Difference between neuroscience and neuromarketing

The importance of practice (with context) for the understanding of theoretical results

Even for people who already work in the field, the differences between the scope, scope and meaning of neuroscience and neuromarketing are not always very clear.

I would like to comment on a presentation made at the last neuromarketing congress, held in March 2017 in London and organized by NMSBA – Neuromarketing Science and Business Association.

Although the specific contributions of each area (‘neuroscience’ and ‘neuromarketing’) can be complementary, it is essential that the limitations to their respective applications are previously known and considered as resources to support business decision-making.

Without intending to deepen a technical or theoretical discussion, I allow myself to exemplify the difference, in a very practical way, with a real case that demonstrates how different the two areas are.

Real case

The case was about a German tea maker who wanted to change and also rejuvenate its already very traditional packaging, since it is a company with more than 80 years of experience in the market.

Two new packaging proposals were initially developed by a specialized design agency and previously approved by the tea maker’s own marketing team.

In order to support the choice of the most suitable packaging and minimize possible risks, the board would like this decision, due to its importance, to be based also on the most modern techniques available on the market.

Therefore, a company specialized in neuroscience was hired, with access to the most appropriate equipment and resources for this evaluation, including comparing the results with the actual packaging itself.

The manufacturer’s expectation was that, with neuroscience, it would be possible to choose the most appropriate packaging alternative and capable of adding different attributes of the new positioning sought, supported by what was most scientifically pertinent.

Among the different attributes sought in the packaging were the rejuvenation of the brand, modernity, innovation, but without giving up the other associations already existing and incorporated into the product and the brand over time by consumers.

The results

The different packages were evaluated and compared explicitly and implicitly, including the use of magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), with the results being quite clear that one of the new options has a greater emphasis, coinciding with the choice of the marketing team itself.

This situation, consequently, generated considerable confidence as to the most appropriate choice to be made, as the results also point scientifically and technically to the same solution.

It is important to keep in mind that, often in ‘conventional’ techniques, such as in qualitative and quantitative research, situations where the results are somewhat conflicting are not uncommon, demanding a more subjective interpretation, which adds uncertainty to borrowers decision-making and the research agency.

In this case, decision made, new packaging approved, investments made, products displayed on supermarket shelves and a great expectation for results.

The surprise

To general surprise and perplexity, what was observed were unexpected and unexplained declines in sales, something to be repeated month after month, even after all the investment made and the initial certainty regarding the choice made.

Even more desperation from managers, not sure what to do now, but in any case aware of the need to better understand what would have caused the failure in sales.

Thus, it was decided to hire a new company, in this case an agency specialized in neuromarketing, initially to review the entire packaging evaluation process already carried out.

The new evaluation

There being no doubts about the process, an assessment of the context and the process of acquiring the tea was then put into practice, with the observation of how the product purchases normally occur in supermarkets, one of the most relevant distribution channels.

The filming and recording of a woman, young – less than 35 years old, full-time worker, mother of 2 young children, shopping in a supermarket with her young children, was particularly decisive in understanding the problem.

The image of children irritated by the unattractive situation, the consumer with very little time to choose the products, without the ‘desired’ or ‘idealized’ reflection in front of the gondolas for a rational choice of products were very familiar elements to most who helped understand the reason for low sales.

It was clear that the consumer’s decision regarding the choice of brands for the different products on the shopping list was almost always taken in a matter of milliseconds, apparently bearing in mind the objective of accomplishing this task in the shortest possible time.


One of the crucial aspects observed in the purchasing process was the importance of the consumer’s ‘familiarity’ with the product, more specifically in this case when analyzing its packaging.

It was observed that this ‘familiarity’ was due to the recognition of the manufacturer’s brand, its typical colors, the logo, that is, the visual aspect of the packaging itself, which is already well known by consumers.

It turns out that the new packaging of the product had almost no trace of familiarity with the old packaging, either in terms of colors or its graphic elements, in spite of the favorable results obtained with neuroscience.

In other words, despite all the positive aspects of the new packaging verified with the tests carried out, there was no longer an association of the product already known by its consumers to the new packaging now presented on the shelves.

Most consumers left the supermarkets with the impression that the product was not available on the shelves, without bothering to carry out a more detailed search, perhaps due to the lack of time, the pressure of the children, the rush to complete the activity, etc.

Consequently, by not finding what they ‘were looking for’, consumers ended up choosing a ‘similar’ product, from another competitor, also positioned on the shelves, like all other players in the category.

The solution

With the identification of the problem at the point of sale, the manufacturer reevaluated the existing packaging options and opted for one that, although it did not deserve the best evaluations in neuroscience tests, still maintained greater traits that enabled the consumer to associate with the previous mark.

That done, tea sales returned to expected levels and recovered the share that had been lost to the competition.

The message that remains, in no way constitutes a condemnation of neuroscience or its techniques, but about the need to also consider neuromarketing and the resulting implications.

The complementarity that conventional techniques of market research and opinion, such as ‘ethnography’, ‘in-depth interviews’ or even ‘product clinics’ should not be overlooked and still play an important role in these analyzes.

More information:          Kochstrasse – Agentur fuer Marken

NMSBA – Neuromarketing Science & Business Association

World Forum – Londres – março 2017