. fMRT is no thought-reading and our understanding of the human brain  – the most complex biological organ known – is still limited despite truly remarkable advances over the past few years.

electroencephalography(EEG)

During the EEG, electric signals produced by the brain are registered by means of surface electrodes. The spatial resolution of the EEG is in the centimeter range and therefore significantly lower than with the fMRT. On the other side, the equipment needed is portable and substantially less expensive. Furthermore, the achievable temporal resolution in the millisecond range enables a look at the brain’s processes. It opens up interesting possibilities for basic science as well as marketing practice:

As early as the 1990’s it was demonstrated that increased cognitive performance correlates with certain signals in the EEG. This allows us to comprehend in real time, which advertising messages perceived by a test person or client, have a high probability of being remembered  longer-term and which messages will likely be forgotten. With the aid of EEG we can distinguish whether a stimulus is only regarded passively or actively and attentively processed. Pure eye-tracking studies that are gaining more and more popularity in marketing, are not capable of that. In addition to that, EEG examinations are not tied to a location, as it is the case with securely installed magnetic resonance scanners. This allows examinations in actual conditions such as in front your TV at home or even in your local supermarket.

The EEG application examples mentioned, represent only a small fraction of conceivable posibilities but illustrate the enormous potential the Center for Applied Neuroscience sees in this method. What’s more is that with an estimated costs around the higher four-figure to lower five-figure range, the EEG is fundable even for small and medium sized companies. It can also be combined with virtually any other methods – particularly eye-tracking measurements, extending the possibilities even further.

Emotions As Carriers of Brand Messages

During the EEG, electric signals produced by the brain are registered by means of surface electrodes. The spatial resolution of the EEG is in the centimeter range and therefore significantly lower than with the fMRT. On the other side, the equipment needed is portable and substantially less expensive. Furthermore, the achievable temporal resolution in the millisecond range enables a look at the brain’s processes. It opens up interesting possibilities for basic science as well as marketing practice:

As early as the 1990’s it was demonstrated that increased cognitive performance correlates with certain signals in the EEG. This allows us to comprehend in real time, which advertising messages perceived by a test person or client, have a high probability of being remembered  longer-term and which messages will likely be forgotten. With the aid of EEG we can distinguish whether a stimulus is only regarded passively or actively and attentively processed. Pure eye-tracking studies that are gaining more and more popularity in marketing, are not capable of that. In addition to that, EEG examinations are not tied to a location, as it is the case with securely installed magnetic resonance scanners. This allows examinations in actual conditions such as in front your TV at home or even in your local supermarket.

The EEG application examples mentioned, represent only a small fraction of conceivable posibilities but illustrate the enormous potential the Center for Applied Neuroscience sees in this method. What’s more is that with an estimated costs around the higher four-figure to lower five-figure range, the EEG is fundable even for small and medium sized companies. It can also be combined with virtually any other methods – particularly eye-tracking measurements, extending the possibilities even further.

In recent years, the success of neurosciences resulted in the repositioning of one part of human experience back into the focus of scientific attention: emotions. Previously, it was ignored for some time due to a missing objective approach. It has long been known that emotions have a very decisive influence on fundamental cognitive processes such as perception, awareness and memory – that has been proven beyond doubt in numerous experiments. However, exactly how essential this influence is, only became apparent through neurosciences and a look at the brain structures involved in the human experience of emotions. When humans look at emotional images, it is a frequent occurrence to see brain activity in the hippocampus. This structure is kind of intersection between short and long-term memory and extremely sensitive to emotional information. It also explains why people have an easier time remembering emotional things. Powerful brands, such as Coca Cola with it’s concise logo, are also capable of addressing the, hippocampus, which in turn has a verifiable positive impact on consumer experience.

The hippocampus is extremely sensitive for emotional images as the intersection between short and long-term memory. It is also addressed by concise logos, which have a verifiable positive effect on the consumer experience.

A study published in 2004, was able to demonstrate that Coca Cola was only rated as the better drink in comparison to Pepsi, when test persons were aware which product they were drinking. The study consisted of a blind tasting session in which participants did not have a preference for either drink when the assessment was solely based on taste. A different brain structure involved in emotional processing and marketing, is the prefrontal cortex, in short: insula. Insula activity can be detected when people feel disgusted by something or observe other people who feel disgusted. The prefrontal cortex is involved in the perception of pain, the experience of romantic love and also in the perception of prices. According to a study published in 2007 in the journal „Neuron“, activity in the insula during the viewing of a price, can reliabily predict whether a product will be purchased or not.

Humans absorb information from their environment differently andsubconsciously associate them with very personal emotions. Brands are experienced this way as well and are matched against one’s own values and concepts, triggering positive or negative emotions – liking it or not. Therefore, the marketing world’s magic formula is: Magic formula: brand => emotion.

These examples already exemplify that there is not just one single brain structure that is responsible for human emotions, but it is an interaction of complex networks. Besides the hippocampus, insula and nucleus accumbens, there are about another dozen structures part of the limbic system and building the foundation of emotion processing. Although activity in these areas of the brain can be measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging, to this day it is not possible to match these activations reliably with specific emotions. We cannot measure what a person feels at a given point in time – not even with neuroscientific methods as some companies claim.

Access to the world of human emotions?

Since a direct capture of specific emotional processes is not readily possible yet, we decided to take a different route at the Center for Applied Neuroscience: the capture of motivations to approach and avoid. On the basis of published studies, we were able to demonstrate that a certain EEG signal does not only vary systematically with the approach and avoidance motivation, but also that this link is so strong that it can be used for diagnostic purposes. It allows for a precise measurement in the millisecond range of temporal change of motivational force and facilitates the indirect access to human systems of emotion.

To explain: the Zurich model of social motivation, developed and experimentally wellsecured by Prof. em. Norbert Bischof, indicates that the motivation to approach or avoid can ultimately be derived from from a small number of evolutionary-biological justifiable motivations and emotion systems. Part of that is first and foremost the need for security, which is reflected in the attachment behavior and reactions of aversion, the classic arousal motivation with both extremes curiosity and fear as well as the need for autonomy and the libido.

Numerous studies conducted by American psychologist Jaak Panksepp substantiate that these motivational and emotional systems are not only the basis for observable behavior, but that they can be detected universally in all mammals. Emotions such as aggression, fear, curiosity, solicitude, sexual desire, fear of abandonment and pleasure, motivate our actions and are the basis for our approach and avoidance behavior according to Bischof. In other words: all fundamental human motives can be located on one approach or avoidance dimension, which can be measured via EEG on their part.

– Benny Briesemeister –

„Emotions such as curiosity, joy or aggression are linked to approach and avoidance mechanisms that can be captured by means of EEG readings.“

Emotions In The Marketing Process

The possibility to measure emotions objectively – even if indirectly – is in two ways very interesting for marketing managers, in our opinion. First, it has long been known that human perception can be subjectively distorted by expectations and current mood. As early as the 1960’s, English psychologist Peter Wason was able to show that humans automatically and completely subconsciously look for information that confirms their existing beliefs.
These examinations were supplemented by more recent studies of the

group surrounding Derek M. Isaacowitz from Brandeis University – who demonstrated that not only the interpretation of information is controlled by the world of emotions and motives, but also the human eye movement. Our emotions have a say in how long we look at something – which applies to customers and marketing managers alike. Whether it’s a potential customer watching a commercial or not, also depends on whether the spot appeals to him emotionally. Objective measurement technology can constribute in the

synchronization of emotional advertising message with the emotional world of the potential client, without being exposed to the subjective distortion of market managers. Even more important than the objective access, is the fact that numerous current neuroscientific studies verified the direct and indirect influence of emotional advertising messages. A polish project team surrounding Rafal Ohme was able to show that the motivation to approach, triggered by the commercial and measured by EEG, can predict the product selection of consumers.

Despite the fact that this results of this study came from a lab study with controlled conditions, it implies that there must be a connection between product choice and motivation to approach. Brand management surely has a key role in emotional marketing – and here as well it is hardly surprising that there is little difference between strong and brands in terms of their emotional level.

Well-known word marks were correlated with activities in the areas of the brain responsible for speech comprehension and emotion, according to a study conducted by Bernd Schmitt and colleagues (2012). In contrast, unfamiliar word marks primarily addressed part of the brain used for speech analysis. Important here: despite a different hypothesis, the brand strength had no effect on the depth of fact-based information processing. No differences could be verified in the activity of the prefrontal cortex, which makes clear that the conscious, information-controlled processing when it comes to brand perception, often takes on less importance than expected.

– Summary –

In the last few years, neuroscientists had a big part in the development that helped us gain a deeper understanding of human emotions – also and above all for marketing. In addition, they provide the possibility of objectively measuring emotions through the indirect route of approach and avoidance motivation. The discipline dealing with the neuroscientific opportunity to optimize marketing processes, is called neuromarketing.

Benny B. Briesemeister

Benny B. Briesemeister is a certified psychologists and research associate in the field of general and neuro-cognitive psychology at the Free University of Berlin. At the Center for Applied Neuroscience, that sees itself as a hotbed for innovation at the intersection of research and application, he is primarily responsible for the continued development of the to pic area of neuromarketing. On his web-blog www.discover-neuro.de he collects and regularly comments on the latest neuroscientific developments relevant to marketing.