Food, the Brain and Neuromarketing

Food, the Brain and Neuromarketing
September 22, 2015 John McCallum

Neuromarketing is still relatively new to many people. In this article Dr Ana Iorga explains how Neuromarketing is developing and being used in the food and drink industries. 

Eating is one of the basics of keeping alive, regulated by an extremely complex set of brain phenomena. It’s also affected by extremely old, complicated and sophisticated cultures like dining habits, traditions, culinary creativity and science, and more recently for many of us worldwide diet and nutrition oriented trends. We know we eat for survival but we also eat because of hedonistic impulses, in other words just for the pleasure of it. On top of this some people develop different types of eating disorders, directly connected to our lifestyle and psychological states. So while eating is essential for us to survive it has evolved over centuries and maintains a significant presence in our subconscious.

We now know that dopamine, which acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, plays a big part in our food and drink choices. One of its functions is a major role in reward based behaviour and it’s this sensitivity to reward that influences many of our eating decisions. These decisions are hedonistic; our subconscious associating certain foods with pleasure and happiness. After all liking and wanting usually occur in strong connection to each other and both are strongly connected with consumer behavior.

The “pleasure center” is situated deep in the Nucleus Accumbens area of the brain. In simple terms it’s the area of the brain most closely involved with processing motivation, pleasure and reward. It was discovered by scientists at McGill University in the early 1950s and has become the Holy Grail of marketing, especially food marketing, ever since. The desire to better understand this area of the brain has led us to today and Neuromarketing. Neuromarketing uses brain-tracking tools, biometric measurements and implicit testing in order to better understand the non-conscious mechanisms behind the buying or consumption decisions. It makes for fascinating research but more significantly it promises to raise the efficiency of brand communication while cutting marketing campaign costs.

Recently Neuro-based research using fMRI, MRI, PET, EEG scans and tests has helped us better understand the biological basis for eating motivation. Advances in technology mean we can now monitor brain activity accurately in just about any environment, this research no longer needs to be carried out in a lab. This allows us to monitor and understand brain activity in everyday situations such as shopping.

Neuromarketing has allowed us to blend market research with solid science for the first time. So far other traditional research methods, like focus groups and questionnaires, have always failed to provide information about the hidden, non-conscious mechanisms underlying decision making and purchasing behavior. Neuromarketing studies on food products are leading this field. One of the first Neuromarketing studies was conducted by Read Montague in 2004 and it replicated the famous Pepsi Challenge, but with a neuro-twist: he recorded people’s brain activity when they were consuming the 2 drinks. The findings were counterintuitive – it found that people were more attached to the brand than the actual taste of the drink.

Frito-Lay, another Pepsi-owned food brand, also commissioned a Neuromarketing study. It determined that the top selling brand of cheese puffs, Cheetos, owes its success to the fact that it makes consumer’s fingers orange with residual cheese dust! It determined that a “sense of giddy subversion that consumers enjoy over the messiness of the product”, as the brand representatives explained in a Fast Company article in 2011. Using this piece of counter-intuitive information that would have never surfaced during a declarative study, Frito-Lay launched one of their best marketing campaigns, called “The Orange Underground”, which encouraged consumers to use Cheetos in a funny way (such as sticking Cheetos up the nostrils of a snoring flight seat-mate).

Increasingly Neuromarketing is being used to test the subconscious, emotional response a consumer has to packaging, signage, colour, display, shelf layouts, price or product promotional messages and much, much more. By better understanding what a consumer thinks, rather than what they say, marketing will improve and brands should prosper. Like so much in business it’s the early adopters who will benefit the most.

Like all marketing and research though Neuromarketing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Neuromarketing studies have to be adapted to take into account local culture, because concepts like pleasure seeking, happiness expression or the impact of external stimuli on people’s decision making process can highly differ from one region to another. Likewise eating habits and food preferences can be very different even in countries geographically close together. But one thing is consistent over time and geography – perception is in the brain of the beholder.

This article was written for Root & Toot by Dr Ana Iorga, founder of Buyer Brain and a leader in Neuromarketing in Europe.




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