Brain Waves

Researchers use fMRI to study subconscious consumer responses.
Brain Waves
MARKETERS OFTEN LEARN how consumers respond to their companies’ brands through what consumers tell them in focus groups and on surveys. The problem is that what people say can be biased by external factors—their actual internal responses can be much different. That’s why marketing professors at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, are experimenting with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to develop a way to predict consumers’ true reactions.

Haas marketing professors Ming Hsu and Leif Nelson and doctoral student Yu-Ping Chen used an fMRI machine to scan the brain activity of 17 study participants as they viewed the logos of 44 brands, including Apple, Disney, Ikea, BMW, and Nestlé. Afterward, participants completed a survey about the characteristics they associated with each brand. The survey was conducted after the scans so that the words used in the survey, such as “reliable” or “daring,” would not influence participants’ thought patterns.

The researchers then used participants’ “neural signatures,” as shown by their brain scans, to predict their survey responses. The goal, they write, was to determine “whether it is possible to learn about the representational space of brand personality in the brain, and use this relationship to infer whether that person is thinking about Apple or Microsoft.”

The researchers were able to predict survey responses correctly 63 percent of the time when working with dissimilar brands (such as Disney and Gucci). But their predictions were no better than chance when the brands were similar (such as Apple and Microsoft). In the latter case, they explain, “the brain data no longer contains sufficient resolution to distinguish between brand personality representation.”

In the past, neuroscientists have asked “where” activity happens in the brain when people are exposed to certain stimuli, as opposed to “what” associations they actually are making. “Marketers were asking questions that neuroscientists didn’t have answers for,” says Nelson. This study is a step toward determining what happens in consumers’ brains in response to a company’s marketing efforts.

“From ‘Where’ to ‘What’: Distributed Representations of Brand Associations in the Human Brain” was published in the August 2015 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research. The study is available at