Branding: Does Hate Trump Love?


Jim Edwards of Brandweek has penned an interesting and lengthy article describing his own experience as a neuromarketing subject, as well as providing some general background on the promise offered and challenges faced by the nascent science. In an interesting neurobranding test, Edwards had his brain scanned by Joy Hirsch, director of the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Center at Columbia University, while viewing brands he liked and disliked. While one subject is hardly statistically significant, the results were intriguing.

The most striking part: My brain processed high-value brands on its left side, handling the low-value ones on the right. That’s not what one would expect, since the so-called left-brain is traditionally associated with conceptual processing and the right with emotions.

In my case, the high-value brands activated three areas: my left angular gyrus, left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and my left orbitofrontal gyrus. Those systems are associated with the extraction of meaning, conceptual organization, and reward, respectively. “I haven’t seen that before,” Hirsch said. “My curiosity is piqued by that.”

Mine, too. When it came to brands I dislike, I apparently really disliked them. My right insula-an internal fold just over an inch in length-is lit up like a runway. “Now, your brain isn’t that big, but it’s devoted on your right side to something where you’re saying, ‘That’s a low-value item for me,'” Hirsch explained. Worse, the insula is understood to handle feelings of disgust. “That is not a result to be trifled with,” Hirsch said.

And that’s the big surprise: These results are the exact opposite of the received marketing wisdom. I’m not, apparently, emotional about brands I like. Instead, my brain behaves like an antiques dealer sifting an estate sale for high-priced items. My emotional feelings-specifically, disgust-are reserved for the brands I dislike. And I don’t merely ignore those brands like clutter; I process them through the area of my brain that helps me avoid rotten food and poisonous berries. [Emphasis added. From Brandweek Read My Mind by Jim Edwards.]

The results of Edwards’ scan would be interesting if they can be replicated with more subjects. The fMRI scans show that contrary to expectations, “I love Apple!” packs much less emotional punch than, “Bud Light – Euuwwww, yuck!”

Even if it turns out that the emotional appeal of brands is stronger than this one test suggests, this may be one illustration of the difficulty of turning around a brand that, for one reason or another, has earned the dislike of consumers. Similarly, it could explain the difficulty of adding new customers in a market that has become emotionally polarized. I hope that Hirsch and other researchers pursue this line of inquiry.

  1. ganryu says

    The subject was allowed to pre-select the brands he would be presented during the scan? I wonder if it would make a difference if the examiner selected brands out of a hat and displayed them at random. By default, there would be some he liked, some he detested, some he was mildly aversive to, some he was unfamiliar with, etc. That would provide a larger pool of data to compare.

  2. Mathias says

    How emotionally devoted would you say you are to your favorite brands? Not very eh, as the scanner could tell. Still, I think some people will have high emotional attachment to certain brands, like audiophiles spending tens of thousands of dollars on a speaker system of brand “A” or a car lover who buys a cheap car of brand “B” and lovingly fixes it up for years. They are extreme examples, but if intellectual people with little materialistic desires are the other extreme the bulk of the population (sport fans and MTV watchers) should fall in between. And it shouldnt be surprising that feelings of fear/disgust is higher than loyalty/affection, I think that is elementary evolution – it’s simply how we have been “programmed” to stay alive on this cruel earth.

  3. bramster says

    I find this result consistent with my understanding of consumer response. While most of my experience is based on traditional qualitative and quantitative research, I have been consistently surprised that consumers purchase behaviour is generally based on absence of objectionables.

    The questions always still remains how to communicate to your consumer base in a relevant/interesting way your brand positioning. Emotion with embedded rational underpinnings seems to still be the approach.

    Love the Blog thanks for the work.

  4. Joseph Condron says

    That is very interesting. I suppose we need to have a stronger response to stuff that disgusts us.

    Perhaps it is an off-shoot of our earlier ancestry when it could have meant the difference between eating something poisonous or something tasty.

    Great post!

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