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BW Businessworld

‘It’s The Sub-Conscious Mind That Decides’

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As a counsellor and programme director for alcohol- and drug-addiction programmes in the US, Neale Martin first got early insights into the power of habits. The learnings took the shape of a book Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore. The professor-author-consultant was recently in Mumbai to address executives at Godrej on habit-based marketing and principles of neuromarketing — influencing the unconscious and sub-conscious consumer behaviour through marketing initiatives. BW's Prasad Sangameshwaran got Mumbai-based neuromarketing firm FinalMile's Biju Dominic to pose a few questions to Martin.


The human brain is regarded as the most complex system. Is the approach of using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) scans to understand human thoughts and buying behaviour an over-simplification?
The human brain is the most complicated thing in the universe other than the universe itself. But we have made significant progress in the past decade in understanding how the brain works using a variety of research methods including fMRI. Your point addresses the hype surrounding neuromarketing more than the utility of various methodologies that are being brought in to understand how the human mind works.

That's why I prefer talking about habit-based marketing rather than neuromarketing. Over a period of time, repetitive behaviour becomes a habit. Consumers buy a brand over and over again not always because they think it's the best brand, but because it simplifies their life. It solves their problem and they don't have to think about it again. When that happens, there is change in neurological pathways in the hippocampus that are stored in the basal ganglia. While I can observe this in a customer's behaviour, current brain imaging technologies can't clearly show this happening.

Neuromarketing uses various techniques to capture insights. But the brain works much faster than fMRI techniques. As far as EEG methods go, there is a significant challenge in separating the noise from the signals.

          FAST FACTS

Neale Martin: Assistant Professor, Michael J. Coles College of Business; Founder and CEO, Ntelec, Inc., a hightechnology marketing firm; Co-founder and CEO of Sublime Behavior Marketing, a behavioural marketing, consulting, and education company

Education: PhD in Marketing from Georgia Institute of Technology; A.B.J. (Bachelor of Arts in Journalism) from University of Georgia

Book: Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore

What makes all of this difficult for marketers is that a number of vendors provide these services and present their data in the form of a persuasive narrative... Every vendor would give you different results, and there is no way to validate or cross-validate the work.

Is there a more robust approach to mapping the customer's mind?
The best way to get an idea of how the customer's mind perceives and responds to any type of marketing effort is to use multiple approaches including ethnography, biometrics and interviews. Our approach is based on the idea that all consumer behaviour is the cumulative result of conscious and unconscious mental processes. We rely on behaviour as the primary basis of our interpretation of reality, and then add biometrics and ethnographic approaches to gain deeper insights.

The problem with qualitative techniques is they are inherently exploratory in nature. They give us interesting insights, but often fail to answer critical questions that would provide actionable answers.

This has led us to develop a model of consumer behaviour that enables confirmatory qualitiative analysis while simultaneously providing critical insights for marketers. This approach is meant to provide marketers actionable insights with clear recommendations. You need to look at it from an ethnography point of view and understand how consumers use their products. In some cases, companies use a biometric approach.

But the problem with the design of most communication is that the marketing experience is created thinking that consumers are rational, without taking any unconscious behaviour during their purchase decision
into account.

What are the ethical issues involved in neuromarketing?
Way back in the 1950s, James Vicary claimed that by inserting frames into a movie that told audience members to buy Coke and popcorn, he was able to increase Coke sales by 18 per cent and popcorn by an astounding 57.8 per cent. The images were only visible for 1/3,000 of a second, well below conscious perception. Thus was born the idea of subliminal messaging. Even though Vicary later admitted that the entire experiment was never done, a book by Vance Packard titled The Hidden Persuaders in 1957 and another by Wilson Bryan Keys called Subliminal Seduction, brought into question how advertisers attempt to influence customers. Today, some claim that there is a ‘buy' button in the brain that can be identified and possibly manipulated using neuromarketing.

Though I am sceptical of most of these claims, the underlying concept has profound ethical implications.

Respected science magazine Nature called neuromarketing a sham...
A lot of what people are doing in the name of neuromarketing is a sham. For marketing to advance as a discipline, it needs to understand and incorporate the findings from neuroscience, along with cognitive, social and behavioural psychology, behavioural economics, and other disciplines. At some point, it might make sense to term this aspect of marketing neuromarketing, but right now the ability to adapt the science to fundamental marketing practices just isn't there.

Neuromarketing isn't a magic bullet that will make decisions for you. It is a set of new tools, that when used judiciously to answer specific questions might be able to provide additional insights.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-05-2011)