Wednesday, June 17, 2009

MRI Imaging Solves the Mystery of Consumer Behavior - - Not!

Martin Lindstrom’s recent book is titled “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy” and he explains the use of the MRI in neuro-marketing. In a review by Michael S. Rosenwald in the “Washington Post,” it is suggested that Buyology “gets to the bottom of our buying habits, particularly our obsession with certain brands.”

I suggest that neuro-marketing has some of the answers but it is not “the answer.” In fact, I believe that many of the conclusions drawn are not necessarily related to the MRI results.

Mr. Lindstrom rightly points out that perceived scarcity is a strong motivator. To illustrate, he notes that if one is given the opportunity to take as much candy as they want, consumers will take three from a box of six, and one from a box of thirty. But social scientists have known about this and about “loss aversion” for a very long time.

In another interesting finding he states that, “Bottom line, there was no discernable difference between the way the subjects’ brains reacted to powerful brands and the way they reacted to religious icons and figures.” Lindstrom goes on to explain that “when people line up outside Apple stores for the latest iPhone, they are not hankering to get the latest gadget - - they are pretty much having a religious experience, too.”

This seems to say more about early adopters than mainstream shoppers and I am not sure what you do with this type of information if you are selling less exotic products such as hammers.

Next, Lindstrom talks about the difference between the brain scans while showing Coke versus Pepsi. With Pepsi, only the ventral region of the brain, an area associated with taste, was activated. With Coke the ventral and the medial cortex were activated. Lindstrom says the difference is explained because Coke “has for years inundated the world with advertising associating the beverage with warm memories of childhood, etc.” Now this may be true, but it isn’t as if Pepsi hasn’t advertised in a similar way and for a very long time.

MRI consumer scanning can teach us a lot, but it shouldn’t take too much credit. After all, we already know that: scarcity motivates; increased fear requires a solution to be effective; sexual appeals can be so strong that the viewer forgets about the product being advertised; some stimuli appeals to the reptilian portion of our brains; and we tend to react first and rationalize later.

Still, I think context needs to be a part of the mix. Otherwise it is difficult to be product or service specific. For more information about context-driven qualitative research contact me at

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