“Buyology” Illuminates Unlikely Marriage of Science and Consumerism

In “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,” out this week, global branding expert Martin Lindstrom skips consumer surveys and focus groups and instead takes a peek at consumers’ brains.

Why one brand takes off and another tanks remains mostly a mystery, with half of new brands and 75% of individual products failing in their first year. That’s frustrating news to the folks that spend more than $117 billion in marketing in $12 billion in market research annually in the U.S.


In Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, out this week, global branding expert Martin Lindstrom skips consumer surveys and focus groups and instead takes a peek at consumers’ brains. His multi-million dollar “neuromarketing” study, in which magnetic resonance imaging scanners measure brain activity in different areas of the brain in fine detail, is the largest ever conducted. And Lindstrom dishes up the results, alongside a buffet of past research, with clear writing and deft reasoning.

Here, our favorite studies and their big-brand implications:

Mini Cooper’s Unexpected Associations
It’s neither the horsepower nor compact design that most attracts consumers to BMW’s Mini Cooper. When scientists measured brain activity of people as they looked at images of the Mini, they found an area of the brain that’s stimulated by faces “came alive.” “You just wanted to pinch its little fat metallic cheeks,” writes Lindstrom. And if you’re BMW, you want to tweak your ads to goose that subconscious link.

Coke’s Emotions vs. Pepsi’s Taste
In a blind taste test more people prefer Pepsi to Coke, but when consumers know what they’re drinking, most prefer Coke. What gives? In addition to the ventral putamen, an area associated with appealing tastes, scientists registered brain activity in the prefrontal cortex when subjects knew they were sipping Coke. It’s an area responsible for higher thinking and it was likely pulling up all sorts of positive memories and associations, “the sheer, inarguable, inexorable, ineluctable, emotional Coke-ness of the brand.” So the “two areas of the brain [engage] in a mutual tug-of-war between rational and emotional thinking” and Coke wins by a landslide.

Nokia, Shhh
To determine if a signature sound—like Microsoft’s start-up musical notes—makes a brand more attractive than an image alone, doctors took fMRIs as people listened to branded noises and watched logos. Several areas in the brain lit up when both were played together, indicating the combination is more pleasant and longer-lasting than either alone. Yet one brand, Nokia, showed almost the opposite effect. A closer look at the ventrolateral prefrontal cortices (part of the brain’s circuits that process emotional information) showed that the ring triggered potent negative associations (a shrill sound in a silent movie theater, perhaps?)—so strong, in fact, that they overrode the positive response people felt when they saw the silent Nokia logo.