The main goal of market research has always been to understand why a consumer buys a particular product or service. However, getting an accurate answer to this question hasn’t been easy. The problem is most of us don’t really know why we buy something and we don’t always buy the product we say we prefer. We now know that there is a disconnect between
thinking what I say I will do, and
behaviour what I actually do
Research in neuroscience is moving towards untangling this disconnect. Recent evidence sheds some light on the unconscious and unspoken drivers of behaviour. Advances in brain imaging and lesion studies now provide a clearer picture of which brain regions are involved in consumer choice and behaviour change. Key neural systems include those underlying emotions, reward-seeking, and memory.
At DeltaMV, we focus on:
- Which brain systems underlie emotion and reward
- How brand associations are forged in memory
- How these systems affect unconscious and conscious processes of consumer choice and behaviour change
Key things we know about behaviour from neuroscience
Emotions are used to make fast decisions
Marketers have always intuitively known that creating an emotional experience around a brand makes it more appealing. Now we know why emotion is so important. Consumers need access to quick information when making a decision to buy or not-buy a product, and emotion circuits provide the fastest and most memorable route. Research shows that emotions provide a way to attach a ‘value’ to an experience or factual information, which is stored in a readily-accessible place called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and evoked whenever fast decision making is required. This region interacts with subcortical limbic structures like the amygdala and hippocampus to ‘stamp in’ the emotional significance on an experience.
Reward’ is a key driver of buying behaviour and behaviour change
Reward is an outcome of activating a positive emotional state such as pleasure or happiness. We are hard-wired to seek out rewards and brain imaging findings show that ‘buying things’ feeds into this. Structures involved in this circuit include the VMPFC, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and ventral striatum. The neurotransmitter dopamine is vital for activating that rewarding feeling – and it tells our brain just how rewarding something is. Preference for a product activates the ventral striatum, while VMPFC weighs up the ‘value’ of the product versus the cost. If our reward system decides that the purchase will be rewarding, dopamine is released giving us a signal to BUY. However, because the VMPFC houses emotion-laden information in the decision making process, the outcome is not always a rational one.
Reward is also vital for making positive changes in our behaviour. Think about how many times we get stuck in a bad habit (like smoking) or when we have been faced with a difficult decision and we have chosen the easy way out. Its not entirely our fault – our brains are actually quite lazy and prefer to exert the least amount of effort as is possible. Activating the reward system gives us with the impetus to carry out effortful behaviour. Strong brands like Apple know this – loyal customers will go to great lengths (e.g. spending the night lined up outside an Apple store) to buy new releases of their products. To these customers, buying the latest Ipad is the ultimate dopamine surge!
We want reward...and we want it now!
Neuroscience research has shown us that anticipating a reward evokes much greater pleasure than actually receiving it. But as we wait, dopamine levels reduce and the dream of the reward loses its potency. As a result, many of us get an impulsive urge to BUY NOW. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is important for inhibiting the impulsive urge to buy now, while the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) is responsible for re-adjusting our reward-related decisions. However, these structures are often bypassed when emotions are in the drivers seat. People with impulsive personalities find it most difficult to inhibit urges and wait for reward.
We want to avoid pain...at any cost
Losing something that we value, like when we hand over money, has been shown to activate pain centres of the brain – including the insula. This region is also active when an offer is seen as unfair, and so may provide input to the VMPFC when deciding to buy a product. Marketers have tried to override this process by increasing the value of expensive items. For example, brain imaging shows that the ventral striatum is active to both monetary rewards and social rewards (e.g. reputation and social status). Capitalising on this fluke of our neural system, luxury brands like Ferrari increase the value of their products by equating expensive products with higher social status. So the pain of spending is muted by the reward of feeling rich. Credit cards are also a brilliant mechanism employed by banks to help us delay the onset of pain.
Strong brands have forged a network of positive associative memories
Brands that are most likely to be chosen at the point of purchase are those that are easiest to recall and that are linked with the most positive associations. Brands are really a network of associations in memory about the brand’s attributes and the consumer’s attitudes and emotions to these. Like other memories, if this information is strengthened and consolidated, it will form part of long-term memory (LTM). Memories move to LTM with repetition – i.e. activating the same neurons together eventually leads to hard-wired connection. Relevance is also important for moving information into LTM. Emotion and, in particular, dopamine play key roles here – positive emotional and rewarding experiences forge the strongest memories. So strong brands have the following characteristics:
- They are associated with numerous positive, rewarding experiences
- They connect with aspects of our lives that are most relevant and important to us
- They are repetitive – they are shown over and over again, AND they present a consistent and coherent message every time.