FEATURE1 January 2009

Buyology lesson

Martin Lindstrom’s new book attempts to use brain science to shed light on why we buy. Robert Bain asks what it really tells us about the state of neuroscience and research.

Four or five years ago, brain science seemed to be promising a revolution in market research, with a scramble for a mythical ‘buy button’ in the brain.

Needless to say the button hasn’t been found. More and more firms are at least experimenting with neuroscience and other biometric research techniques, but we’re some way short of a revolution.

In the intervening period branding consultant Martin Lindstrom has been working on his latest book, Buyology, which he’s now hoping will reignite the debate. It seems to be having some success – the book is a New York Times bestseller and has won Lindstrom plenty of media coverage.

Buyology is based on a groundbreaking $7m brain-scanning study involving 2000 volunteers and conducted with neuroscientists from the University of Oxford. At first glance it looks like a great leap forward for neuromarketing, but not everyone is convinced.

?”The argument that you can’t ask people why they do stuff is probably right. But that’s why most market research doesn’t”

Graham Page

Lindstrom’s claims about why we buy are provocative: he says that anti-smoking campaigns actually encourage smoking, that product placement doesn’t work, and that sex doesn’t sell after all. To give the book the widest possible appeal, he has made the conclusions stark and the science simple.

As director of innovation for Millward Brown, Graham Page has been keeping tabs on the neuroscience scene for some time. When Research asked him for his response to Buyology, he said: “There’s some great science in there but I think Martin has cherry-picked the anecdotes. It’s a stimulating read, but the reality is perhaps slightly less clear-cut than he would suggest.”

In the book, Lindstrom sets out his stall against ‘traditional’ market research, which he argues is not up to the task of working out what people really think and feel. But Page says that when you delve beyond the headline conclusions, much of what Lindstrom concludes is in fact quite consistent with existing research.

Perhaps more interesting than what Buyology reveals about why we buy is what it tells us about the state of neuromarketing. Lindstrom says he wants to restart a debate that died out because of fear of an ethical backlash, and a threat to the MR industry’s established practices.

?”I’m a big fan of investigation in neuroscience. I think it will show us new things, but at the moment it’s not living up to its hype”

Steve Phillips

Fulfilling the promise
Steve Phillips, founder and MD of Spring Research, said: “I’m a big fan of investigation in neuroscience. I think it will show us new things, but at the moment it’s not living up to its hype and I thought that was illustrated quite well in this book.”

Phillips believes a good understanding of psychology is more useful in research than any flashy brain science. He rejects the idea that the industry hasn’t addressed subconscious decision-making, although he welcomes the book as “a slap in the face” for those who rely too much on conventional techniques. Page is a little more defensive. He says: “The argument that you can’t ask people why they do stuff is probably right. But that’s why most market research doesn’t.”

London-based Conquest Research uses surveys based on visual metaphors to get around the problem of people trying (and failing) to verbalise their emotions. Managing director David Penn said: “My reaction when I first found out about this book was surprise, because I thought we’d had that debate. He’s pitching it to people for whom neuromarketing is a new thing.”

Penn argues that you don’t have to scan people’s brains to get at their emotions. “I agree with Lindstrom’s premise that you can’t get at a lot of what’s going on through conscious response, because people don’t know what they know – I totally buy into that. It’s what you do about it that’s the big issue. The view we take is that you can still work with conscious response because a lot of emotions show up there.”

He questions whether brain science tells us much that other methods don’t, or simply “makes retrospective sense of our old intuitive practices”. Read Montague’s Coke v Pepsi experiment of 2004, which Lindstrom cites, would seem to be an example of the latter – the results, although fascinating, do little more than restate, in a new language,
what was already clear about the two brands.

One point on which everyone agrees with Lindstrom is that neuroscience can only work alongside survey research, since the only way to link physiological readings to emotion is by asking participants what they are feeling.

Lindstrom won’t be losing sleep over what market researchers think of his book anyway – he’s targeting the mass market. After all, he’s a self-proclaimed marketing expert, and this book is his product. But in trying to bolster his considerable wisdom and expertise with neuroscience, he risks doing both a disservice.

Fearing the mind
Ironically, the one thing his book proves for certain is that the science remains in its infancy. If this is, as Lindstrom believes, the result of fear, then surely the scariest thing is not the threat neuroscience poses to conventional methods, but the sheer cost and uncertainty of it – both of which Buyology is testament to.

Graham Page speaks highly of Lindstrom – who has worked with Millward Brown in the past – but wonders about Buyology’s contribution to the field. “I do think neuroscience has its applications but I worry that this doesn’t help progress things, because, although it’s based on solid stuff, the way he’s done it detracts from the value of the research,” says Page. “Only time will tell on that, but I’m worried about the risk.”

Research discusses Buyology with Martin Lindstrom


?How well do we understand neuroscience?
A score out of ten? One.

In that case what does it actually tell you when you see different parts of the brain ‘lighting up’?
It tells us what is going on – it does not necessarily tell us why. But you can conclude a lot out of it if you have a solid experiment and a solid hypothesis.

Are your conclusions deliberately provocative?
I’ve deliberately simplified things and made them black and white, because this book is written for the general public. My mum needs to read the book. I want to start up a debate around this. I also realised that if consumers are reading a book, researchers need to be aware of it, particularly if it’s about their field. I’m sure a lot of researchers will say it doesn’t go into enough depth, but they can always come and ask for more details, because every page is a huge report that I’ve condensed into a very simplistic conclusion.

What’s your view of conventional market research?
It’s an incredibly conservative industry. I know the big agencies very well at senior levels and I respect them a lot, but what I do not respect is that in almost any other business category you would run like hell to capture this revolution in research. Most people are petrified about having their whole revenue platform wiped away under their feet, but if the majority of our thinking is taking place in the subconscious mind, then the majority of every research project is failing to address that. I’m surprised that I had to do this study – how come the science and the research community didn’t do it? I knocked on the doors of research companies four years ago and they slammed them straight in my face, saying, ‘We don’t want to do frankenscience.’

In the book you say a lot of our decision-making is subconscious. That’s not new, is it?
No. What’s new is that now we can look into the subconscious mind. In this study we did quantitative, qualitative and neuromarketing studies all at once, and time after time people said one thing in surveys, while neuromarketing-wise it was totally different. I’m not killing quant and qual, but I see it as a Venn diagram, where these three elements are overlapping each other, and I think the sizes of the circles are going to change dramatically.

You also talk about ‘mirror neurons’ to explain why people feel empathy and imitate what others do. Did we need neuroscience to explain that?
The reason for writing about mirror neurons was that I wanted to tell the whole advertising community: you are established on the basis of mirror neurons and you didn’t even know that it was going on. I thought it was interesting for the marketing community to be aware of it, because that’s the whole foundation of the industry.

You claim to have shown that anti-smoking warnings don’t work. Can neuroscience really prove that?
Every quantitative research study in the world says those health warnings work. This is the first neuroscience study to look at it and it says the total opposite. I can’t see how we could have done that using quant and qual.

But surely its takes more than just seeing someone’s brain lighting up to make those conclusions?
Yes, there is much more to it, and I’d like to look further into that example. Several papers have been published confirming that the area of the brain we were looking at is the activation for craving. Can we conclude that that means people go out and buy more cigarettes? No, but we can conclude that craving is increased, and that often means people are more likely to smoke more. Can we stretch it any further? Not with this experiment. But the anti-smoking organisations in the US that I’m working with now on this one are saying, ‘You’ve confirmed something that we felt was the case, but we’ve never been able to prove it before. Let’s go out and make it even more advanced.’

Can we expect to see Buyology 2.0 on the shelves soon?
There will be a new version where we’ll know even more about the field, with a lot more case studies, and the money I’m raising will be more substantial so we can do more comprehensive experiments. That should be published in 2011.