How does Branding Affect the Brain?

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Biology 202

2006 First Web Paper

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How does Branding Affect the Brain?

Andrew Garza

In an age largely dominated by huge multinational corporations, people around the world are bombarded with an incredible array of advertisements on a daily basis. These advertisements are designed to change consumers' behavior, whether that means getting them to buy a certain product, vote for a political candidate or take action on a social justice issue. Advertising ties in closely with branding, the spreading of symbols that represent organizations, products and services. One of the key pillars behind branding, Robert Zajonc's Exposure Effect (1) says that, up to a certain extent, people tend to like things more the more familiar they are with those them. The emergence of a new field called neurobiology (2) that applies neurobiological technology to gaining deeper insights into consumer behavior and better exploring concepts like branding and Exposure Effect.

Several researchers at Baylor Colleges of Medicine in Texas recently conducted an experiment that examined how people's preferences for Coca-Cola (Coke) or Pepsi were influenced by their prior perceptions of the two brands (3). The Baylor researchers administered several different kinds of taste tests, in which subjects indicated their preferences between a variety of different combinations of two cups of soda: labeled and unlabeled Coke and Pepsi and visually primed and unprimed conditions. During the course of the experiment, researchers also measured participants' neural responses with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (4), technology that monitors blood flow, and thus energy allocation, in the various areas of the brain.

The Baylor team found that there was an interesting discrepancy between the areas of the brain that lit up on the fMRI just before participants chose between unlabeled Coke and Pepsi vs. the areas that activated before participants chose between a branded beverage and an unbranded one. fMRI scans show that, when presented with one unlabeled cup of Coke and one unlabeled cup of Pepsi, about half the people stated that they prefered Coke and the other half said they prefer Pepsi; their verbal responses to the unlabeled tests corresponded with increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), an area of the brain associated with pleasure due to sensory stimulus. On the other hand, when participants had to choose between two cups of identical Coke, one labeled as Coke and the other left ambiguously unlabeled (people were told it could be either Coke or Pepsi, even though it was actually Coke), people overwhelmingly said they preferred the cup labeled as Coke. Interestingly, the VMPFC lit up equally when people drank the labeled and unlabeled cups, but there was far more activity in other parts of the brain for people who expressed preference for the labeled Coke over the unlabeled. These other areas of the brain are ones that some scientists believe are connected with applying emotional information on behavior and remembering cultural information that biases decisions: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the hippocampus.

The surprising results of this study indicate that there are non-economic factors (i.e. not price, accessibility, etc.) in addition to taste that determine consumers' beverage preferences. The researchers suggest that the mystery factors that cause people's illogical preference for labeled Coke over unlabeled Coke are advertising and branding. It is worth noting that the same experiment with the labeled and unlabeled cups was administered with Pepsi, and there was no overall participant preference for one cup over another. A piece of evidence that suggests that branding is the reason why the Coke name invoked stronger feelings in people than the Pepsi name is that Coke was named the World's Most Valuable Brand in a 2001 study by Interbrand (5), while Pepsi ranked # 44 on the same list. From the fact that the participants' preference for the labeled Coke corresponds with more activity in the DLPFC and hippocampus than in the VMPFC, one might extrapolate that preferences for highly branded goods are based more on advertising-induced "cultural knowledge" (3) than on pleasurable sensations located in the VMPFC. It appears that the neural pathways for perceptions about sensory pleasures operate independently and distinctly from the pathways that control "cultural knowledge". (3) This distinction challenges the notion that our perceptions are formed in a clear, logical way. On the contrary, action potentials that form perceptions fire from starting points in different areas of the brain and travel along different paths, until they potentially meet in another conceptual "box" (6), where they come together to actually form whole perceptions.

The question of whether perceptions of well-branded goods are more based on subconscious biases caused by the advertising or by conscious reflection on the quality of the product begs further analysis. For the purpose of this conversation, I will define "conscious" as being anything that involves neurons firing from or passing through the box in the brain that defines our sense of self; some would call this space the Identity-function. Although the DLPFC is an important part of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain commonly associated with people's personalities, I would argue that this connection does not mean that everything that goes on in the DLPFC counts as conscious activity. I think repetitive, catchy advertising lodges concepts in the brain in ways that make the information immediately fire through neural patterns when it is triggered by conscious thoughts about or sensory interaction with the product. The hippocampus and the DLPFC are the vehicles through which the action potential patterns travel and eventually reach the conscious mind, which forms, or at least realizes, the final cognition.

A theoretical example of how branded information ends travels through subconscious pathways to eventually reach the conscious mind in its near final stage has to do with Aspirin. Aspirin is branded drug that can be found in many households in the U.S. But most supermarkets that sell Aspirin also sell a much cheaper generic version of it called by its full name, acetylsalicylic acid; Aspirin and the generic drug are essentially the same. However, people often don't even think to look at the drug placed next to Aspirin on the aisle because the concept of Aspirin has already been so deeply entrenched in their minds. It is illogical to buy Aspirin. To be sure, I don't mean to say the area of the brain that makes buying decisions is the same as the part that forms perceptions. But my point is that perceptions definitely inform decisions, and the perceptions are based on information that largely travels through that brain via subconscious neural pathways. If it was mainly logical, conscious activity that led to perceptions of brands, every person who regularly goes to supermarkets in the U.S. and buys Aspirin would change their perception of Aspirin to a ridiculously high priced drug that is of no higher quality than its alternative. In reality, many of our perceptions of branded items seem to be based on complicated subconscious patterns of action potentials that result in our conscious mind assuming we have a good reason for liking something, making up a reason for liking it, or saying we like it "just because."

The concept that many of our perceptions of heavily branded items are based on subconscious neural patterns has several implications: like almost anything else, it can be good or bad, and sometimes it is hard to judge the effect. An example of a positive application is that psychologists are working with governments worldwide, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, to design and implement social campaigns (7) that de-stigmatize AIDs. These campaigns largely aim to attack perceptions that AIDs is dirty and wrong, and encourage people to take preventative actions and get tested for it on a regular basis. An example of the negative effects of branding is that oftentimes as teenagers in the U.S. seek to fit in with peer groups, they partially define their social groups' identities by the kinds of brands they associate themselves with. This association with particular brands can lead groups to ostracize those who wear different brands (8).

Researchers and scientists should continue to explore the effects of advertising on the brain so that we can learn more about how it can be used to spread positive messages and how messages promoting harmful causes or goods can be negated.

1)Wikipedia entry on Exposure Effect, A helpful definition of a widely recognized advertising principle
2)Neuroco Website , A great overview about the emergence of neuromarketing, written by the operators of one of Europe's first neuromarketing companies
3) Experiment PDF, Details how the Baylor research team looked into the issue of branding and perceptions of soft drinks
4) Wikipedia entre on fMRI, Talks about what exactly fMRIs measure
5) Broadchannel Web site, Interbrand's list of the World's Most Valuable Brands
6) Serendip Forum Page, A place to look for more information about box theory
7) APA Article, Interesting and informative article about the role psychologists have played and do play in selling products and implementing social campaigns
8) JSTOR Article, Article about the role of the media and branding upon teenagers

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