Last Updated: November 23, 2020

Many people are familiar with the Pepsi Challenge: In a blind-taste test, consumers are asked to choose between Pepsi and Coca-Cola—and to no one’s surprise, Pepsi wins. However, a decade ago, neuroscientist Read Montague posed a question: If people truly prefer Pepsi over Coke, why isn’t Pepsi dominating the market?

Hoping to answer this question, Montague created a Pepsi Challenge of his own, hooking up his test subjects to an MRI machine to track brain activity. At first, about half of the participants said they preferred Pepsi; however, when Montague told them which samples were Coca-Cola, preferences shifted to three-to-one in favor of Coke. Additionally, he observed heightened activity had in the prefrontal cortex, part of the brain that controls higher thinking; as well as in the hippocampus, which relates to memory.

Montague concluded that the brain was recalling images and ideas from commercials, and that the thoughts and emotions connected to the branding were overriding reactions to the actual quality of the product. In 2004, he published his findings—and as a result, neuromarketing emerged from the shadows and into the public eye.

What is neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing is the formal study of the brain’s responses to advertising and branding, and the adjustment of those messages based on feedback to elicit even better responses. Researchers use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to measure specific types of brain activity in response to advertising messages. With this information, companies learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what parts of the brain are motivating them to do so.

Good Brain/Bad Brain

Just a few parts of the brain neuromarketers desire to stimulate (or not):

  • Nucleus accumbens—creates the expectation of pleasure
  • Prefrontal cortex—controls higher thinking
  • Hippocampus—assists with memory
  • Insula—anticipates (and avoids) painful stimuli
  • Mesial prefrontal cortex—registers disappointment when a hoped-for reward doesn’t materialize

Although Montague’s “Pepsi Challenge” gave neuromarketing greater publicity, the concept was first explored by Harvard marketing professor Gerry Zaltman in the 1990s. Zaltman later patented a technique called the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), which since has been used by General Motors, Nestle, Procter & Gamble—and, perhaps ironically, Coca-Cola.

While the technology involved in neuromarketing is highly sophisticated, the premise is simple: Consumers can lie; statistics don’t. Even if consumers aren’t lying, they very often may not properly articulate what they’re thinking. It’s estimated that 95 percent of all thought occurs in our subconscious minds—which traditional research methods can’t measure. (See also Consumer Psychology)

Who implements neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing isn’t cheap. In fact, an fMRI machine can cost as much as $5 million (and twice that to set up). Additionally, a single ad sample group of 20 people can cost in excess of $10,000. By necessity then, true neuromarketing is primarily used by large (or at least heavily subsidized) companies and organizations. Some recent examples:

  • Google and MediaVest partnered with biometrics researcher NeuroFocus (minority-owned by the Nielsen Company) to gauge how users responded to their InVideo advertisements (the semi-transparent overlay ads on YouTube). Forty participants’ sensory responses were scored along such criteria as attention, emotional engagement, and effectiveness.
  • Microsoft uses EEG data to better understand its users’ interactions with its personal and laptop computers, including feelings of “surprise, satisfaction, and frustration.”
  • Frito-Lay studied the female brain in order to learn how to better position its advertising. The company discovered that it needed to avoid talking about “guilt”—even “guilt-free”—and instead focus on making “healthy” associations in its advertising.
  • The Weather Channel (TWC) was another company that partnered with NeuroFocus, as it prepared to relaunch its When Weather Changed History series. Using EEGs as well as eye-tracking technology and GSR (galvanic skin response), TWC was able to refine its commercials, and programming, for maximum impact.

Its considerable cost aside, neuromarketing still has a range of skeptics and detractors. Concerns include accusations of “brainwashing”, questions as to how much brain behavior actually affects consumer behavior, and the inability (so far) to employ neuromarketing techniques in the business-to-business arena.

Still, as its high-profile users attest, neuromarketing has already captured the market’s imagination. As researchers conduct more studies in the field, further refinements—and possibly legislation in responses to the aforementioned “brainwashing” allegations—will no doubt further enhance and define neuromarketing strategies in the future.

For what kinds of customers is neuromarketing effective?

Neuromarketing is a flexible method to determine customer preferences and brand loyalty, because it can apply to nearly anyone who has developed an opinion about a product or company. No matter what form it takes, marketing focuses on creating positive and memorable impact in the minds of customers. Neuromarketing measures those impacts, but anyone can take the basic discoveries and adjust their product or sevice to reflect subconscious consumer needs.

Sensory devices that create or evoke memories, for example, can be easily employed—the aroma of fresh bread, recollections of past stories (either a published work or a shared experience), evocative language, a song that gets stuck in your head and won’t come out — ultimately, these are all effective (if crude) examples of neuromarketing that can be used by nearly any business of any size.

6 Neuromarketing Principles

(that you don’t need an MRI to know)

  1. Don’t use “we,” or talk about your corporation. Focus on your customers’ pain point, not yours.
  2. Get to the point. Your message is competing with about 10,000 other messages sent to the brain daily.
  3. Be visual. Don’t just tell about a product; show it. And if you can’t show an image, create a mental image for your customers.
  4. Keep it concrete. Ads with facial expressions, which help decode people’s intentions, are one example.
  5. Close strong. People pay the most attention at the beginning and end of an ad. This will help ensure memory storage
  6. Use emotion. Surprise, laughter, fear, and anger all cause disruption— and thus, trigger memory.

How is a neuromarketing campaign developed?

Although their work heavily affects the visible part of advertising, neuromarketers focus primarily on the “back end” work. They’re less concerned with developing the right message or branding than they are with studying the emotions and memories triggered by that message.

A neuromarketing campaign is more person-intensive. Whereas typical marketing draws broadly from a cross-section of customers, through a variety of methods (focus groups, surveys, customer records, etc.), neuromarketing focuses intently on individual marketing test subjects— usually no more than a few dozen, and over an extended period of time.

Toward this end, MRI and EEG machines are used to monitor participants’ brain activity before, during, and after exposure to neuromarketing techniques. Other physiological sensors that monitor heart rate, breathing, and skin response may also be used.

Neuromarketing depends on a process known as priming—an electrochemical reaction set off whenever a topic is first introduced. Priming allows the brain to recall everything it knows about the specific topic (as with our opening Coke example). Even before the conscious mind becomes aware of a stimulus, the subconscious mind has already begun to process it and respond—all in the course of a single second. Neuromarketing, then, is most concerned with that second when the response is first formed.

Once a consumer’s brain is primed, new information/stimuli is introduced to allow the brain to compare this new information with what it already knows, and to form and express conscious opinions about the product itself. This information is compared to the information already compiled in the priming stage.

Once all the data has been collected, the marketing campaign itself becomes more like any “traditional” marketing campaign. Based on the neural and sensory data collected, the broader marketing team will further develop and adjust the campaign in order to create maximum engagement, and memory retention, with consumers. (See also Persuasion Marketing)

What career titles work with neuromarketing strategies?

Client Managers

Client Managers are responsible for the development and presentation of neurological studies commissioned by (often high-profile) clients.

What do they do?

What type of salary should I expect?

  • Client Manager
    Median annual pay: $116,010
    Top earners: $187,199+
  • Neuromarketing Consultant
    Median annual pay: $78,160
    Top earners: $138,790+
  • Market Research Analyst
    Median annual pay: $60,570
    Top earners: $111,440+

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • develop relationships with key stakeholders, as well as a deep understanding of a client’s business needs and objectives
  • maintain an active portfolio of client goals and deliverables
  • distill information and qualitative insights from quantitative data, and present the results of neurological studies directly to clients, helping them to also interpret understand the data presented
  • develop actionable insights from neurological studies, and work toward implementing them
Education and Skills

Client managers involved with neuromarketing will need a bachelor’s degree (or preferably higher) in business or social/political science; classes in psychology, sociology, and systems sciences will also prove helpful. In addition, client managers will need five to ten years’ experience in direct management of clients, as well as significant experience in market and brand research, advertising analytics, demographic research, and product development.

Neuromarketing Consultants

Neuromarketing Consultants (coaches/trainers/instructors) take the information acquired by neuromarketing methods and train other companies on how to implement those findings—at a fraction of the cost of formal neuromarketing.

What do they do?
  • take existing knowledge in the field of neuromarketing, and equip companies to apply that knowledge to their existing sales, marketing, and communications strategies
  • train participants, either individually or in workshops, to message and speak the language of decision-makers, based on findings from neural and sensory data
  • provide consultations on how to make company websites, marketing material , and overall branding and messaging more “brain-friendly”
Education and Skills

Consultants in this field will ideally have an educational background that features some combination of marketing, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. Prior experience in marketing and presentation will be a must, no matter what. Excellent communication skills are also a must, and are standard to any good marketing education program.

Market Research Analyst

What do they do?
  • conduct neuromarketing and other qualitative research, in order to learn customers’ conscious and unconscious reactions to the products and messaging being offered
  • analyze and evaluate the neurological data, as well as other data gathered from other research methods
  • make recommendations to clients about how to refine the product and/or messaging, based on the information gathered
Education and Skills

Market research analysts need at least a bachelor’s degree in market research, or a related field such as statistics. Those wishing to specialize in neuromarketing will also want to minor, or at least be exposed to, classes in psychology and neuroscience. Because of the advanced nature of the research, or for those seeking leadership positions, a master’s degree may also be required. Research analysts often complete an internship while in school, and should also consider seeking experience in jobs which require data collection and analysis.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

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Neuromarketing—true to its name and especially at its highest levels—operates in two very different worlds: marketing and neuroscience. Therefore, neuromarketing agencies will look for individuals who are primarily business people who can communicate with neuroscientists; and who, conversely, are comfortable translating technical jargon into information that decision-makers will understand. A marketing education will help you to communicate persuasively to those on both sides.

Because neuromarketing rests somewhere between a psychology and a science, coursework in consumer behavior will prove extremely helpful for future professionals. Understanding the technology behind the practice is also a major aspect of neuromarketing programs, but that technology is still changing regularly. Today, fMRIs and EEGs get the attention; however, in the future, other brain measurement techniques may prove far more useful.

So get your brain in gear, and talk with schools and counselors who can help you get on the path to a mentally and emotionally stimulating career in marketing.