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Neuromarketing thrives at Medill

Are you left handed? Did you take music lessons as a child? If so, new research conducted at Medill predicts that you listen to music twice as much as right-handers who never took music lessons.

These insights and many more are part of a music perception research project conducted by IMC faculty as they seek to understand how music can be used as a marketing tool.

This project is part of a new field called neuromarketing, which uses experimental psychological procedures and ideas from cognitive science, behavioral science, engineering, physiobiology and other fields to understand how people are influenced to behave in a certain way.

While handedness might not explain much of your purchase choices or brand preferences,

“certain genres (of music) are tied to other behavior,” said Professor Martin Block. “A rock person is quite different from a rap person, though demographically they look the same,” he said.

The Applied Neuromarketing Group, based at Northwestern, is leading the way in this important new field. IMC faculty, along with partners at Northwestern and around the globe, are using cutting edge technology, high-level mathematics and modeling to understand the psychology of marketing.

Block calls neuromarketing “revolutionary.” For Block, who has taught and researched for 40 years in the areas of marketing research, sales promotion, advertising and direct marketing, that is quite a statement.

“It introduces a new perspective on the subconscious that we've had to ignore because we didn't have any tools to measure it,” he said.

The group is comprised of Northwestern faculty from Medill, the Feinberg School of Medicine and the Kellogg School of Management, as well as researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Wayne State University in Detroit and others from as far as Grenada and the United Kingdom.

Other researchers around the globe are working on neuromarketing, but “nobody has a group like this,” said Medill Professor Kalyan Raman.

IMC research has traditionally relied on surveys asking people why they behave the way they do in response to marketing messages, said IMC Associate Dean Frank Mulhern. Or experimental research might involve measuring eye movement or hand sweat in response to marketing messages, but now using fMRIs, research participants can be exposed to images, words or music and the brain can be photographed. Researchers can then observe which parts of the brain are active to understand how messages are processed. In addition, the group uses other methods, like engineering-based behavioral science, which looks for “law-like” patterns in behavior that can then be explained by mathematical equations. The group’s expertise can help them knit together sets of equations to explain and predict behavior.

Dr. Hans Breiter, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Feinberg, breaks it down like this. Marketing, health communication and other fields want understand how persuasion works. But Applied Neuromarketing Group members realized they needed to take a step back, because persuasion occurs in the rational mind. Many behaviors originate in the subconscious mind, so they are working to better understand how influence works on the subconscious mind as well. The group believes that it can explain how influence works by integrating a series of mathematical equations that describe attention, reward, memory and perception.

“We’re working very diligently to develop a new platform for thinking about behavior,” Breiter said. “We don’t really have a model of the mind. What we’re doing is saying we think we can build one.”

That model of the mind, and especially the subconscious mind excites Block and the other IMC researchers. The expertise that Breiter and his collaborators from Massachusetts General Hospital brings to help them peer into parts of the mind that have previously not been well understood.

“Probably our biggest direction or finding is attempting to explore the subconscious part of the mind that is sometimes called the reptilian part of the brain, and it’s difficult to measure and understand using conventional techniques,” Block said.

“You don't know why a certain ad makes you feel a certain way, but you are absorbing it through your subconscious,” Block said.

“Multidisciplinary” can be a higher education buzzword without real meaning, but when observing the Applied Neuromarketing Group in action, it is apparent each person’s expertise makes the group more effective. Breiter, who was recruited to Feinberg from Harvard Medical School, leads the group with energy, checking with various members about the progress of scholarly papers. The conversation veers to the music preference experiment. Breiter sketches on the whiteboard a sequence of how a music preference experiment would be organized. A new group member, Hugh Jedwill, a McCormick School of Engineering alumnus who focuses on mobile marketing, throws out a few ideas of how the experiment could be turned into a music preference app.  Breiter easily engages in the brainstorm as he realizes the volume of data that could be collected from an app instead of through a traditional lab experiment. Later in the meeting as the discussion moves to mathematical models for describing influence, Breiter moves back to the whiteboard drawing diagrams to explain the elements of influence and how equations can define the interplay of reward, attention, memory and perception to mathematically explain influence.

The neuromarketing group got started when Feinberg was recruiting Breiter to join its faculty. The Feinberg committee asked Raman to be a part of the recruitment. Raman, who teaches marketing mix optimization, optimal budgeting and allocation of the marketing communications mix, and resource allocation problems in marketing, has two PhDs. One of the degrees is in electrical engineering with a focus on neuroscience. Raman also has a joint appointment at Feinberg. Breiter was lured away from Harvard Medical School to join Feinberg, partially because of the support Feinberg provided to his lab and the chance to be a part of Northwestern’s entrepreneurial culture.

The Applied Neuromarketing Group began meeting in November 2011. Now, after meeting for nearly two years, the group has published a number of scholarly papers, has more in the pipeline and is preparing to apply for a patent for a set of equations they’re developing.

These psychological models of influence will help them to better understand what brands mean and how humans make choices.

The applications of these models are far-reaching, Brieter said. Not only will they help companies reach consumers better, but could help health communicators share messages more effectively to encourage people to adopt good health behaviors. Or it can help companies create products and services that people really enjoy.

Think of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, which employ cognitive psychologists, engineers and marketers to make their already good products better, Breiter said.

The music preference project they are working on is a great way to better understand what neuromarketing is and its multidisciplinary nature, Block said.

Musical preference tends to be a learned rather than innate preference and much of it is set by the age of 14, Block explains. Through the algorithms, database research and experiments, the researchers seek to explain why a person prefers one type of music over another. The next step is to predict what type of music a person might like. The music that you like has meaning, but also impacts other preferences, Block said. And the results of these studies will have practical application in the marketing field.

“There is a difference between people who like rap and people who like rock,” Block said. “People who like rap are much more likely to prefer McDonald’s.”

What does that revelation mean for McDonald’s?

“It depends if [McDonald’s] wants to maintain the customers they have or if they want to attract new ones,” Block said.