Brain vs. Brand

Economics assumes we know our preferences, and our actions reflect those. Behavioural economics is not convinced we know our preferences, because preferences are complex. Neuroeconomics and neuromarketing are adding a layer to this: do we have real preferences? Do we act on them? Or more importantly, can we act on them?

These questions came to me when I read an article that showed how people enjoy different fizzy drinks. Two really popular fizzy drinks in particular. Yes, it is the eternal debate: Pepsi vs. Coca Cola.

Most people would argue that they most definitely know their preference. There is great brand loyalty for both brands. So, most would argue that they know and act on their real preference. However, research by McClure, et al (2004) tells a different story.

Their study investigated the influences of brand cues (effects of marketing) on how the brain processed the actual taste of the beverage. Why? Because the researchers truly believed that there is a difference between the taste we experience without knowing what we are drinking, and the taste we experience when we know which brand we are drinking. They believed that marketing has the power to trick our brain into changing our taste perceptions!

And they were right.

To test this, participants of the study had their brains scanned in an fMRI machine. This machine indicates which areas of the brain are experiencing increased levels of blood oxygenation, which is correlated with increased neural activity. As such, fMRI can show us which parts of the brain become (more) active. The brain scans happened when participants were consuming a beverage without knowing what brand it was. Those scans show that there was a consistent neural response in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC, reward/value coding center). At this stage, the preferences were split 50/50. Half the participants preferred the beverage that was secretly Pepsi and the other half preferred Coca Cola, without knowing that it was in fact Coca Cola.

The brain scans also happened when participants were made aware which brand they were consuming. These scans show a whole different story. When participants were shown an image of a Pepsi can and then consumed it, the vmPFC became (more) activated, as seen before. When participants were shown an image of a Coca Cola can and then consumed it, significantly greater brain activity was observed in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), in the hippocampus, and in the midbrain. These brain areas have been implicated in modifying behaviour based on emotion and affect. It has been proposed that the dlPFC is necessary for employing affective information in biasing behavior (Watanabe 1996; Davidson & Irwin 1999). Imaging data indicate that the hippocampus is also important in recalling affect-related information (Iidaka et al. 2003, Markowitsch et al. 2003). The findings of McClure et al (2004) support these data and suggests that the hippocampus may participate in recalling cultural information that biases preference judgments. So, this study concludes, there is a very strong effect of marketing on the brain. Merely being able to recall the strong marketing campaigns associated with a product, can change our entire perception of both it and our consumption of it. Our perception is so drastically changed, it even shows up in the brain. Hardly surprising that neuromarketing as a field is growing!

It may be good to know that this result was not just a one-hit-wonder. There is no debunking or neurononsense here. Several neuromarketing studies have tested for brand awareness and brand perception making use of Coca Cola and Pepsi and have found that, when participants were aware of the brand being consumed, different areas of the brain became activated. The results do replicate (Kühn & Gallinat, 2013; Yglesias, 2013)

What does this mean for us, as mere consumers? Well, it means that we should become increasingly wary of marketing, especially as neuromarketing as a field is becoming increasingly more accepted in industry, and more popular in academia. We have to try our best to separate product from brand, to figure out where our preferences truly lie. This can save us a lot of money, if it turns out we don’t love the product in itself, but only the brand as constructed through its careful and often incredibly effective marketing campaigns. In that case, we can say goodbye to the product and keep our hard-earned cash in our wallets!

References Davidson, R. J., & Irwin, W. (1999). The functional neuroanatomy of emotion and affective style. Trends in cognitive sciences, 3(1), 11-21.

Iidaka, T., Terashima, S., Yamashita, K., Okada, T., Sadato, N., & Yonekura, Y. (2003). Dissociable neural responses in the hippocampus to the retrieval of facial identity and emotion: An event‐related fMRI study. Hippocampus, 13(4), 429-436.

Kühn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2013). Does taste matter? How anticipation of cola brands influences gustatory processing in the brain. PloS one, 8(4), e61569.

McClure, S. M., Li, J., Tomlin, D., Cypert, K. S., Montague, L. M., & Montague, P. R. (2004). Neural correlates of behavioral preference for culturally familiar drinks. Neuron, 44(2), 379-387.

Markowitsch, H. J., Vandekerckhove, M. M., Lanfermann, H., & Russ, M. O. (2003). Engagement of lateral and medial prefrontal areas in the ecphory of sad and happy autobiographical memories. Cortex, 39(4-5), 643-665.

Watanabe, M. (1996). Reward expectancy in primate prefrental neurons. Nature, 382(6592), 629.

Yglesias, M. (2013). Sweet sorrow. Coke won the cola wars because great taste takes more than a single sip. Slate. com. Publikováno, 9(8).