It’s no secret consumer decisions are big business. But researchers are only just starting to understand what’s really happening inside our heads when we stick to certain brands.
Associate professor Stefan Bode from The University of Melbourne is head of the university’s Decision Neuroscience Lab. His area of research is the impact exposure to a brand has on our decision to buy its products.
“Even a short exposure to very popular brands shifts your decision-making,” Bode explains. “We have found that when you buy something you really like, you want to keep rewarding yourself. So often, you might buy more than you want, because you’re primed in that moment to make spontaneous purchase decisions.”
What’s interesting is that it appears it’s not just exposure to advertising that drives a decision to buy a Mars Bar instead of a Snickers bar, for example. What neuroscience is discovering is just how important our experience of previous consumption decisions is on our present choices.
Isabelle Zdatny from the Qualtrics XM Institute has another perspective on decision-making. She notes that we’re faced with innumerable choices every day. If we had to carefully think through each one, we would be completely paralysed. “To help us make decisions quickly and economically, our brain relies heavily on mental shortcuts – known as heuristics.
One of the heuristics we use when trying to pick between different options is called the familiarity heuristic. “Our brain automatically assumes that if we’ve encountered something before, it’s likely to be safe. Ultimately, people tend to prefer things that are familiar over things that are novel.”
As a consequence of the familiarity heuristic, when people are more familiar with a certain brand or product, they are more likely to select it for future purchases. “This means the more consumers are exposed to a company and offerings, the more likely they are to buy from them instead of a less familiar, and therefore more risky, one,” says Zdatny.
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Bode stresses there are limitations when it comes to researching this area. For instance, while his team can study certain aspects of making buying decisions in a lab environment, it is difficult, for example, to study the decision-making involved in buying a car “in the field”.
It’s also important to understand much of the research in this area is still at a very early stage. So Bode cautions brands about engaging with businesses that claim to be able to look at consumers’ brain activity and then optimise a product so it sells more. “This is most likely rubbish; at the moment neuromarketing can’t help sell a product.”
Bode is also sceptical about businesses that say they are able to identify the “emotional brain”. This is because the brain comprises a network of interconnected brain regions involved in emotion processing, regulation and decision making.
While it’s not possible to isolate certain parts of the brain from other parts given its interconnected nature, Bode and his team combine research into decision-making with neuroimaging techniques that indeed allow for meaningful insights. This involves brain scanners recording brain activity when people make decisions. At the forefront of the field, academics are using techniques borrowed from machine learning to examine brain signal patterns to predict the outcome of decisions.
“For businesses it’s interesting to watch the space and look at the latest developments,” he says.
This research indicates people process information without knowing that’s what they are doing. “We can predict the decisions people will make from brain signals even when they don’t know they are thinking about specific aspects of products – as long as they think the product is relevant and interesting. If we care about a product, we will process some of its features automatically,” says Bode. Over time, this line of research may be able to build a model of the stages of how we process information.
“In the long run, businesses can think about what is it about their products people process without being aware and optimise that. But we’re not quite there yet,” he adds.
Snack foods are an example. If research shows we process the health benefits of a product, businesses could make consumers more aware of its healthy attributes to encourage them to buy it.
Of course, a product’s attributes – and consumers’ previous buying decisions – are only some of the variables involved in making a decision to buy.
Says Bode: “Your product also has to be good. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be better than a competitor product. But you do have to have a reason to choose it. There’s also research that shows people at some stage break the cycle of buying their favourite products – something happens where you’re prompted to try something else.” There may also be a transfer effect as other research shows once someone is prepared to try a different brand in one category, they may also be prepared to try new brands in other categories.
The take-home message for brands is people have biases when making purchasing decisions. So understanding how we form preferences can deliver insights into why we make the choices we do between different products and brands.