Marketing & Branding

Neuromarketing: Why Your Brain Loves Free T-Shirts

People’s faces and eyes are said to light up when they see items they like. It’s an interesting phrase, “to light up.” It suggests that there’s some kind of thermonuclear reaction taking place inside people’s skulls whenever they want things, giving their heads a lovely luminance. As impressive as I think that would be if it were literally true, in the case of the face and the eyes, it isn’t. We don’t actually glow, much to my continued dismay.

In the case of the brain, however, the phrase is at least a little appropriate.

We’ve mentioned neuroscience on this blog before, specifically discussing neuromarketing and how marketers are studying which emotions their ads affect, and talking about marketers targeting customers’ five special senses. More and more, advertisers are turning to brain scans and maps of brain activity to determine which of their marketing techniques engage customers. Show consumers something they like, and watch how their EEGs start spiking and their fMRIs light up with more bright spots than the Tri-County Summer Fireworks Spectacular. Their brains are active, their subconscious minds tickled. Success!


How success looks on an MRI scan.
How success looks on an MRI scan.

As research in neuromarketing continues, advertisers are looking at other functions of the brain besides producing emotions like fear or pride that their ads can stimulate. Recently, work on two areas of the brain in particular has set marketers all a-glow: studies on the brain’s dopamine-fueled reward system, and studies on the nervous system’s sense of touch. News in these fields has left ad agencies lit up like all-night raves, that’s how promising marketers see this work.

And that’s something I find interesting as well, because I suspect that business owners who give out promotional products already know what neuromarketing research in these areas has to say.

Dopamine and Rewards: We’re Not Playing Around with Our Marketing Plan!

If we’re going to talk about parts of the brain lighting up scans, then there’s one part I’d like to introduce that’s important for our discussion of neuromarketing. Meet the substantia nigra, a cluster of cells deep within the brain, inside another part called the midbrain that lies in the brain’s core like the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.


The midbrain is found approximately at the tip of the arrow. Approximately.
The midbrain is found approximately at the tip of the arrow. Approximately.

Within the brain, cells use several different chemicals called neurotransmitters to send each other messages. Cells in the substantia nigra communicate using a neurotransmitter called dopamine. You might have heard of dopamine before; it’s sometimes known as a “feel-good” chemical because of its role in brain processes related to pleasure, processes that kick in at times like a sports team winning a game.

More accurately, though, dopamine and the substantia nigra are associated with motivation and our desire to achieve goals and earn rewards for doing so. It’s just that we get happy when achieve our goals, and as it turns out, we get really happy when we keep earning new rewards. Just ask any member of a sports team that goes through the season racking up wins.

Actually, ask any people who call themselves gamers, especially video gamers.

Video and computer game designers understand that a large chunk of the reason that people play games is to feel a sense of accomplishment. They shower players with points for finishing a level or, in the case of online gaming networks like Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Network, reward them with achievements and trophies, virtual badges that inform everyone in the player’s network of success. Player One has achieved a goal. Player One has dopamine coursing through the brain and so is happy. Player One has spent hours working for this. Player One is so happy to be happy that he or she probably will spend a few more hours working toward another goal.

The question neuromarketers have been asking is, if this can make gaming successful, why can’t it work in advertising?

So gamification has become one more buzzword thrown around the advertising world, often on the same toss as neuromarketing. Getting customers to play games on the company website not only keeps them focused on the brand but makes them happy, the hope being that they’ll associate happiness with the company or products. And the Internet has afforded marketers plenty of low-cost opportunities to reach out to consumers already attached to their computers and phones. Seriously, how many times did you vote for a Lay’s potato chip flavor? (And why didn’t you vote for Sriracha?)

Yet for years companies have been giving out promotional products knowing that people love the rewards. We’ve all seen people try to be among the first fifty lined up outside of a door to get a free t-shirt. At a convention years ago, I participated in a scavenger hunt all across the convention floor just to get some free pens. Even the classic t-shirt cannon presents a reward situation, though the nature of the game is different (“Want a shirt? Raise your hands. Boom—winner!”)


Neuromarketing at work.
Neuromarketing at work.

With online opportunities, marketers often get that dopamine churning with rewards that consumers can’t touch, like coupon codes, or even just the satisfaction of choosing the winner in an online poll. Research coming from the world of neuroscience suggests, however, that promotional products stimulate the brain in ways that intangible goods cannot.

The Sense of Touch: The Neuroscience of Being Warm and Hard (*giggle*)

Our ability to perceive touch, like our interest in reaching our goals, is tied to happiness. Touch that we consider affectionate or caring has been shown to lower stress and decrease pain, generally conditions that we associate with happiness. Unlike our pursuit of goals, however, touch appeals to more of our brain than just the substantia nigra. In fact, it stimulates cells all along the brain’s active surface.


The sections of the brain that correspond to our sense of touch.
The sections of the brain that correspond to our sense of touch.

And according to recent research, activity throughout those cells can affect how we feel about certain products and even people. One study demonstrated that having people hold a warm therapeutic pad while they evaluated a product made them more likely to view the product favorably than holding a cold pad. Another study suggested that when a job candidate’s resume was attached to a heavier clipboard, people assessing the resume were much more likely to judge the candidate qualified for the job than if the resume was clipped to a lighter clipboard.

It’s all about something called the haptic mindset. Haptic advertising appeals to our sense of touch to connect what we feel with our hands to concepts we might have thought were unrelated. When we trigger our sense of touch, we also stimulate the pathways in our brain that lead to good associations and memories. A soft t-shirt or warm fleece blanket may bring up thoughts of caring or concern. Heavy, durable keychains and cell phone cases may make consumers think that the merchant giving them out is serious about business.

For years, though, businesses have given away promotional products to establish those kinds of connections. In 2004, an L.J. Market Research study showed that 52 percent of people questioned had a favorable opinion of a company after the company gave them promotional products. Another study from 2013 demonstrates that what people found in 2004 holds true today. Neuroscience now is beginning to suggest reasons why customers’ brains create those favorable opinions.

The good news is that marketers and other people who represent companies and organizations don’t have to wait for further advancements in neuroscience and neuromarketing to take advantage of any findings. They simply can play a game with their customers and give them a free t-shirt or other promo item as a reward for success. It’s just that now, when they see their customers’ eyes light up, they can have confidence that their brains, if they were attached to electrodes and read with a scan, would be doing the exact same thing.

Have you given out promotional products as a reward? What do you think about promo products versus intangible items like coupon codes? Let us know in the comments below!

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