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Two days ago, I attended a conference by brand-guru Martin Lindstrom where he developed the themes of his last book, Buy-ology. The audience was principally made of business executives and marketing agencies, but you could also find a few academics (from RSM, and I’ve also seen some from Tillburg), plus a couple of journalists.

Buy-ology, published in Sept 2008

Buy-ology, published in Sept 2008

The guy Lindstrom is clearly talented. For a day-long he talked about branding with about two bright ideas per minute, illustrating them with TV ads or Youtube clips. The topic of the day was how fMRI (brain scans) and EEG (measurement of the electrical field at the surface of the scalp) can reveal hidden truths about consumer attitudes towards the brand.

Tricky business, since right from the start Lindstrom cautions the audience that he is not a scientist. At the same time, he also boasts his collaborations with professors and doctors, and his discussions with this guy from Oxford, etc. And obviously, there are plenty of brain images on his slides. Interestingly, the pictures reflected the ambiguous scientific legitimacy of the talk: they varied from actual scans, to the most freely interpreted pictures of what a brain would look like.

At the end, with a panel discussion, a discussion engaged with Ale Smidts (who directs the Erasmus Centre for Neuroeconomics, which I am a member of).

Ale Smidts

Ale Smidts

Smidts criticized the shaky scientific foundations of the results, questioned the usefulness of fMRI when traditional behavioral experiments would have been enough, and last, suggested that the book was dangerous for future scientific research – because it would associate the field with spurious claims, making neuromarketing look bad and suspicious to the public opinion.

What are we to do with that? Is Lindstrom to be morally condemned for his pseudo-scientism, or is Smidts idealistic when he posits that a profit-driven industry should comply to academic standards?

I have no definitive answer, but some tentative ideas. It seems to me that neuromarketing is a two-way road, with a traffic of several types of scientific and non-scientific actors.

In one direction,  you have specialists of the physiology of neurons, who look in the direction of cognitive neuropsychologists, and are suspicious of the inflated claims that these guys make. For example, neuropsychologists discuss the role of “the amygdala” in psychological processes, when the physiologist knows that the amygdala is a gathering of sub-nodes, each with complex and differentiated cell structures. How scientific is it to discuss “the amygdala”, questions the physiologist?two-way-road

Still down in the same direction, in turn, cognitive neuro-psychologists are sometimes suspicious of the claims made by neuroeconomists. Take the amygdala for example. Cognitive neuropsychologists know that amygdala is related to fear reactions, but also that it is much more complicated than that: it could be also that the amygdala activates when the individual is faced with novel situations, or confronted with a particularly salient information. So neuroeconomists are a bit too quick to simplify when they summarize rapidly in amygdala = fear in their articles, or so think the neuropsychologists.

Keeping driving in the same way, neuroeconomists are suspicious of neuromarketers in the business industry, who tend to pay too much attention to the wonders of the technique (“a 7 million dollars study, with fMRI and all”), the power of the images, and tend to inflate scientific claims in order to sell them more easily. Take the amygdala, and its role in fear. Yes amygdala is involved in fear reactions, knows the neuroeconomist. But is it valid to say, as Lindstrom says, that as we are hard-wired for fear, it can be used to induce a reaction in the consumer and trigger a buying decision? Where is the evidence? (Lindstrom’s example was Colgate advertising on health issues – buy Colgate or else you’ll risk terrible gum diseases and much worse).

And as I said, this road has a two-way traffic, so that the inverse chain of attitudes co-exists: Neuromarketers in the industry think that neuroeconomists are annoying scientists clinging to unnecessarily strict standards, neuroeconomists think that cognitive psychologists neglect important social phenomena, and cognitive neuropsychologists see neurophysiologists as producing precise knowledge but of an exceedingly narrow scope.

At each level of the creation of knowledge, the actors stick to their standards of what constitutes a legitimate claim. They are respectful of their neighbors situated higher in the natural science pecking order. Indeed, they rely strongly on them to build their own legitimacy. But they also question the applied relevance of this form of more fundamental knowledge.

food-chainConversely, each level looks a bit down at their next neighbor, a level down in the traditional order of scientific knowledge. Yes this neighbor is closer to the practical interests of the broader society, but is it not achieved at the price of unwarranted simplification and generalization?

In the case of neuromarketing, I would argue that the field is made of all the links of this food-chain. Neuromarketing is made of those interrelated and yet sometimes incompatible knoweldge claims. Every field is animated by these tensions between theoretical and applied forms of knowledge (just think about financial economics – this field must have experienced strong internal tensions those last few months, or so I hope).

The question is, for neuromarketing, whether those tensions will stabilize or stretch to the point of rupture – which was Smidts’s point. headlines-tv-science1There is a real possibility that the (spurious, unethical, or else) claims and activities of the industry of neuromarketing would backfire and deconsider scientific research in the field. It almost happened a few years ago, and might happen again.

A safe bet is that this is yet another animal which will have the decisive role in the destiny of this food-chain: the media. How will they report on neuromarketing? On which tone? Check your newspapers!

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Buyology, the book by Martin Lindstrom, got critically reviewed yesterday in the Financial Times. The key paragraph is:

Unfortunately, Lindstrom’s book is more speculation than serious science. Little of it actually reports on his own neuro-research; the rest consists of marketing war stories that are rehashed with speculative spin on unrelated topics such as mirror neurons and neurotransmitters.

The reviewer, Alan Mitchell, makes several points. He first finds the whole fMRI methodology dubious. This is not because a consumer’s brain lights up in regions related to religious feelings in previous studies that buying and praying are related.

Second, he mentions that according to the very researchers who did the studies for Lindstrom, the reported results are not statistically significant.  Finally, Mitchell points to the rhetorical power of brain science, the reference to the “brain” bringing immediately an argument of authority that biases judgment, even in informed persons.

The reviewer concludes by warning that the brash claims of Lindstrom’s neuromarketing can in fact “blind” executives. Ironic I find, for a science so full of visuals.

To put this review in perspective, it is good to know that Alan Mitchell is involved in an academic and business project aiming at putting the consumer at the center of marketing practices. He calls that “VRM“, or vendor relationship management, in a 180 degree twist of the usual CRM.

Alan Mitchell

Alan Mitchell

As I understand it, the basic idea is simply to start with the consumer. When you start thinking marketing from the firm’s side of the buying relationship, you end up sweating on market studies, harassing prospects on the phone, and doing a lot of guess-work about buyer’s intentions. VRM says that it would be much simpler to let consumers voice their preferences, and facilitate their finding a matching offer. This insures to be right on target, it is cost-effective since firms cease to blind-search for customers (they stand up voluntarily), and it is more ethical, as consumers willingly share their private information about their tastes and buying intentions.

It is clearer to me now why Mitchell could be skeptical of the whole neuromarketing thing, even if he reserves for it some soothing words at the end of his review. If one sees marketing as an activity that should empower the consumer, then Lindstrom’s insistence that the consumer is not aware of its own desires must be discomforting. What do you make of a consumer who states that s/he prefers not to smoke, and who actually craves for a cigarette? Or somebody who expresses the wish to eat healthy food, but who would be actually disappointed if served vegetables instead of French fries? It is certainly not easy for a firm to take action based on these mixed signals.

Maybe that neuromarketing could help disentangling explicit from implicit wishes of the consumer, actually making a contribution to the VRM that Mitchell is trying to promote.

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Following on last post, here is a radio show with Martin Lindstrom (author of Buyology) being interviewed and asked questions by callers: enthusiasts and critics. Interesting.

[Thx to Meghan Dougherty]

Click here: Talk of the Nation, December 9, 2008

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