Using Science For Selling? Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Marketing Insider.

A recent study from Ohio State University seems like one the world really didn’t need. The researchers were exploring whether introducing science into the marketing would help sell chocolate chip cookies.

And to us who make a living in marketing, this is one of those things that might make us say “Duh, you needed research to tell us that? Of course you don’t use science to sell chocolate chip cookies!”

But bear with me, because if we keep asking why enough, we can come up with some answers that might surprise us.

So, what did the researchers learn? I quote: Specifically, since hedonic attributes are associated with warmth, the coldness associated with science is conceptually disfluent with the anticipated warmth of hedonic products and attributes, reducing product valuation.”

In simpler terms, science doesn’t help sell cookies. And that’s because our brains think differently about some things than others.



For example, a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (Casado-Aranda, Sanchez-Fernandez and Garcia) found that when we’re exposed to “hedonic” ads -- ads that appeal to pleasurable sensations -- the parts of our brain that retrieve memories kicks in. This isn’t true when we see more utilitarian ads. Predictably, we approach those ads as a problem to be solved and engage the parts of our brain that control working memory and the ability to focus our attention.

Essentially, these two advertising approaches take two different paths in our awareness. One takes the “thinking” path and one takes the “feeling” path. Or, as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman would say, one takes the “thinking slow” path, which is more deliberate and logical, and one takes the instinctive, emotional, “thinking fast” path.

Yet another study, at the University of California Irvine, begins to show why this may be so. Let’s go back to chocolate chip cookies for a moment. When you smell a fresh-baked cookie, it’s not just the sensory appeal “in the moment” that makes the cookie irresistible. Certain smells -- like that of cookies just out of the oven -- can be the shortest path between today and some childhood memory. These are called associative memories. And they’re a big part of “feeling” something rather than just “thinking” about it.

In this study, neuroscientists discovered a very specific type of neuron in our memory centers that oversees the creation of new associative memories. They’re called “fan cells,” and it seems they’re responsible for creating the link between new input and those emotion-inducing memories that we may have tucked away from our past.

Critically, it seems dopamine is the key to linking the two. When our brains “smell” a potential reward, it kicks these fan cells into gear and our brain is bathed in the “warm fuzzies.”

“We never expected” dopamine to be “involved in the memory circuit,” noted lead researcher Kei Igarashi of the study. However, “these experiments were like a detective story for us, and we are excited about the results."

Not surprisingly, as our first study found, introducing science into this whole process can be a bit of a buzz-kill. It would be like inviting Bill Nye the Science Guy to teach you about quantum physics during your Saturday morning cuddle time.

This may seem overwhelmingly academic to you. Selling something like chocolate chip cookies isn’t something that should take three different scientific studies and strapping several people inside a fMRI machine to explain. We should be able to rely on our guts, and our guts know that science has no place in a campaign built on an emotional appeal.

But there is a point to all this. Different marketing approaches are handled by different parts of the brain, and knowing that allows us to reinforce our marketing intuition with a better understanding of why we humans do the things we do.

Utilitarian appeals activate the parts of the brain that are front and center, the data-crunching, evaluating and rational parts of our cognitive machinery.

Hedonic appeals probe the subterranean depths of our brains, unpacking memories and prodding emotions below the thresholds of us being conscious of the process. We respond viscerally -- which literally means “from our guts.”

If we’re talking about selling chocolate chip cookies, we have moved about as far toward the hedonic end of the scale as we can. At the other end, we would find something like motor oil, where scientific messaging such as “advanced formulation” or “proven engine protection” would be more persuasive.

But almost all other products fall somewhere in between. They are a mix of hedonic and utilitarian factors. And we haven’t even factored in the most significant of all consumer considerations: risk and how to avoid it. Think how complex things would get in our brains if we were buying a new car!

Marketing is relying more and more on data. But data is typically restricted to answering “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” questions. It’s studies like the ones I shared here that start to pick apart the “why” of marketing.

And when things get complex, asking “why” is exactly what we need to ask.

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