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It's all in the mind

Some years ago researchers at Dulux believed its paint was over engineered. They thought they could substitute cheaper ingredients without it affecting performance. The marketing team were not so sure. So they conducted blind product tests to discover what professional decorators thought of its paint alongside other well known brands. These professionals used the paints every day, and had strong preferences based on years of experience of the paints in use.

The four brands being tested were stripped of identifying labels and marked only with the letters T, S, P and V. Neither decorators nor researchers could identify the brand from the can.

The results were a shock. When the decorators had known what brand they were testing, Dulux always came top. But in this test the decorators overwhelmingly chose a budget brand as the best product and rated Dulux fourth. When asked to say which paint was made by which brand they named Dulux as the top performing paint and the budget brand as worst. Jolted out of complacency, Dulux improved the ingredients so it always came top whether identified as the leading brand or not.

More recently neuroscientists at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas found the answer to why Coca Cola sells more than Pepsi. They used a brain scanning technique called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) to identify activity in different parts of the brain in real time. A number of volunteers were scanned as they drank Coke or Pepsi in a blind test and then reported which of the drinks tasted best.

The scientists found that a brain region called the ventral putamen lit up most strongly when people drank their favourite cola. This area is known to be associated with seeking reward.

Just as previous tests had shown, more of the volunteers preferred Pepsi. But when people were told what they were drinking, their preferences changed and Coke came out on top.

This time the brain area which showed most activity was the medial prefrontal cortex, a spot associated with higher thinking processes. The results showed that people make decisions based on their perceptions of a particular cola, as well as taste. More importantly perceptions appear to exert greater influence on buying behaviour than the product itself.

Accountants, technicians and production people like things they can measure and count, and are uneasy with marketing which seems fluffy and intangible. But there is nothing fluffy or intangible about the sales and returns Dulux and Coca Cola make year on year. Like it or not, marketing matters.

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