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Strong Brands Balm Consumer Brains, New Study Shows

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Marketers, public relations, sales and advertising professionals, and those who study their collective manipulations of consumer heads and hands have long known that a strong, identifiable brand is a powerful tool that in its purest form stands apart from the individual products it informs and casts a positive glow over them.

However, even the strongest branding advocates might be surprised by the results of a new study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, which reveals that strong brands flip switches activating areas of the brain involved in positive emotional processing, self-identification, and rewards: I brand buy, therefore I am.

Furthermore, strong brands appear to create a kind of mental “groove,” and are processed with less effort than weak brands, which require higher levels of activation in areas of working memory and negative emotional response.

“This is the first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) test examining the power of brands,” said Christine Born, M.D., radiologist at University Hospital, Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, who got up under the consumer hood, so to speak. “We found that strong brands activate certain areas of the brain independent of product categories.”

Dr. Born added, “Brain imaging technologies may complement methods normally used in the developing area of neuroeconomics,” the ultimate goal of which is to make every purchase a forgone conclusion. I added that last part.

The Born group used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study areas of the brain affected by visual stimuli associated with strong and weak brands in 20 adult men and women. Researchers showed the volunteers — all right-handed, highly educated, and with a mean age of 27 — a series of three-second visual stimuli containing the logos of strong (well-known) and weak (lesser-known) brands of car manufacturers and insurance companies. During the sequence, the fMRI acquired images of the brain, depicting areas that activated in response to the different stimuli.

The guinea pigs’, er volunteers’, brand perceptions were correlated via questionnaire before and after the fMRI imaging. As an additional control, an abstract colored image was also displayed during each sequence.

It would seem that those with the weakest or least developed critical thinking capabilities — such as children — are most susceptible to the brand balm – or is it “bomb”? But this study shows that we all come under the magical sway of the powerful brand.

Sounding rather defensive, Born said, “The vision of this research is to better understand the needs of people and to create markets which are more oriented towards satisfaction of those needs. Research aimed at finding ways to address individual needs may contribute to a higher quality of life.”

Well, it certainly will for those on the selling end of the equation.

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.
  • So all this site re-design stuff was just an effort to boost the BC Magazine brand name?

  • Least thinking and critical abilities usually equates to higher emotionality, so teens are highly susceptible to this effect also.

    Peer pressure to confirm to accepted brands of clothing, electronics, all the “in” stuff can cause a negative emotional response, too, on an individual who can’t afford, or doesn’t want to conform, to become a brand zombie.

  • Neuroeconomics: now I’ve heard it all!

    This brings to mind the recent feeding frenzy regarding the release of Playstation 3, and the reportedly less barbaric behavior of fans of the new Wii videogame. (Forgive me if I’ve got the names wrong–I know nothing about videogames, being an old childless fart). Could Wii buyers be a kinder, gentler bunch due to their attraction to this branding?

    I have to admit that certain life insurance slogans and logos give me a warm and fuzzy feeling–I can literally feel those endorphins flowing. Fascinating article.

  • Eric Olsen

    Josh, seriously, branding is an important part of some of the changes – the perception is still far too fragmented, which is mostly a function of being a wide ranging “magazine,” but still something we have to try to address.

    IZ, it seems the study is looking at how powerful branding is and its physiological foundations, but there is clearly a downside to the phenomenon. I am sure the social aspects are part of the power – the status symbol aspect.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks EB, very interesting thought about the characteristics of those attracted to various brands!

  • Born said, “The vision of this research is to better understand the needs of people and to create markets which are more oriented towards satisfaction of those needs. Research aimed at finding ways to address individual needs may contribute to a higher quality of life.”

    While there are some on the “selling end of the equation” who will use the research for their own benefit, some will support Born’s vision. For instance, I have noted it for inclusion in the Research page of the Integrative Federation. My Integrative Improvement approach is a demand-centred one so research into what is involved in demand creation is of particular interest.

    There is some background on my website and a paper “Achieving Sustainable Development: The Integrative Improvement Institutes Project” is to be presented at the Inaugural All China Economics International Conference in Hong Kong on 18-20 December 2006.

    Thanks Eric for drawing attention to the research.