Neuroscience measure the power of branding

In the series of TV commercials from the 70’s and 80’s that pitted Coke against Pepsi in a blind taste test, Pepsi was usually the winner. So why…did Coke appeal so strongly to so many people if it didn’t taste any better?

Over several months this past summer, [a neuroscientist called Read Montague] set to work looking for a scientifically convincing answer. He assembled a group of test subjects and, while monitoring their brain activity with an M.R.I. machine, recreated the Pepsi Challenge. His results confirmed those of the TV campaign: Pepsi tended to produce a stronger response than Coke in the brain’s ventral putamen, a region thought to process feelings of reward. (Monkeys, for instance, exhibit activity in the ventral putamen when they receive food for completing a task.) Indeed, in people who preferred Pepsi, the ventral putamen was five times as active when drinking Pepsi than that of Coke fans when drinking Coke.

In the real world, of course, taste is not everything. So Montague tried to gauge the appeal of Coke’s image, its ”brand influence,” by repeating the experiment with a small variation: this time, he announced which of the sample tastes were Coke. The outcome was remarkable: almost all the subjects said they preferred Coke. What’s more, the brain activity of the subjects was now different. There was also activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that scientists say governs high-level cognitive powers. Apparently, the subjects were meditating in a more sophisticated way on the taste of Coke, allowing memories and other impressions of the drink — in a word, its brand — to shape their preference.

Measuring brand influence might seem like an unusual activity for a neuroscientist, but Montague is just one of a growing breed of researchers who are applying the methods of the neurology lab to the questions of the advertising world…”neuromarketers”. MORE

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