by: Roger Dooley

I’ve often said that the most exciting application of neuromarketing
techniques isn’t that of choosing or developing advertisements, but
rather designing better products.
While some may feel that enhancing ad effectiveness with brain scans
(for example) is somehow manipulative, who can argue against products
that have more consumer appeal? After all, the objective of every
product designer is to come up with a product that best satisfies the
intended customer group, so why not look at what’s really happening in
these customers’ brains rather than relying on dubious paper surveys or
focus groups? Caltech’s Steve Quartz seems to be one of the few academic neuromarketing researchers focused on product design and improvement.

We described some of Quartz’s work in Hollywood Goes Neuro. Now, Fast Company’s Kermit Pattison interviews Quartz about some of his latest efforts in What Makes Products Cool:

may try to hide our lust for goods but our brain can’t. Steven Quartz,
a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, is part of
a new generation of researchers exploring neuromarketing — a new field
that uses brain science to understand consumer behavior. Quartz and his
colleagues roll subjects into MRI machines (which measure oxygenated
blood flow) to see what parts of the brain light up while viewing
images of iPods, Aeron chairs, Capresso coffee machines, and Oakley
sunglasses. Their findings are challenging some basic assumptions about
marketing and economics…

One of the general lessons we’ve
learned from brain science is that when we ask people about their
reasons for things, we’re only getting a small part of the brain
processes that underlie their decision making. A lot of times the
information we get is really a reconstruction or rationalization. We
may want to avoid saying we buy things because they appeal to our sense
of pride or something like that. One of the most fundamental insights
in brain science is that most of the processes that underlie our
decisions are unavailable to our conscious access. They’re done on the
basis of intuition or unconscious processing.

good to see the mainstream business press acknowledging the fundamental
truth about asking consumers what they think: they usually can’t (or
won’t) tell the complete story. The article proceeds to get more

In one study, you did brain
scans on people while they viewed products with high brand equity like:
Apple, Audi, Hermes, Christian Dior. Walk me through the process — what
lights up in the brain when we see something “cool?”

get a strong response in Brodmann’s area 10, which is an area
implicated in self-perception and social emotions. It is the very front
part of the brain behind our foreheads. The interpretation of this
result is that subjects are evaluating the cool products in terms of
their ability to enhance their social image. Another area continually
implicated in these studies is the nucleus accumbens, which is a very
basic reward structure in the brain that’s involved in everything from
appetite to drugs of addiction. We also see a strong anticipatory
response in the prefrontal part of the brain in the orbital frontal
cortex that involved in making predictions about reward.

Interestingly, “uncool” products like Oldsmobile activated the insula of some subjects - more or less a “disgust” indicator.

the most illuminating part of the story is the balancing act the brain
performs when presented with conflicting inputs - in this case,
desirable products (good) accompanied by high prices (bad):

see this “cost” play out in the brain with luxury products in that
there is both a reward activation in the nucleus accumbens and a strong
response in the anterior cingulate, which is involved in conflict
between two different kinds of signals. People have strong desire but
also, because of the prices, it generates conflict. The conflict signal
decreases when people are given a chance to purchase the product at a
discount, which increases their overall reward evaluation of the

This is exactly what we might expect based on neuroecomics work by CMU’s George Loewenstein and others, which shows that high prices for an item produce a pain
reaction in the brain. We’re looking forward to Quartz publishing more
of his work, which will add some academic credibility to neuromarketing

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