How important is a strong brand image? A new study presented at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) shows that people presented with known brand images processed them in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions, while unfamiliar brands took more effort for the brain to process and activated areas of the brain associated with negative emotions. According to Christine Born, M.D., radiologist at University Hospital, Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, this is the first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to examine the brain’s response to branding. Twenty male and female subjects were presented with images of familiar and unfamiliar brands while brain activity was monitored by fMRI scanning. The findings were clear:

The results showed that strong brands activated a network of cortical areas and areas involved in positive emotional processing and associated with self-identification and rewards. The activation pattern was independent of the category of the product or the service being offered. Furthermore, strong brands were processed with less effort on the part of the brain. Weak brands showed higher levels of activation in areas of working memory and negative emotional response.

(Source: MRI shows brains respond better to name brands)

Although this may be the first study of its exact type, other neuromarketing researchers have looked at branding topics with fMRI techniques. In January, we posted Branding and the Brain, which mentioned research more fully described by New Scientist in How brands get wired into the brain. Read Montague, Director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine, has also worked on branding – he tried the “Pepsi Challenge” while subjects had their brain activity monitored using fMRI.

Overall, branding is one of the more interesting areas in neuromarketing. It’s clear that individuals have strong and usually subconscious responses to brands, and as we better understand how that process works we’ll be able to develop more effective branding strategies. Clearly, brand familiarity is important (as shown by Born’s study), but other dimensions must be at least as important. People are familiar with the Enron brand, but have few positive associations with it. And both Coke and Pepsi have universally recognized brands and spend massive amounts of money on advertising, but (at least from an fMRI standpoint) Coke seems to have an edge in brand strength. Stay tuned, I’m sure well see more branding studies in the not distant future.

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