I’ve often said that the most exciting application of neuromarketing techniques isn’t that of choosing or developing advertisements, but rather designing better products. While some may feel that enhancing ad effectiveness with brain scans (for example) is somehow manipulative, who can argue against products that have more consumer appeal? After all, the objective of every product designer is to come up with a product that best satisfies the intended customer group, so why not look at what’s really happening in these customers’ brains rather than relying on dubious paper surveys or focus groups? Caltech’s Steve Quartz seems to be on of the few academic neuromarketing researchers focused on product design and improvement.

We described some of Quartz’s work in Hollywood Goes Neuro. Now, Fast Company’s Kermit Pattison interviews Quartz about some of his latest efforts in What Makes Products Cool:

We may try to hide our lust for goods but our brain can’t. Steven Quartz, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, is part of a new generation of researchers exploring neuromarketing — a new field that uses brain science to understand consumer behavior. Quartz and his colleagues roll subjects into MRI machines (which measure oxygenated blood flow) to see what parts of the brain light up while viewing images of iPods, Aeron chairs, Capresso coffee machines, and Oakley sunglasses. Their findings are challenging some basic assumptions about marketing and economics…

One of the general lessons we’ve learned from brain science is that when we ask people about their reasons for things, we’re only getting a small part of the brain processes that underlie their decision making. A lot of times the information we get is really a reconstruction or rationalization. We may want to avoid saying we buy things because they appeal to our sense of pride or something like that. One of the most fundamental insights in brain science is that most of the processes that underlie our decisions are unavailable to our conscious access. They’re done on the basis of intuition or unconscious processing.

It’s good to see the mainstream business press acknowledging the fundamental truth about asking consumers what they think: they usually can’t (or won’t) tell the complete story. The article proceeds to get more specific:

In one study, you did brain scans on people while they viewed products with high brand equity like: Apple, Audi, Hermes, Christian Dior. Walk me through the process — what lights up in the brain when we see something “cool?”

We get a strong response in Brodmann’s area 10, which is an area implicated in self-perception and social emotions. It is the very front part of the brain behind our foreheads. The interpretation of this result is that subjects are evaluating the cool products in terms of their ability to enhance their social image. Another area continually implicated in these studies is the nucleus accumbens, which is a very basic reward structure in the brain that’s involved in everything from appetite to drugs of addiction. We also see a strong anticipatory response in the prefrontal part of the brain in the orbital frontal cortex that involved in making predictions about reward.

Interestingly, “uncool” products like Oldsmobile activated the insula of some subjects – more or less a “disgust” indicator.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the story is the balancing act the brain performs when presented with conflicting inputs – in this case, desirable products (good) accompanied by high prices (bad):

We see this “cost” play out in the brain with luxury products in that there is both a reward activation in the nucleus accumbens and a strong response in the anterior cingulate, which is involved in conflict between two different kinds of signals. People have strong desire but also, because of the prices, it generates conflict. The conflict signal decreases when people are given a chance to purchase the product at a discount, which increases their overall reward evaluation of the product.

This is exactly what we might expect based on neuroecomics work by CMU’s George Loewenstein and others, which shows that high prices for an item produce a pain reaction in the brain. We’re looking forward to Quartz publishing more of his work, which will add some academic credibility to neuromarketing research.