Last updateTue, 17 Apr 2018 11pm

Applied Marketing 101: How Neurophysiology impacts advertising effectiveness

In recent years, marketing practitioners have been making great strides in understanding how the brain receives, stores, and reacts to advertising messages. I’m fascinated by this field of inquiry, because it opens potential new windows into how best to construct advertising strategies. The background information is a little too involved to address in a brief article, but I think you might enjoy a look at a recent study of how the brain works in this context.

In order to grasp the implications of the study, let’s first consider a working model for the structure of the human brain. For our purposes, it’s convenient to imagine the brain as being constructed of a set of three concentric shells, each with a specific set of responsibilities. The innermost shell consists of the R Complex (also known as the reptilian brain), which is responsible for autonomic functions like respiration and heartbeat, as well as quick decisions for physiological needs like food and security. The middle shell consists of the Limbic System (emotional brain), which bears responsibility for emotions, feelings and attitudes. The outermost shell houses the Neo-Cortex (rational brain), which analyses and solves problems, uses logic, builds rational memories, and drives creative thinking. One way to think of this is that the inner shell reacts instinctively, the middle shell feels, and the outer shell thinks.

What’s important to understand is that every decision you make, as an animal, a human being, and a consumer, is driven by interactions and priorities established by these three very different parts of your brain. So to understand consumer behavior, you can see how incredibly valuable it would be to obtain a glimpse at how these disparate brain components work together.

One of the first really detailed studies into how the brain processes advertising and retains branding messages involved replication of a marketing initiative from the soft drink business in the mid-1970s. Officials at Pepsi had known for years that in blind taste tests, a significant majority of cola drinkers preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke, so they launched an advertising campaign called The Pepsi Challenge to drive the point home. (Coke officials were aware of this as well, a fact which provided a major impetus for the ultimately disastrous launch of’ New Coke’).

It’s interesting to note that, in spite of the fact that a majority of cola drinkers actually prefer the taste of Pepsi, the much stronger brand attraction to Coke has consistently resulted in Coke’s retention of the number one position in overall consumption. But the neurophysiological mechanics of this brand preference were only recently discovered, when a biologist at Baylor repeated the Pepsi Challenge with test subjects whose brains were inside an MRI machine at the time of tasting, so he could accurately identify and isolate areas where brain activity was occurring by measuring regions of oxygen utilization inside the test subjects’ craniums.

In the re-enactment of the blind tests, approximately 75 percent of participants indicated a preference for Pepsi. (Yes, it’s still a fact that today, over 30 years later, most Americans prefer the slightly sweeter taste of Pepsi.) In these cases, MRI recordings showed that the portion of the brain that responds to feelings of satisfaction and sensorial pleasure was highly active in the test subjects when the samples were tasted, and therefore was responsible for the preference for Pepsi. But when researchers identified the soft drinks prior to tasting, the ratio of Pepsi to Coke preference inverted, such that 75 percent of non-blind tasters expressed a preference for the Coke.

A review of MRI data for the non-blind test group showed the same brain activity as in blind testers corresponding to satisfaction and pleasure, but importantly, those who selected Coke displayed an additional area of activity in the pre-frontal cortex that had previously been identified by researchers as the source within the brain for feelings of self-esteem. The non-blind respondents’ preference for Coke showed that these higher cognitive functions, taking place in the Neo-Cortex, took precedence over the actual taste of the product. This result also provides support for the notion that consumers don’t own brands... they join them.

By the way, subsequent tests of beer brands showed evidence of precisely the same phenomenon, as beer drinkers demonstrated a clear preference for particular brands of beer that apparently have very little to do with actual taste. As a beer drinker myself, I’m actually appalled at this finding, but perhaps it explains why so many Americans drink such awful tasting beer!

Now for an update: In April, I wrote about a test to increase the Facebook fan base for a group of Jewelers. The results are in, and they are remarkable! Working with the nice folks at Premier Consulting, we selected 23 participating retailers who ran a “Most Loveable Mom” contest on their Facebook pages from April 26 until May 6. The aggregate fan base of this group of retailers increased, in only 10 days, by 119 percent. That’s right...we more than doubled their fan bases in less than two weeks!

With those kinds of numbers under our belt, we’re moving forward with an aggressive plan for the next 12 months designed to raise fan base numbers through the roof.

To get a sense of how important this is, consider the fact that today, over 13 percent of all of the time that Americans spend on the Internet is spent on Facebook, and that percentage is growing daily. If current trends continue, within 3 years, the entry portal for most Americans onto the net itself will be Facebook. If you’re still wondering whether you should incorporate a Facebook strategy into your marketing, you can now assume that you are being left behind.

A generation ago, independent jewelers built their customer bases using the newspaper and the Yellow Pages. In each case, they had to pay to run the ads. What Facebook offers is the modern opportunity to communicate with consumers in your local trading area in the same way, except for one delightful difference... it’s free!

Yes, there is a cost associated with initially building your Facebook fan base, but once you’ve got those fans, you’ll have a built-in way to communicate, any time you’ve got something to say. We’re even building Facebook store modules, which we suspect may represent the next evolutionary step in online jewelry advertising and retailing. This is a potential game changer, since it may represent the first practical way to monetize the value of Facebook interactions.

If you’re interested in taking part in this, or you’d like to learn more, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, or stop by the Gems One booth at the Atlanta, RJO, or Columbus Shows. I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you might have, about this or any other marketing topic.

Class dismissed!

George Prout is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Gems One Corporation, and can be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at Gems One’s New York office at 800-436-7787.