REVIEW: The Buying Brain

"The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind" by Dr. A. K. Pradeep. Wiley, $27.95.

We’ve all seen advertisements and commercials that made us smile, laugh and distinctly remember a product, even when we weren’t really sure why. For every company, figuring out how to get more customers to purchase your goods or services seems as much of an art as it is a science. But A.K. Pradeep, Founder and CEO of NeuroFocus, Inc. and author of “The Buying Brain”, wants to convince you that successful marketing is the result of fully understanding the fundamental desires of the subconscious brain. In “The Buying Brain”, Pradeep explores the budding field of neuromarketing and describes its current and future applications. While he makes an impassioned case for his approach and clearly articulates the areas in which it can be integrated (from product development to branding, packaging to social media etc.), “The Buying Brain” suffers from a bit too much self-promotion and never really seems to say anything new and revolutionary about the nexus of marketing and neuroscience. More interestingly, however, I can’t help but wonder whether this new field is a good thing. With all the powerful knowledge of how our brains work, I think it might also be worth considering how we deploy these new technologies, what we’re trying to sell with them and who exactly we’re trying to sell to.

Pradeep begins the book by describing some of the methodologies employed by NeuroFocus, Inc. to more accurately and fully measure brain response to different products and images. NeuroFocus, Inc. seems to rely almost exclusively on EEG sensors, which allow for instant electrical measurements of brain activity on a fairly global scale (and are significantly cheaper than fMRI machines). The book obviously doesn’t go into extreme detail about the company’s methodology, since it’s a proprietary approach, but I wish that it better described which of the millions of data points they knew to discard from their tests, which data points they knew to keep, and how they extrapolated their conclusions from such a massive amount of electrical activity. Pradeep has quite a bit of “skin in the game” when he describes the approach, since the book presents his company’s own methods, but I would be curious to learn more about other product-testing approaches that rely on fMRI or biometric measurements instead.

The first half of “The Buying Brain” lays out a few different market segments (men, baby boomers, mothers etc.), what sort of brain differences exist between them, and how to best capitalize on those opportunities through strategic branding and messaging campaigns. It’s here that Pradeep tends to play a little fast and loose with gender differences (both social and physiological), but it may be that Pradeep was writing this book more for business people than scientists. The second half of the book then describes the different stages of developing and selling different products to those particular sorts of brains, and that’s where the book becomes more interesting. I found it bizarrely fascinating to learn how each step of a consumer’s unique journey (seeing an advertisement, entering a store, noticing the product on the shelf, deciding to purchase it) was studied, measured and programmed so intensely. It’s not something I’m aware of very often (perhaps a sign of how effective modern marketing has become!), but it was interesting to read about the close relationships between smells, store sounds, font size and a whole laundry list of other attributes that could all be measured, reduced and studied scientifically as part of the “total consumer experience”.

Ultimately, while I learned quite a bit about how neuromarketing is trying to harness some of our recent understandings of the brain, many of the observations in “The Buying Brain” seemed kind of obvious and intuitive: We already know that consumers like simple, clear packaging and we all know how we get overwhelmed in a store when we’re faced with too much choice. Furthermore, I’m not sure that any amount of EEG testing or sample groups will produce iconic, innovative brands like Apple or Nike. The organic production of good artistry and graphic design, in logos, ads and packaging, seems just as (if not more) important in marketing as measuring their effects through sensors.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s the best use of our scientific and intellectual capital to learn how to better tailor products to meet our unconscious desires. The subconscious mind is truly a powerful force and not sure that further playing to our base instincts will make us better, more thoughtful consumers. It’s worth remembering that sometimes our natural instincts lead us away from other important issues (eg: what is this product doing to my own health? What is this product doing to the planet?  What message is this product sending to young children?). Perhaps it’s just because I recently watched Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”, but I hope that these breakthroughs in marketing technology are accompanied by a renewed debate over what exactly we’re selling and consuming. My hope is that the market’s best goods and services rise to the top because of their unique value propositions and their thoughtful and positive contributions to the world at large – not simply because their marketing campaigns tickled our primal brains in the right way.

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Jeremy Finch

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