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The Race To Find The Brain’s 'Buy-Me Button'

Advances in neuro-psychology help decipher the secrets of consumer decisions.


(Elsie)

How do our subconscious minds react to advertising? What are the different consumer types? Researchers around the world are searching for the latest secrets of our purchase decisions, and a growing number of companies are putting their findings into practice.

In Germany, the Hamburg consumer tends to be a traditional type, whereas consumers in Berlin tend to be more creative and spontaneous. Spaniards are more likely to follow gut decisions, whereas Germans tend to be either artistically inclined or fact-oriented. Researchers are now able to assign individual characteristics and purchasing trends to consumers in every country and region.

However, each individual consumer's mind reacts quite differently to the daily influx of advertising messages. Researchers have long been searching for the elusive "buy-me button" in the brain and major brand manufacturers have been using the results to target their customers. The magic word: neuromarketing.

"Anyone using this neuropsychological knowledge sees results - mostly through an increase in sales," says Professor David Scheffer of the 180 Grad Institute in Hamburg. He and his team have developed NeuroIPS, a method of measuring stable personality traits, allowing him to put the findings of brain research to practical use.

Scheffer has also been developing a way to compare personality traits. The innovative test no longer relies on data collected during face-to-face interviews with participants. Instead they are now asked to complete a simple online questionnaire designed to test their perceptions of shapes, colors and images. In a recent study Scheffer identified a range of different personality types in six nations and a selection of German cities.

Hans-Georg Häusel of the Munich-based Nymphenburg Consulting Group believes these methods can result in an increase in revenue of up to 15 percent. Retailers are reporting increased sales after optimizing their shop floor space, reworking paths leading through their shops or reorganizing their product displays. "The consumer has to feel comfortable, without being consciously aware of this," says Häusel. A subtle lemon scent in a supermarket, for example, has been shown to result in an increase in sales.

"There are thousands of little screws you have to turn," said Häusel. Using expensive brain research machines is only one of many methods - one which, considering the investment costs involved, simply doesn't deliver significant enough results.

Companies such as Audi and the Daimler group hope to use brain scanners to directly measure consumer acceptance of their new models. "This is still a dream," says Häusel. Although it is possible to show whether a product prompts positive or negative emotions, researchers can only get a very rough picture.

German scientists in Bonn, Munich, Magdeburg and Münster have been trying to decipher the effect of advertising on the subconscious for over a decade. The consumer goods manufacturer Henkel was one of the first to use their findings.

Many companies don't like to shout it from the rooftops that they are using these methods. The Hamburg branch of the German Sparkasse bank, for example, received bad press last fall when it was revealed that it was using psychological profiles of its customers, dividing them into seven types, such as "guardians' or "adventurers', without informing them. Consumer protection groups have condemned this practice. "They are trying to influence consumers against their own best interests, by worming their way into their brains," commented the Hamburg Consumer Advice Center.

The practice has also met with fierce protest in the United States. There, concerns were raised about a new era in which every detail of consumer habits would be laid bare for greedy corporations to exploit with the aid of brain research methods.

"Marketing is always influencing behavior in some form. Any woman who puts make-up on in the morning is being manipulated," said Häusel. "It's only when some kind of instrument is knowingly used to harm others that the practice becomes reprehensible."


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