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Why we buy what we buy

Giraj Sharma  |  New Delhi 


    Passion without greed

    2008's best fiction

    CHESS #566


    Changing Orbits

This is a book that anyone who has anything to do with branding, consumer research or advertising must read. As the author takes you along on his journey of three years undertaking an exhaustive, million-dollar research project, you find a whole set of popularly held marketing beliefs crumbling. There are pages that you go through at the same pace as you would a crime-thriller, resisting the temptation to jump paragraphs and get straight to the results of the experiments being conducted. Interestingly, there are some portions in the book that will make the seasoned marketer in you smile, for finally, there is scientific acknowledgement of certain notions that you always believed but didn’t know the logic to push your case too hard.

As someone who started an advertising agency of his own at the age of twelve, has really grown up and moved much beyond advertising and the principles that govern traditional advertising and consumer research. is an intriguing exploration of why we buy, involving techniques of neuroimaging. Yes! There is too much science involved but the end results overturn many myths, assumptions and beliefs about buying patterns, and that makes this overdose of scientific interplay really worth it. The author presents a very strong case of adopting neuroimaging as against conventional research methods and tools of qualitative research. Working along with neuroscientists, Lindstrom uses the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner to see how the brain responds to an ad, product or packaging.

The fMRI technique is the most advanced brain-scanning technique which pinpoints to the portion of the brain that responds to an external stimulus. The results are simply amazing. Sample this: Anti-smoking campaigns actually encourage smoking! The fMRI scans showed that cigarette warnings stimulated an area of the smokers’ brains called the nucleus accumbens or the craving spot. So the anti-smoking campaigns actually prompt smokers to go out and light up another cigarette!

There is a whole world of myth-demolishing findings in Lindstrom set up this highly ambitious research project employing not just the fMRI but also scanning tools such as the SST (which measures electrical activity inside the brain millisecond by millisecond). The findings make a mockery of most assumptions behind advertising. His research highlights the struggle that goes on in our brain between the conscious and subconscious mind. The experiments offer insights on some of the mysteries of the marketing world as well. Take the enigmatic blind-tests of the famous cola-wars of the eighties. The analysis explains, with scientific data and logic, how emotions rose up like mutinous soldiers to override the respondents’ rational preference for Pepsi, and led Coke to victory.

There are some startling revelations on the extent to which we deceive ourselves while making purchase decisions. highlights how the subconscious mind arms itself with religious beliefs, childhood memories, sex, rituals and superstitions to fight and prevail over the conscious or rational brain. The neuroimaging experiment offers a scientific explanation on why negative advertising works in electioneering or why simple product placements are not likely to increase brand recall at all.

Hey! Don’t get it wrong. The book is not just about negating popular notions but also about solutions. While destructing the utility of ordinary product placements, the book also makes a strong case for placement which is heavily integrated into content and is contextually appropriate. Then there are TV programmes, song lyrics, perfumes and even fish that can be marketed better or advertised more effectively using neuromarketing.

Does it all mean that we dump conventional market research totally? Well, the author offers an answer to this one too when he claims that market research isn’t going away but taking a seat at the neuroscience table and, in the process, taking on a brainy new look. Traditional market research — questionnaires, surveys, focus groups etc — will take on a much smaller role and neuromarketing will prevail. Lindstrom believes in the wisdom hidden in this statement: What people say and how they actually behave are polar opposites! Well, critics will run to town citing ethical reasons for banning neuromarketing even though these techniques are non-invasive. Lindstrom says that more than targeting the marketers, he is actually addressing the buyers to understand their own behaviour through Buyology, but that’s one argument of his that doesn’t stick!

The author heads a boutique brand consulting firm



Martin Lindstrom
Random House Business
240 pages; £11.99

First Published: Thu, December 11 2008. 00:00 IST