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  The Science of Branding   The Science of Branding Edwin Colyer  


The Science of Branding Most people prefer the taste of Pepsi, and yet the majority still buy Coke. Ever since the famous findings of the Pepsi Challenge, marketers have argued that their work must make a difference. How else could Coke come out on top?

Read Montague, Director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine, has now provided proof that branding plays with our brains. Last year he decided to repeat the Pepsi Challenge, but scan the activity of the brain at the same time. Using a non-invasive technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the scans reveal which parts of the brain are active in real time.

When Montague gave a taste of an unnamed soda to his volunteers he found that more people preferred Pepsi. On the scan images the ventral putamen, one of the brain’s reward centers, had a response that was five times stronger than for people who preferred Coke.

The shock came when Read repeated the experiment, this time telling volunteers which brand they were tasting. Nearly all the subjects then said they preferred the Coke. Moreover, different parts of the brain fired as well, especially the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with thinking and judging. Without a doubt the subjects were letting their experience of the Coke brand influence their preferences.

The work of Montague and other studies prove that branding goes far beyond images and memory recall. The medial prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain known to be involved in our sense of self. It fires in response to something -- an image, name or concept -- that resonates with who we are. Something clicks, and we are more likely to buy.

But the secret of Coke’s marketing success has yet to be solved. “We’ve shown that the Coke brand has a powerful influence,” says Montague. “But we haven’t asked what that is yet. Is it something simple and stupid like the red can, the curvy script or the hard consonants, or something much more complex.”

Still, the idea that neuroscience has applications for business is causing a wave of excitement in the marketing sector. It prompted the BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences to establish a Neurostrategies division and conduct fMRI research.

“Our thinking is to understand the brain’s involvement as thoroughly as possible,” says Joey Reiman, BrightHouse’s CEO. “We try to understand the images of activity in the brain that show how people feel about things.”

If it all sounds a little too Orwellian, then you are in good company. Commercial Alert, the anti-consumerism activist group, says that neuromarketing, the application of neuroscience to marketing, will only add to the ills caused by modern marketing.

A BrightHouse press release states that “Thought Sciences marketing analysts use [fMRI]... information to more accurately measure consumer preference, and then apply this knowledge to help marketers better create products and services and to design more effective marketing campaigns.”

Could brain imaging show marketers how to effectively control our minds? BrightHouse’s Reiman says no. “There is no possibility that in my lifetime we’ll be able to peer into brains and make them buy more. But businesses that do not use neuroscience are experimenting with failure. These studies will help to position companies as more consumer friendly.”

Chris Frith, Professor of Neuropsychology at the Institute of Neurology in London, prefers to look beyond the hype. “People have the idea that because you are using big, expensive equipment it is more real than asking what people think. They think they’ve got an easy way to get the information they want -- a short cut. But it is very important to consider the subjective measures. If we see from scans that someone is happy, but they say that they aren’t, who do we believe?”

Montague agrees that ultimately behavior is what matters. “Brain imaging isn’t more accurate than other techniques. You’ll never get rid of psychology and behavioral studies -- that’s your ultimate end. But you do want more insight and imaging can provide it.”

Montague predicts that fMRI will become a tool for testing packaging, advertising and other promotional material. “If I’m an auto manufacturer and want to change the curvature of the wheel well of my car model, how will my target 35 year old male respond? I’ll supplement my research with fMRI. And if I was buying something, I’m OK with them using brain imaging to make me happier.”

Reiman meanwhile prefers to dwell on the fundamental nature of neuromarketing research to date. “Nowadays market research is about how better to sell products. We are doing the inverse: finding out how better to form relationships with customers. This MRI work is fledgling. These are the first baby steps. We can’t understand thoughts, but we can interview the brain and we expect what we find will change the way companies work.”    


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Edwin Colyer is a science and technology writer based in Manchester, UK.

  2004  |  2003  |  2002  |  2001
11-Oct-2004 News Outlets Plug into New Markets -- Stephen Gardner
  News outlets seek to grow despite increasingly fragmented audiences
4-Oct-2004 Brands rise from the dead -- Alycia de Mesa
  Can brands be resurrected? Atari and Iridium Satellite try for a comeback.
27-Sep-2004 Brandsploitation: A New Genre in Film -- Abram Sauer
  The good, the bad, the ugly: A clear-eyed romp through the product placement hype
20-Sep-2004 Born into Luxury -- Alycia de Mesa
  Targeting youth: Ultra-premium fashion brands turn to the diaper-wearing set.
13-Sep-2004 Take pride in your brand -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  Brands step out of the closet to embrace gay and lesbian customers.
6-Sep-2004 Engaging the Aging: Marketing to Europe's Seniors -- Emilie Boyer King
  Are European brands catching on to the potential of aging populations?
30-Aug-2004 Auto Ads Drive Brand Awareness -- Edwin Colyer
  Customer driven takes on a whole new meaning when brands advertise on cars.
23-Aug-2004 Local Markets Grow Roots -- Michael Standaert
  Local labeling helps farmers compete with large food brands
16-Aug-2004 A Global Dose for a Local Market -- Edwin Colyer
  Is there a prescription for implementing global pharmaceutical brands in a local market?
9-Aug-2004 Mexican brands pepper US market -- Cristian Salazar
  Mexican brands cross the border through NAFTA to reach Latino populations; but why not reach out to the non-Latinos?
2-Aug-2004 Forcing Brands into Early Retirement -- Randall Frost
  Brand portfolio management: What happens when the brand gets turned off.
26-Jul-2004 MTV networks internationally -- Robin D. Rusch
  How does MTV manage to be the Madonna of the media industry?
19-Jul-2004 Noilly Prat: Distilled to Perfection -- Jeremy Josephs
  Noilly Prat neither shakes nor stirs the vermouth segment and yet it continues to grow steadily.
12-Jul-2004 Your Product Name: Fame or Shame? -- Alycia de Mesa
  When a product name becomes more valuable than the corporate name is it time to switch?
5-Jul-2004 Street Level Strategy -- Ron Irwin
  Brands take to the street to reach underserved populations.
28-Jun-2004 Competing dialects: Selling English -- David Ferguson
  English schools worldwide compete for foreign students.
21-Jun-2004 Staying Power: Surviving the Limelight -- Randall Frost
  Overexposure: How can celebrities manage their brand beyond its sell-by-date?
14-Jun-2004 Setting the brand to music -- Dale Buss
  Non-music brands are joining the choir and at the same time changing the face of traditional music brands
7-Jun-2004 Restocking Safeway -- A.K. Cabell
  Can supermarket chain Safeway face down risk?
31-May-2004 South Africa Makes it Local -- Ron Irwin
  Proudly South African aims to make it local and make its locality proud.
24-May-2004 Brand and Consumers: Who's seducing whom? -- Randall Frost
  Is it up to multinationals to satisfy the demands of a select few at the detriment to efficiency and profit? Who does it serve if the consumer seduces the brand?
17-May-2004 UPS and FedEx compete to deliver -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  UPS and FedEx are carrying their new position from employee to customer.
10-May-2004 Changing the face of private labels -- Dale Buss
  Estée Lauder enters into an exclusive arrangement that appears to be more than skin deep with US retailer Kohl’s.
3-May-2004 Naming Names -- Alycia de Mesa
  Name that product: umbrella brands struggle to identify products and services as part of one family.
26-Apr-2004 Trademarking: Senses and Sensibility -- Randall Frost
  To ensure a sensual connection with the brand, companies are trademarking scents, sounds, colors and shapes. Floral smelling thread anyone?
19-Apr-2004 Mapping a Country's Future -- Randall Frost
  Branding a country or region is just like a product brand… except way more complex and far less controllable.
12-Apr-2004 Stiff Competition: Making a Living with Death -- Stephen Gardner
  Can the traditional funeral industry in Britain survive against larger corporate groups or will it eventually die out?
5-Apr-2004 Are you sick of viral marketing? -- Abram Sauer
  Similar to any virus, viral marketing is hard to contain or control. How can you make the most of the buzz?
29-Mar-2004 Celebrity Branding -- Alycia de Mesa
  As a star ascends it can take a product or two with it. Similarly as a celebrity falls from grace so goes the appeal of the brand.
22-Mar-2004 Democracy Rules the Marketplace -- Randall Frost
  Do consumers have more control over what appears in the marketplace than voters do over legislation? What can governments learn from a branding model?
8-Mar-2004 M-Commerce: Is the line dead? -- Randall Frost
  Why does mobile commerce work so well in Japan but not in the US? Is there potential for m-commerce among the one billion cell phone users worldwide?
1-Mar-2004 How is porn penetrating the mainstream market? -- Abram Sauer
  The curtain is pulled and the lights are turned on in the adult entertainment industry. As quality rises in risqué entertainment, branding in the industry heats up.
23-Feb-2004 How far can a brand stretch? -- Alycia de Mesa
  Disney and Virgin can but apparently McDonald’s cannot. What allows one brand to stretch to new business, products and services while others cannot?
16-Feb-2004 Spain's Best Brands -- Interbrand
  Spain ranks its best corporate and consumer brands by value; Telfonica y Zara son las marcas más valiosas.
9-Feb-2004 Gaining Influence Through Word of Mouth -- Randall Frost
  Can you harness word of mouth to work for you?
2-Feb-2004 Google Gets Lucky: Announcing 2003 Brand of the Year Results -- Robin Rusch
  Google, Apple, Ikea, Cemex and Sony dominate the 2003 Readers’ Choice Brand of the Year awards.
26-Jan-2004 Drug Makers Get in the Game -- Edwin Colyer
  American pharma leads the industry in sport sponsorship. Is it the winning play for selling drugs direct to consumer?
19-Jan-2004 Delivering the Truth Through PR -- Randall Frost
  Is PR an effective vehicle for communicating the wonders of your brand?
12-Jan-2004 Fueling Partnerships -- Edwin Colyer
  Gas stations expand their services to include full shopping opportunities. How does this affect the brand?
5-Jan-2004 Which Bud's for you? -- Mark Jarvis
  As Czech Budweiser prepares to launch its first international marketing campaign, the battle between the two Buds is bound to rise to a head.


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