This is your brain on neuromarketing

DOWN TO A SCIENCE: A.K. Pradeep (Ph.D.’92 ME), a leading figure in the emerging field of neuromarketing, founded Berkeley-based NeuroFocus in 2005. The market research company replaces focus groups and surveys with science to help manufacturers more precisely target the buyer’s brain. COURTESY NEUROFOCUSDOWN TO A SCIENCE: A.K. Pradeep (Ph.D.’92 ME), a leading figure in the emerging field of neuromarketing, founded Berkeley-based NeuroFocus in 2005. The market research company replaces focus groups and surveys with science to help manufacturers more precisely target the buyer’s brain. (Photo by NEUROFOCUS)When it comes to the quest for a better potato chip, a sleeker cell phone or a knockout TV ad, A.K. Pradeep (Ph.D.’92 ME) believes in digging deep.

A leading figure in the emerging field of neuromarketing, he conducts market research by studying how the subconscious mind responds to a variety of flavors, designs and sales pitches. His Berkeley-based company, NeuroFocus, advises companies on everything from developing a new product to packaging, marketing and advertising.

At NeuroFocus’s headquarters, test subjects don caps embedded with up to 64 electroencephalographic (EEG) sensors that record the tiny electrical signals produced by the brain in response to stimuli. They may be asked to interact with a laptop computer, explore a website or watch a television commercial while instruments track their brainwaves and eye movements. The EEG signals, recorded at the rate of 2,000 times a second, are then broken down and translated into measures of response.

Because 95 percent of the brain’s processing takes place at a subconscious level, Pradeep says his approach provides a more accurate gauge of consumer preferences than surveys or focus groups. Those traditional methods are inherently distorted when people try to summarize what they think or how they feel about a product or experience.

“The beauty of science is that it comes into an area that is essentially based on opinions and questions and answers and replaces those with hard, cold facts,” says Pradeep, who serves as president and CEO.

Enthusiastic and passionate, Pradeep sees neuromarketing as contributing to better product design and even improving education by tailoring instruction to individual learning styles. Could brain-based studies manipulate or invade the privacy of the buying public? “We don’t influence anybody,” he says. “What people do with surveys and focus groups, we do a little more accurately.”

How a Berkeley-educated engineer ventured into neuromarketing isn’t as easily charted as the brainwaves he now measures. After earning his doctorate, Pradeep worked on satellite navigation systems at GE before shifting to management consulting.

One day, he met with a client who wondered whether anyone was noticing his company’s marketing efforts. Pradeep later found himself sitting next to a neuroscientist on the plane ride home. Hearing how the neuroscientist’s work explored such areas as human emotion, memory and attention, Pradeep reflected on his client’s frustration. “Why can’t I apply this science to solving that problem?” he wondered.

BUYER BEHAVIOR: Pradeep’s 2010 book, The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind, explains distinct gender- and age-based brain differences that play a role in a consumer decisions. COURTESY NEUROFOCUSBUYER BEHAVIOR: Pradeep’s 2010 book, The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind, explains distinct gender- and age-based brain differences that play a role in a consumer decisions. (Photo by NEUROFOCUS)Founded by Pradeep in 2005, NeuroFocus today has some 160 employees in the United States and internationally. The company’s executive team includes Berkeley’s Robert T. Knight, M.D., Evan Rauch Professor of neuroscience and director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, Ram Gurumoorthy (M.S.’89, Ph.D.’92 ME) and Caroline Winnett (M.B.A.’90 Haas). Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel is an adviser.

Marketing decisions—both right and wrong—carry an enormous price tag. “The dollars spent are close to $600 billion every year,” Pradeep says. His work cuts across such industries as automotive, consumer electronics, food and beverages, financial services and television. His clients range from HP and CBS to Citigroup and Google.

Pradeep tells the story of how NeuroFocus helped one cell phone manufacturer decide how thin to design its next phone. “The general hypothesis was the thinner the phone, the sexier,” he recounts. NeuroFocus conducted tests of various phone dimensions and identified a point where consumers worried that the phone might be so thin that it was breakable.

Marketers can benefit from understanding other subtleties of the consumer’s mindset, like distinct gender- and age-based brain differences.

In his 2010 book, The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind, Pradeep notes that because women have more neurons connecting their right and left brain hemispheres than men, they process more information through “rational and emotional filters.” So marketing directed to women (who make most of a family’s discretionary buying decisions) should focus on facial expressions and tone of voice, include positive emotions and avoid messages that “challenge or threaten.”

Pradeep also advises that marketers pay heed to the power of social media, which he calls the new “operating system” for the flow of information and messaging. Such sites as Facebook and Twitter, he says, give us an “extraordinary opportunity to rediscover individuality.”

There are some areas Pradeep won’t pursue. NeuroFocus does not create ads, he says, but if it did, he would not go near any subliminal advertising or ads that appear so quickly they cannot be processed by the conscious mind. Politics is also off-limits.

“I believe it’s perfectly fine, as long as we brush our teeth, to convince a consumer that choosing toothpaste A versus toothpaste B is good.” On the other hand, he cautions, “Politics and your choice of president are best left without too much messaging. There are some very important decisions in life that I don’t think the world of marketing needs to play a role in.”