Source: Washington Post
Date: 28 November 2006

Popular Brands May Brand the Brain

By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Nov. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Marketers may have your number, neurologically speaking: A new study finds that familiar brands evoke faster, more positive responses in the brain than lesser-known brands.

In tests on young adults using real-time functional MRI (fMRI), the logos of well-known auto and insurance companies "lit up" areas of the brain associated with warm emotions, reward and self-identity.

"Furthermore, strong brands were processed with less effort on the part of the brain," said Dr. Christine Born, a radiologist at University Hospital, part of the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

In contrast, less-recognized brands triggered more activity in brain regions associated with working memory and negative emotions -- suggesting these products were less easy to "process" and accept.

"Clearly, brands are important, and people do neuropsych tests and all sorts of things to try and understand how to make branding better within the industry," added Paul Sanberg, director of the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa.

"Branding is extremely important, and this just adds another level to that," said Sanberg, who was not involved in the study.

The findings, scheduled for presentation Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, are the latest from the emerging field of "neuroeconomics."

In neuroeconomics, psychologists, neuroscientists, radiologists and marketing experts work together to unravel the mysteries of the consumer's mind.

"The vision of this research is to better understand the needs of people and to create markets which are more oriented towards satisfaction of these needs and by doing so, avoiding flops in launching new products or services," Born explained. She said the new work is important because it is "the first fMRI-based benchmark test examining the power of brands" on the human brain.

In its study, the Munich team hooked up 20 healthy, well-educated young men and women to fMRI. Then the researchers presented them with the logos of either well-known or more obscure automakers and insurance companies. Born did not disclose the actual brand names, calling such disclosure "not useful at present."

Watching the participants' real-time neurological activity, it became clear to the researchers that the better-known brands acted on the brain in a way that was quite different from that of less-familiar logos.

Better-known brands stirred up areas of the brain's cortex and elsewhere that are "involved in positive emotional processing and associated with self-identification," Born said. This activity was specific to the better-known brands and occurred independently of the category of product -- cars or insurance plans.

The participants' brains seemed to have more trouble processing lesser-known logos. In these cases, their working memory kicked into gear and processing took much longer, the researchers found.

Sanberg said that the findings, while interesting, don't tell us anything definite about consumer's shopping preferences or behaviors. "This is just showing that the brain is lighting up," he said. "But clearly, people's responses to brands -- I would imagine that there would be other behavioral correlates of this."

Besides demonstrating that strong brandingdoesmatter, neurologically speaking, the fMRI results "suggest that a benchmark test for strong vs. weaker brands is possible," Born said. That could open the way to further research into what makes great brands great. "Further investigations are necessary to define in detail the conditions for optimal branding," she said.

However, this research, which was funded by the university, isn't just about maximizing profits for industry, Born stressed. When the needs of consumers from different backgrounds, age groups or cultures dovetail smoothly with the launch of commercial products, everyone wins, she said.

"A lot of mistakes have been made in the past not recognizing the different 'landscapes' of needs," Born said. The result: product roll-outs that have misfired, wasting the company's time and money while leaving consumers unsatisfied.

"Thus, this research -- taking individual needs more seriously -- may contribute to higher [consumer] satisfaction and better quality of life," Born said.

More information

There's more on how the brain works at Harvard University.

SOURCES: Christine Born, M.D., radiologist, department of clinical radiology, section MRI, University Hospital, Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, Germany; Paul Sanberg, Ph.D., director, Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, University of South Florida College of Medicine, Tampa; Nov. 28, 2006, presentation, Radiological Society of North America annual meeting, Chicago

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