Buyology Review: Looking at Marketing Through the Brain

Gregg Miller

Martin Lindstrom is “one of the world’s most respected marketing gurus;” the jacket of his 2008 release Buyology tells any curious reader in no uncertain terms. This brief fragment of description, if given some vitamins and a tall glass of milk to grow, could easily be ascribed to the work as a whole. With this said, though, Buyology is undeniably a very compelling book.

Its narrative reads well, the pacing is smooth, the description and analogies sound. Lindstrom’s dives into thought-provoking and exciting questions like whether there is a significant relationship between how we experience brands and religion. He illustrates how scent and somatic markers (emotional responses tied to specific perceptions) pervade our everyday lives and could help marketers better connect with their consumers. He also successfully challenges current advertising strategies like sex appeal and product placement that are being used carelessly with the undesirable result of billions of dollars wasted. His message is not that old techniques should be scrapped as a new era approaches, but rather marketers need to refine what has worked in the past while also developing new approaches that make use of new areas of research like neuromarketing. Excluding its occasional pitfalls of exaggeration, this book has a lot to offer to any reader.

Unfortunately, Lindstrom’s penchant for hyperbolic illustration, such as naming his own study “the largest, most revolutionary neuromarketing experiment in history,” also is visible in the presentation and interpretation of his research. Some of his findings really shocked me, and in a good, scientifically supported way. For example Lindstrom monitored brain activity in smokers using an fMRI while the smokers were exposed to, among other things, smoking warning labels from cigarette packs. The magnetic resonance images showed that this tenet of the international anti-smoking campaign actually increased cravings for a delicious tobacco fix. Lindstrom argues that the billions of dollars spent internationally on anti-smoking advertisements actually encouraged the very behavior they sought to deter.

When such a significant argument is being claimed, it must be supported by bulletproof criticism. In this instance Lindstrom’s data does not entirely support his claim. What can be said is that smoking warning labels don’t actually discourage smoking in individuals who already smoke heavily. This actually makes sense when you think about it. An addict has conditioned his brain to the point that it needs nicotine to maintain a happy equilibrium. Lindstrom’s results convincingly demonstrate that the implicit association between the warning labels and the tobacco – and, by consequence, the nicotine that will maintain the brain’s equilibrium – inspire a neurological response via a craving that is much more powerful than the cognitive interpretation of the explicit message of, well, death. Such a tight association between the cue of the label and the unconscious response of the craving exhibits “classic conditioning” discovered by Ivan Pavlov. He made his discovery when analyzing how if he chimed a bell a few seconds before feeding a group of laboratory dogs, the dogs’ physical anticipatory response of salivation could become tied to the sound of the bell itself and not just the forthcoming juicy steak (Pavlov, 1927). But what about individuals that don’t smoke? Lindstrom hustles to hit us with the punch line: astronomical sums of money have been spent in making people smoke more. By driving toward that headline, overlooked and unaddressed are the billions of people in the world that have made the decision not to smoke. The results of this neuromarketing substudy would have been much more compelling with the inclusion of a control group to represent this large demographic that in fact makes up the majority of the world’s population.

This coercion of promising preliminary research into larger-than-life headlines is regrettably characteristic of Buyology. In another chapter about unexpected results of prominent marketing campaigns, Lindstrom identifies that “With roughly 400 million cell phones in circulation and a 2007 market share of 40 percent, Nokia is one of the most popular brands in the world” (159). These numbers and that approbative dependent clause undeniably seize our attention. They present Nokia as a monolith of brand presence. Using sophisticated brain-scanning technology, Lindstrom investigates whether the signature ring tone of this titan produced emotionally positive or negative stimuli in an individual. While participants in this study were in an fMRI, they were presented with images related to a brand (like Nokia, Microsoft, British Airways, and some less prominent companies) or a sound such as a ring tone or a jingle. Later they were exposed to both images and sounds simultaneously. By looking at the neurological response to related pairings of sound and brand, Lindstrom and an expert neuroscientist were able to determine whether the experiences were positive or negative. The results showed that the experience of the Nokia ring tone was negative. The shocking conclusion? “Nokia’s ring tone was killing the brand” and “had come to hold all the lyrical charm of a nervous breakdown” (162, 163).

The principal problem here is that the framing of this experiment does not test results that could produce such a conclusion. A valid control group is lacking. Yes, various big-name brands and their signature sounds were compared to the Nokia results, but none of these brands are connected to the negative experience of hearing a cell phone start ringing in a movie theater, board room, or wedding. Lindstrom actually acknowledges this singularity of the Nokia ring himself when he points out that people’s brains “connected that overfamiliar sound with intrusion, disruption, and feelings of annoyance” (163). Such an observation, though, is much more characteristic of hearing a cell phone go off during undesired circumstances than an experience specifically tied to Nokia. In order for the results to be tied to Nokia specifically as a company, Lindstrom needed to include better baseline comparisons, such as images of Motorola phones coupled with their signature ring tone.

Lindstrom’s eagerness and enthusiasm to explore new frontiers and make unexpected discoveries help make Buyology a thought-provoking work focused on new questions, but also hinder it from reaching its full potential due to a number of hastily drawn conclusions. The author successfully utilized cutting-edge technology to investigate a number of questions using neuroscience: something that, on this scale, really had never been attempted. However, his eagerness to demonstrate monumental results from this monumental study leads him to make several unsupported generalizations that make for excellent headlines but bad science. Reading Buyology will educate you, expand your perspective, and be a lot of fun all at the same time, but requires a degree of discretion and scrutiny to not get knocked over by the gusting strength of the persuasive headlines that lack adequate scientific backing.

Buyology, Martin Lindstrom ***  / 3 of 5 stars
Enjoyable Reading
: 3/5
Applicable to Business: 4/5
Behavioral Insight: 3/5


Pavlov, Ivan. Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. Classics in the History of Psychology. Retrieved June 12, 2009, from

Thanks to Greg Miller, Sentient Decision Science summer intern, for this review

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