CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- In their continuing quest to unlock the secrets of consumer behavior, market researchers and communications consultants have targeted the motherlode: the human brain. By studying the workings of the brain and nervous system, neuroscience has the potential to explain why consumers buy what they buy -- allowing for ever-more-targeted, ever-more-effective messages.

The idea behind neuroscience marketing is certainly compelling. Understand how and why people make decisions, including their unconscious impulses, and you can craft the exact marketing message they are most receptive to. The rise of neuroscience has also left many business owners and managers wondering if traditional focus groups are about to be left behind in favor of MRIs and individual electronic sensors.
Brain scans such as MRIs pinpoint what area of the brain is activated when a particular stimulus is introduced, and that's of great interest to market researchers and communications consultants.

"This is an area that's been getting a lot of attention and interest, and there are grandiose claims about what it can deliver," says Barbara O'Connell, senior vice president in the Global Neuroscience Practice at brand and communications research firm Millward Brown. But, she cautions, don't believe all the hype: "We're not reading people's minds. There's no magic 'buy' button in the brain that we can activate."

Instead, advancements in neuroscience should be thought of as new market research tools, ones that enhance existing techniques rather than replace them. Focus groups, surveys and taste tests remain standard procedures, and in most cases, they are all a company needs to craft a marketing plan.

Some reactions and opinions are hard to capture using traditional methods, though. "People find it difficult to express abstract ideas," O'Connell says. "At other times, they don't know what they think. These techniques help us understand people's emotional or instinctual reaction. With sensitive topics, it can cut beyond the self-censoring."

Brain scans such as MRIs pinpoint what area of the brain is activated when a particular stimulus is introduced, just as an EKG can show which images or words cause a person's heartbeat to jump. Facial coding is another way to measure subtle emotional reactions: By filming a person as they watch a video, then analyzing each of that person's facial expressions, you can create a second-by-second report on their response to each part of the message.

In all of these cases, researchers are able to "read" a person's mental state without asking a single question. "When integrated with traditional research studies, these techniques can add another layer of nuance and understanding," O'Connell says. "They might be useful or they might not; you have to decide the best method to answer the question."

As an example of when it makes sense to use neuroscience-based measures, O'Connell describes a project she worked on for a pharmaceutical company that was changing the positioning and description of a medication. "The media message was intensely emotional," O'Connell says. "The company wanted doctors to empathize with the women who would be taking this medicine and wanted to get back to the lives they lived before."

Part of the study used traditional focus-group techniques: Doctors were shown four potential brand messages and asked to rank them. None stood out as a clear winner. Doctors were also asked to take part in neuroscience-based assessments, including quick visual stimulus tests that solicited immediate reactions.

"When it came to emotional response, one positioning stood head and shoulders above the rest," O'Connell says. "It resonated the most with physicians, and that data made the decision."

Obviously, such detailed testing is not standard procedure for most businesses rolling out products; it also doesn't come cheaply. But neuroscience is a growing, increasingly influential aspect of marketing. If you're launching a product that evokes strong personal reactions, or designing a brand message based on emotional appeal, facial coding may provoke more honest answers from consumers than focus groups.

But just because you know what people think about your products doesn't mean you know why. Behavioral economists have shown repeatedly that consumers do not always act rationally, and steering people toward one type of purchase rather than another is still an art -- not a science.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.