Stories | April 9, 2019

Do we buy what we really like? Or is it just a marketing trick?

Marketing can trigger activity in the brain that influences what we buy, regardless of whether it’s what we actually like the most – Merle Van den Akker looks at some examples

Money is everywhere. Even in the brain! Fields like neuroeconomics and neuromarketing look at what happens in the brain when we spend, save, shop or make any kind of (financial) decisions.

They do this by studying how activity in different parts of the brain motivates those decisions. And according to these fields, a lot of that brain activity is triggered by marketing!

Is what we taste real?
Take the example of the ultimate marketing trick. Everyone knows it: Pepsi vs. Coca Cola. Most people would say that they know which drink they prefer and that’s the one they buy. However, research tells a different story.

One study investigated how marketing influences how the brain processed the actual taste of the fizzy drink. Why? Because the researchers believed that there is a difference between the taste we experience without knowing which brand we are drinking, and the taste we experience when we do. They believed that marketing has the power to trick our brain into changing our taste perceptions!

And they were right. The researchers found that marketing triggers activity in different parts of the brain. Without brand, our brain reacts purely to the taste, but if we see a brand, other parts of the brain, those that deal with emotion and how we feel about things, muddy the waters and can make us believe we actually like something else. This study was no one hit wonder. When it comes to Pepsi vs. Coca Cola, other researchers show the same.

And it is not just fizzy drinks, this works for beer too! Research by Allison and Uhl (1964) shows that consumers like the taste of a beer significantly more when they know which brand of beer they are drinking, compared to an “anonymous” beer.

Do we care about the product or the brand?
Interestingly, the less we know about products, the more likely we are to choose a brand we know rather than a brand we don’t know. Even if the latter is objectively better. This is probably because we are already familiar with that brand and therefore trust it more.

So what we like isn’t based purely on our physical experiences (like tasting), but also on how we feel about the product and the company that makes the product. Marketing has a big influence on how we feel about a company or product, so it also indirectly influences what we like (or think we like), and therefore spend money on.

Marketing knows what makes us tick
What does this mean for us consumers? Well, marketing itself has been around for decades, but neuromarketing as a field is becoming increasingly more accepted in the industry, and is giving companies a great advantage in understanding what “makes us tick”.

We have to try our best to separate product from brand, to figure out which products we actually like and buy those. You have to ask yourself, “why do I want this?” Marketing campaigns are actively targeting both our most essential needs and our biggest insecurities.

Coca Cola targets happiness. Brands like Hollister target being pretty and popular as a means of fitting in, being liked, and again: being happy. But at the end of the day, it’s just a product. Drinking Coca Cola won’t magically make all your friends appear and have a beach party, although their commercials do suggest so.

eZonomics team
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