It’s the classic product flop story. New Coke. Rolled out in 1985, Coca-Cola introduced the new soft drink formula after consumer research indicated the product would be a success. New Coke was soon discontinued amid endless consumer outrage. Countless theories exist to explain why New Coke failed but the question of why consumer research was inconsistent with product results has yet to be fully answered. What do product failures say about market research methods like focus groups, surveys, and product tests?
I think these methods of research for marketing purposes are still quite valid but there is an interesting science starting to emerge that could someday enhance these methods for more accurate results. In his book Buy-ology, Martin Lindstrom details research performed by scientists around the world looking into why consumers buy what they do. By using fMRI and SST technologies to monitor brain activity while consumers view or interact with a product or advertisement, scientists have discovered some startling things about the way the brain processes all the information we receive about products.
One of the first discoveries outlined in the book is that what people say about a product may not be an indication of their true subconscious feelings. The first study in the book indicated that graphic warning labels on cigarette packaging actually increase a smoker’s desire to light up. While participants of the study indicated on surveys that these labels reduced their desire to smoke, fMRI data indicated the labels caused increased activity in the part of the brain that drives cravings.
Another finding of these brain scanning studies is that the use of celebrities in advertising can be very ineffective. It was found that mirror neurons in the brain allow consumers to subconsciously see themselves interacting with an object when they see someone else interacting with it. But the trick is that the person must be relatable to the consumer viewing the interaction. If a mother sees an advertisement featuring another normal, busy, family-focused mother in a kitchen preparing a meal with the latest cookware, the consumer is able to relate to the advertisement and subconsciously sees herself in the same kitchen with the same cookware preparing a dinner for her own family. But if the normal mom is replaced with a glamorous, super skinny celebrity with flawless complexion… the viewer has a much harder time relating to the individual and the mirror neurons don’t allow the consumer to envision herself using the product. While consumers may report in a survey they would buy a product because they like the celebrity endorsing it, subconsciously they don’t connect with the advertisement in the way that matters.
So what does all this new research tell us about marketing home and building products? The science of neuromarketing and neuroeconomics is still in its infancy. While the tests are groundbreaking and could open up a whole new avenue of market research, the science isn’t perfected yet. In Emory University’s most recent study, researchers attempted to use fMRI scans of teenagers’ brains to predict the next hit pop single. The study was only able to find a correlation with songs that went on to modest sales of 20,000 units or more (comparatively – the music industry designates a “hit” as sales of 500,000).
So it’s not time to throw out your focus group plans just yet. The ability for companies to scan consumers’ brains for the next big product is still a ways away.

But the research that is being discovered about the way we as consumers process advertising should not be ignored. In the future, neuromarketing studies could very well be a viable supplement to traditional market research to better understand the effect things like ad design, sounds, and smells have on the way we respond to product advertising subconsciously.

For now, advertisers should realize that there is more going on in the consumers mind than they realize. Traditional ideas about advertising and product research are being challenged every day. The ultimate answer to why we buy what we do lies deep in our brain waiting to be unlocked.