Neuromarketing – time for the revenge of the consumer?

Paul Raven @ 26-06-2009

showroom signRegular readers will be aware that technological marketing is one of my perennial topics here at Futurismic; it never ceases to amaze me how far companies will go to find new ways of selling us stuff more effectively. Neurological research is the cutting edge of the field these days, with Honda kitting out test customers with clothing that reports on their physiological status as they’re given the latest pitch in a gussied-up showroom:

Honda found the results so persuasive that it is remodelling showrooms and retraining staff to tailor pitches according to a potential buyer’s state of mind. “The hypothesis is that if you get the [sales] experience right, you may not need that price promotion to sell a product,” explains Ian Armstrong, manager of customer communications for Honda UK. “Conventional research only gets you so far because it’s rationalisation after the event, and most decision-making is done subconsciously. We set out to measure physical changes people cannot consciously control.”

Honda is not alone in believing brain science can boost the bottom line. A growing number of businesses say that traditional ways of understanding consumers – direct questioning, observing our behaviour – don’t explain why we buy one product over another. And they are turning to neuroscience for the answers.

All well and good for Honda, I guess – though I’d be immensely amused if at the end of it all it was discovered that purchasing choices are largely sub-rational and random. For now, though,  I’m inclined to see the sales floor as the battleground of an arms race. After all, the technologies Honda are using are comparatively lo-fi, the sort of thing that a smart independent researcher could knock up on a budget. So maybe consumer advocacy groups will start their own counter-research programs, offering tactics and training to enable shoppers to spot when they’re being manipulated by environmental factors or neurolinguistic programming techniques, and ways of turning the tables on the salesmen. Knowledge is power, right? [image by mrflip]

Of course it’ll be a while before grass-roots research can match the sort of data that fMRI scans can gather, but if there’s one up-side to the economic slump it’s that people already seem to be thinking far more carefully about what they buy; all the crafty persuasion techniques in the world won’t do you any good in an empty showroom, after all. And just to go all the way with the blue-sky thinking, perhaps we’ll eventually end up in a world where manufacturers realise the best way to sell us something is to have a robust and functional product that people actually need…

… hey, a guy can dream big on a Friday, can’t he?

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One Response to “Neuromarketing – time for the revenge of the consumer?”

  1. Dale Paulson, Ph.D. says:

    Paul,
    This is a very interesting article. It is true that neurological research is the cutting edge of the field and it would appear to be quite powerful. You quote Ian Armstrong, Manager of Customer Communications for Honda UK, who says “Conventional research only gets you so far because it’s rationalization after the event and most decision-making is done subconsciously. We set out to measure physical changes people cannot consciously control.” This would make it appear that potential customers are sitting ducks.

    If customers are “sitting ducks” they are still not very well understood. I’m not sure that brain scans are that much better than observing a smile and a nod of the head. Admittedly, people are emotional first and rational second and they will occasionally buy something that they don’t need. As you say “all the crafty persuasion techniques in the world won’t do you any good in an empty showroom.”

    Marketers still don’t know that much to be that manipulative. My own research using Context-Driven Qualitative Research which uses pictographs, and solves the problem of rationalization after the event, results in so many surprises that I am quite sure that purchasing behavior is less a matter of manipulation and more a matter of ensuring that the customer gets what they want. Note, I said want, not need. To learn more you might want to visit my blog, http://beyondfocusgroups.blogspot.com.

    Thanks,

    Dale