Finding the 'Buy Button'

"There are arguments to be made that the people are stupid, they're violent, they're uneducated, and they need to be programmed so they don't rape and pillage each other," he said. "Even if you buy that, Coke and Wal-Mart are probably not the people you want to do the programming."

Miller denies that is why BrightHouse was interested in Kilts' work.

"There is no magic area of the brain that is the 'buy button,' " he said. "We are not in the business of using this to tweak products or advertising so people will be drawn in. Our business is to understand consumers, to give businesses a better relationship with consumers, to supply better products and brands for the consumer."

The research began in June 2002 and Kilts said he plans to publish the results in academic journals this spring. The work involves having subjects undergo an MRI as they think about a product, which allows researchers to see which parts of the brain are involved in the thought process.

"We are probing not what you're thinking, but how you're thinking," Kilts said. "This is just an observing tool, so there's no ability to change behavior."

What Kilts says he is studying is preference — how people decide that they like one product over another. It is the key to understanding the paradox of the "Pepsi Challenge," when people prefer the taste of Pepsi-Cola in a blind taste test, but prefer Coca-Cola when they know what they are drinking, because of intangibles they associate with the Coca-Cola brand, Kilts said.

This aspect of the study, Miller said, is where the research promises to benefit not only companies but consumers and society as a whole.

BrightHouse's strategy, he said, is to get companies to focus on their "master idea," the idea that the founder had when they started the company. In the case of nearly every successful company, that idea was not making money, but making a product that would make people's lives better, he said.

"We espouse the idea that master ideas really can improve public life," Miller said. "It can serve both the financial interests of the company and the public good. And if companies do that, we believe they can attract not only quality employees, but also consumers."

BrightHouse executives were interested in Kilts' research because they believed it would support their assumption that consumers form allegiances to companies based on issues that go beyond the qualities of the product itself.

The research indicates that people's attachment to a brand or company go deeper than was previously believed, Miller said, which reinforces the idea that companies need to create a positive image with their business practices as well as with the quality of what they produce.

The company is not interested in using the process that Kilts used in his research as a model for 21st century focus groups or product testing, Miller said.

Kilts himself admits that the testing was done in a "very non-naturalistic environment," inside a machine that is "very loud and very confining," which makes the traditional product testing model impractical.

And though he says he always recognized the potential value of the work for businesses, Kilts said his interest is in what it can potentially teach about human psychology. It is a chance, he said, to learn about human preference outside of the behaviorist model of reward and punishment.

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