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Uncovering the Why of Consumer Behavior: From Neuroscience to Implementation

By Christian Scheier and Enrique Strelow

Uncovering the Why of Consumer Behavior: From Neuroscience to Implementation

Neuroscience has identified the core drivers of consumer behavior. The challenge for marketing is to make these insights actionable in day-to-day marketing. Using an FMCG case study, this paper introduces a systematic approach that leverages neuroscience insights to uncover the why of brand choice, helping to evaluate communication at touchpoints and maximize marketing effectiveness in driving fit to brand and sales.

Over the past 15 years, neuroscience has uncovered the why of much of human behavior: the anticipation and the consumption of rewards. There is converging evidence that the reward system in the human brain plays a key role in valuation, purchase decisions, and ad effectiveness (see Glimcher et al., 2008; Plassmann et al., 2011). The higher the expected reward of a brand or product, the stronger the perceived value and thus the motivation to act (e.g. buy). 

Prices, on the other hand, activate a structure known to be involved in processing pain. Thus, the consumer's brain is sensitive to the net value between the expected reward (brand, product) and pain (price). Brands increase expected rewards and are thus willing to pay a higher price (incur higher pain). Therefore, marketing is effective if it manages to maximize such reward or value expectations across touchpoints. 

The total sum of rewards consumers associate with a brand defines the brand’s perceived or expected value. These associations are stored in associative memory and activated automatically when the brand is perceived (e.g. at the PoS). Thus, most brand-related reward associations are implicit and cannot be measured with standard, explicit questionnaires. This implicit nature of brand associations also helps to explain why consumers rarely name brands as the core driving force for their FMCG purchase decisions. 

Despite this progress, however, important questions remain to be answered, especially from a brand management perspective. 

While neuroscience has uncovered the processes underlying valuation and motivated behavior, it does not inform about the specific content that consumers find rewarding (Chen et al., 2015). Only when this rewarding content is uncovered can marketers optimize a brand’s positioning, brief agencies or develop motivating innovations.


The objectives are to 1) replicate the neural findings between reward and sales and 2) develop and empirically test a complementary, implementation-oriented approach to measure reward that provides more brand management direction. 

Here we investigated the effectiveness of six PoS displays to drive Ferrero’s Duplo brand. (Figure 1). In a separate study, reported in detail elsewhere (Kühn et al., 2016), each of the six displays was analyzed with fMRI data to forecast changes in supermarket sales of chocolate bars. 

The bestselling communication was Group, followed by Woman (rank 2), then Couple (rank 3). Further, to understand which specific rewards were responsible for the elevated sales, the goal of this empirical work was to quantify: 1) for Duplo, which specific rewards are associated in consumers’ minds, 2) which each of the six displays communicates specific rewards and 3) the nature of fit of the brand’s reward profile with the profile of each display (“brand fit”) to replicate the neural findings between reward and sales. 

Two hypotheses were evaluated:
Hypothesis 1: the PoS best matching the brand’s rewards will be most effective in driving its sales.

Hypothesis 2: there is a systematic relationship between brand fit of PoS displays and resulting sales. Displays with higher brand fit will boost sales higher and vice versa.


Overall, a total of 60 specific rewards were derived and each captured in a short expression used in an implicit association test (see below). Examples include “relaxation”, “energy”, “caring for others”, “enjoyment”, “indulge myself” or “curiosity”. 

Next, an implicit association test was used to quantify, in a first step, association strengths between the Duplo brand and each of the 60 rewards. 

Distinctive associative reward profiles emerged for each of the three brands. The main distinctive rewards associated with Duplo were (see Table 1): “sensuality”, “friendship”, “community”, “harmony”, “sharing with others”, “doing something good for others”. Thus, buying the brand not for one’s own hedonic pleasure but rather for someone else’s, is the core specific Duplo brand equity. 

The more successful displays (Woman, Couple and Group) are associated with distinctive rewards. Display woman is about spoiling oneself, feeling at home and balanced as well as optimistic. Couple is about friendship, warm-heartedness and seduction, while the core of Group is about sharing with others and pampering them.


The three positive brand-fit score displays (Couple, Woman and Group) were also the most successful in sales terms, with Group emerging as the single most effective. Thus, hypothesis one is confirmed. PoS display Group resulted in the highest sales because it best fits with the “social” core of the Duplo brand- i.e. showing the social gesture of offering the product, together with a group of people. 

With the second hypothesis, the correlation between brand fit rankings of the PoS displays and the respective sales ranks was calculated. At rs = .77; p < 0.05, this correlation is significant, thus supporting the hypothesis of a systematic relationship between reward-based brand fit of PoS displays and resulting sales.

Given the insights on the neuroscience of expected rewards driving willingness to pay and purchase decisions, an effective communication strategy for Duplo is to leverage already existing reward associations that fit with the brand’s associated and thus expected rewards. 

Seen this way, the objective of a PoS communication is to prime (i.e. activate) the existing brand associations rather than to establish new associations, which is much harder to achieve, particularly in the case of a hedonic impulse product such as chocolate bars, where involvement is low.

Final thoughts

Marketers should measure and understand the rewards associated with their brands, as these rewards are the why underlying brand choice.
• This measurement should be based on implicit measurement techniques, as many brand-related associations are not accessible to consciousness (i.e. remain implicit).
• Brand-related rewards can be used to brief agencies and evaluate resulting communication routes, with the goal of maximizing the fit between the brand-related rewards and the brand’s communication.

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook. Order your copy today