When it comes to high-tech marketing, there's always room for improvement—especially with the economy plodding, products continuing to rapidly evolve and upper management demanding better bottom-line return.

In times like these, companies rely on their top inside sales managers and turn to the best outside coaches and experts. Tech companies such as Alcatel, Genesys and SGI, and automakers Daimler Chrysler and Ford, are testing new techniques in the battle for market share.

One of those techniques is "neuromarketing," an approach based on neuroscience. Neuromarketing aims to map brain patterns and provide a more direct path to human decision-making.

The Neuroscience Claim

Already, there are services and companies that are guiding corporations and smaller businesses in understanding the powerful fundamentals of the brain. For example, Neurosense, Ltd. in the UK offers MRI scanning and psychological testing that profiles brain activity in response to products, ads and packaging.

In Chairman Michael Brammer's words:

Accurate estimation of consumer demand and preference is vital for the success of new products [and sales]. Because so much of our thought occurs in the unconscious, traditional research methods that mine the surface are likely to miss many of the factors that influence consumer behavior.

"Bridging the gap between mind and behavior is thus one of the key challenges that face marketers today," Brammer says. "Cognitive neuroscience now offers us a means to bridge that gap."

Why are companies embracing some of these approaches, and why is the business taking off in the US and Europe? Neuromarketing claims to go beyond traditional selling techniques and claims to actually drive the decision-making process. It claims to have adapted neuroscience into a widely applicable commercial regimen.

New ideas stir controversy. And this is business. Most of us aren't looking for experimentation—we need effective tools that pay off. Let's examine how it works.

Science or Voodoo?

Neuroscience has been around for many years. Often misunderstood (and sometimes denounced as voodoo), its principles are being tested in business by its ability to affect the bottom line.

Neuroscience's increasing visibility in medical and social science circles has provoked sharp debate about its merits. Skeptics, such as renowned author Tom Wolfe in his essay "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," characterizes it ambivalently, as derived from "techniques for watching the human brain as it functions, in real time."

Recent corporate financial scandals have drawn greater attention to business practice standards, and critics of neuromarketing say outright that its techniques are manipulative, "simply a more efficient form of brainwashing."

Organizations such as Commercial Alert claim that MRI technology is being used "not to heal, but to sell products"—to deviously create a "foundation for loyal, long-lasting customer relationships."

Research scientist Richard L. Peterson, MD, of Market Psychology Consulting, who is a Stanford neuroeconomics researcher, counters: "Concerns like those raised by Commercial Alert are not sound because at this point these techniques haven't been able to predict or change behavior. There's no evidence of being able to change people's preferences that make those complaints valid."

Dr. Peterson's eclectic background as both a doctor of psychiatry and an experienced financial consultant provides an uncommon perspective. He coaches companies seeking practical understanding of primary motivational systems.

The science is fascinating, as Peterson details: "The average human brain has 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections among them, and we neuroscience researchers have only just begun to understand the structure of the brain and the mental life that arises within its mysterious workings."

"When we, our customers, or our competitors perceive a potential gain in the environment, the brain's ancient system of reward approach motivation is set into action," Peterson says.

"Scientists have shown that this 'reward approach system' exists even in life forms as primitive as amoebas. It is the most basic motivator of activity in the brain, and potential gains appeal to it in specific ways."

Desperately Seeking Sales

Another company focusing on sales applications of neuromarketing is SalesBrain. Five years ago, Christophe Morin and Patrick Renvoise left their day jobs as veteran US and European high-tech marketing executives to develop a distinctive new sales approach. It resulted in a book and a sales method that is making a growing industry impression.

CEO Christophe Morin says that SalesBrain's approach is simply highlighting key elements of the customer communication process and providing a road map to getting through to the decision-maker. As he puts it, "The assumption...is that the decision-maker is a person, when in fact it is an organ!"

SalesBrain's premise is that recent neuroscience research has spelled out the mechanics of the human decision process. When we understand that the human brain can be categorized into three separate parts that act as separate organs, with different cellular structures and different functions, we can communicate more effectively.

As they see it, the three brains process information differently:

  • The new brain is responsible for research, logic and deduction.

  • The middle brain "processes emotions and gut feelings and also shares its findings with the other two brains…."

  • "The old brain decides." The innermost—and oldest—part of our brain is responsible for keeping us alive. This is the brain our ancestors, the first humans used millions of years ago for survival; over the past few years, studies have proven that it is the ultimate decision-maker.

So, the principle is that if you can reach the old brain and get your point across in no uncertain terms, you have a strong likelihood of winning your case. As Morin puts it, "Reaching the primitive part of our brain is actually a straightforward exercise as long as you know the path to do it."

No Need to Be a Brain Surgeon

SalesBrain asserts that successfully reaching the decision-maker boils down to a formula:

Selling Probability = Pain x Claim x Gain x (Old Brain)3

Morin contends that four steps govern the process:

  1. Pain Research: Assessing the nature and intensity of the customer's "pain"

  2. Claims coaching: Developing the highest, compelling reasons why no competitor can provide a better alternative than your solution

  3. Gain: Demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt how the customer will benefit

  4. Old brain training: Adopting the best techniques for delivering the above points in a powerful, memorable message

As marketing psychologist Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, consultant to Ford, GM, Kraft, and Proctor and Gamble, remarked recently on 60 Minutes, it is this "reptilian brain" that makes consumers choose what will make us survive. For instance, in the case of the popularity of SUVs, Rapaille explains: "Why? Taller. Stronger. I mean, the elephant—the bigger you are, the more chance you have to survive."

Rapaille says: "Now, we know that the higher you are, more chance you have to roll over. And we know that SUVs have a higher rate of accident for rollover than other cars."

A Porsche is less vulnerable to rollover than an SUV, Rapaille says, adding, "That's at the cortex [new brain], which means people know it but they don't refer to it because there's something stronger which is the reptilian: the bigger, the tallest, and more chance to survive."

Regardless of your interpretation of business psychology and the fine art of deal closing, bankable technique is key. Is there a pure path to the inner decision-making button? That remains unclear.

But the neuroscience approach is gaining traction. The American Marketing Association nominated SalesBrain as "the next big thing in marketing." You may judge for yourself whether that assertion is accurate. However, it's hard to argue that, as Einstein put it, "unexpected connections" between the product and the mental process are what hold the key to winning in the marketplace.

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Howard Greenfield is principal of Go Associates, a consultancy that develops and implements high-tech product marketing and business development strategies. He is the creator and former manager of Sun Microsystems's first Media Lab. He can be reached at howard@go-associates.com.