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Can Neuroscience Unlock the Luxury Mind?

For years, fashion and luxury companies have tried to anticipate and cater to the deep, subconscious desires of consumers. Can neuroscience help?
Impression of the human brain | Source: Shutterstock
  • Kate Abnett

LONDON, United Kingdom — Shopping for fashion can be a ride on an emotional carousel: the thrill of the chase; arduous hunting through stores and websites; the rush when you finally find what you're looking for. Your heart races. Your skin tingles. You're elated — for a few seconds, euphoric.

Most of us would claim we make rational decisions when shopping. And for much of the twentieth century, mainstream economists tended to agree, believing that decision-making was rooted in a careful calculation of costs and rewards.

But newer theories have questioned this belief. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that social agents do not make decisions according to rational criteria. Business consultant and author Jim Nightingale claimed, "we simply decide without thinking much about the decision process." Indeed, according to modern neuroscience — the study of the nervous system — even in rational decision-making, emotions have been proven to play a major role.

The market for fashion and luxury exemplifies this paradox. Fashion brands are finely tuned to conjure emotions that override our rational decision-making functions and entice us to buy things that we desire, but know we do not strictly need.

Can neuroscience be harnessed by brands to better understand what goes through our brains when we shop — and drive sales?

By measuring how the brain responds to different stimuli, the field of consumer neuroscience aims to paint a more accurate picture of human decision-making than traditional research methods like focus groups and surveys. "People from focus groups will say things that they think are socially acceptable or they'll go along with the rest of the group," said Dr David Lewis, a neuropsychologist and the chairman of market research firm MindLab international "Neuroscience tries to get underneath their conscious appraisal."

In a 2014 study by Copenhagen Business School's department of marketing, subjects were shown luxury brand names like Gucci or high-street names like H&M, before subsequently being shown an item of clothing. "Even when we show people those brand names for less than 50 milliseconds, there is an emotional response, such as pupil dilation or changes in brain responses," said Dr Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, co-author of the report"People's implicit expectation when you see a high fashion brand leads to a whole cascade of emotional responses when you see the product itself."

Other studies confirm that our brains react more to products that we think are valuable. “If you have two pairs of slacks, for example, and one pair looks less valuable than the other pair, the brain should compute more reward when obtaining the more valuable thing,” said Dr Dar Meshi, a neuroscience research fellow at Freie Universität Berlin.

Neuroscience has been used to study everything from sea slugs to stress. But over the last fifteen years, its commercial application has grown, with the promise of helping brands to stand out in a cluttered marketplace, by designing products and marketing that appeal to our emotional, unconscious responses.

The first ‘neuromarketing’ firms appeared in the late 1980s and, in 2002, Professor Ale Smidts of the Rotterdam School of Management officially coined the term. By 2012, there were 250 companies specialising in ‘neurometrics,’ most using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans and electroencephalography (EEG), a method in which electrodes are attached to a subject’s head, in order to track the unconscious, split-second responses of the brain.

“If someone was looking at a new fashion item and they had an increase in blood flow to the hippocampus, which is associated with memory, it might induce that this item was going to be memorable, or they would recall it easily if it was mentioned to them,” explained Dr Lewis. According to Dr Lewis, “most major brands” across sectors like food and drink and travel are using some form of neuromarketing, while a few are going so far as to build in-house neuroscience laboratories.

The fashion and luxury industry, however, has traditionally been slow to leverage the power of consumer research, including neuroscience. Instead, luxury fashion brands have historically hired human specialists with highly attuned sensitivities and high EQs (Emotional Quotient, a measure of emotional intelligence) to understand what turns people on and design products, stores and marketing that will successfully seduce customers.

“Fashion has perhaps been a little slower than other industries to explore the potential of neuroscience, which is odd considering it’s an industry driven by human passion and desire,” said Jonathan Openshaw, global editor of LS:N Global, the trend and consumer insight network of business consultancy The Future Laboratory. However, Openshaw believes it is “inevitable” that fashion companies will begin to harness neuroscience.

A few are already on board. In a study for fashion retail chain T.J.Maxx, Mindlab International used EEG to track customers’ brain activity as they shopped in a T.J.Maxx store. “Their USP is that they put designer label products at very low costs among much more utilitarian items,” explained Dr Lewis. “When people found one of these products, we saw a significant increase in brain activity associated with surprise, delight and reward.” Although the brain activity could have been indicative of other, more negative emotions, in the context of this experiment, the positive emotions identified are more probable. Armed with this information, T.J. Maxx could design its store layout to maximise this ‘treasure hunt’ effect and attempt to trigger more moments of positive, purchase-inducing feelings.

Neurensics is a European neuroeconomic research firm that counts Cosmopolitan magazine amongst its clients. In one study, the firm used fMRI scans to test the effects of three magazine covers — each with a different coloured background and positioning of text — on parts of the brain. "One of the covers scored a lot better than the other two, and we predicted that that cover would sell more than the other two,"said Dr Walter Limpens, research manager at Neurensics. "We didn't know why it scored better. We only saw that it activated the brain more."

At the moment, concerns remain about the accuracy of such insights and, according to Dr Ramsøy, the field has fallen prey to “hype-cycles” due to “a lot of overpromising and under-delivering” from neuromarketing companies lacking “scientific credibility.”

Certainly, neuroscience faces technological hurdles. fMRI scanning is expensive and time-intensive — a study of less than 50 people can take up to a year — and requires subjects to be lying down and motionless, making experiences such as trying on clothing impossible to survey. EEG tracks electrical activity in the brain through an electrode-studded cap. This allows for more movement, but can only pick up activity close to the surface of the scalp. “The ‘reward centre’is at the centre of the brain, deep down there. So you can’t measure this reward activity using EEG,” said Dr Meshi, but added: “I think you’ll see an explosion of people using [neuroscience] when the technology becomes less cumbersome.”

Some companies are hesitant to reveal their neuroscience research due to concerns about how consumers would react to the idea of companies subliminally influencing their shopping choices by tapping their private, unconscious desires. Yet consumer neuroscientists like Dr Marci say the “emotion” they study is the part of the brain that “tags information for relevance,” as opposed to specific feelings or moods.

"You don't know what people are thinking, but you observe how their brains are responding," said Dr Lewis. "You can't tell specific emotions, but you can tell the difference between avoidance and attraction."

As e-commerce grows, shopping behaviour shifts away from the more frictionful process of visiting a store towards a world of instantly shoppable products. Online, shoppers can turn their impulses into purchases faster than ever before — could neuroscience reveal what drives these split-second decisions? “We have the ability to purchase more impulsively than ever,” said Dr Marci of the rise of online shopping. “The intuitive self, the impulsive self, the non-rational self is going to have even more of a driver.”

"Digital shopping means we are relying less on the rational response to a product, and more on the immediate emotional response we have when we see it," agreed Dr Ramsøy. "As companies start seeing that the way people make up their minds is not influenced by their conscious minds as much, they start tailoring their communication strategy in a very different way."

The advent of more sophisticated in-store technologies and wearable tech could also see neuroscience move outside of the lab and onto our bodies. Some neuromarketers also study ‘biometric responses,’ including pulse rate, eye-tracking and facial expression. Currently, companies track data such as where we click on a website, how long we view webpages for, and what goes in our shopping cart. If we were shopping on an Apple Watch or wearing a smartband, could they track our biometric responses too, to find out which products make our heart race, or our temperatures rise?

“Technology already allows us to do that, but you then run into ethical questions,” said Dr Ramsøy. All of the neuromarketing companies interviewed stated that they only collect such data in controlled surveys, conducted with participants’ consent.

Added Dr Marci: “If there was a force on the planet that influences what you wear and what you buy, wouldn’t you want to understand that?”

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