Through times of critical hype and times of heightened criticism, neuromarketing has been with us since the late 1990s, and going strong. Countless strides have been made in psychiatric studies of consumer behavior since that time, especially in the realms of neuroimaging and Google Adwords, which in 2002, opened up a new world of consumer behavior studies. Coincidentally, 2002 was the same year the word “neuromarketing” made its premier. In marketing years, this means that neuromarketing is standing the test of time. For indeed, what started out as a theory of behavioral economics, a tentative branch of marketing whose research methods were commonly dismissed as pseudoscientific, has become one of the most practiced academic fields in the business discipline: a field which, instead of catching flack for supposed inaccuracy, has grown to be feared in some circles as almost too accurate.
Regardless of where you fall on the issue of whether or not studying consumer brain activity is invasive, or how it is or isn’t ethical to try and understand what consumers want, or why they pay attention to certain ads over others, we would all do well, as students of marketing and users and consumers, to inform ourselves about the key ideas, methods, and thought leaders of neuromarketing as a science and an industry. Without that information, we miss a key component, not only of what it means to be a modern marketer, but of what it means to be a contemporary consumer. Because whether we know it or not—and that’s a key phrase in a discipline founded on understanding what our subconscious mind either needs or desires—current marketing developments are going to be influenced by findings made in the neuromarketing laboratory. That’s why we’ve assembled and ranked the ten best books that fall under the ever-opening umbrella of neuromarketing. To compile this ranking, we sifted through over 100 books that were “shelved as neuromarketing” on the popular reader review site, Goodreads, handpicked the 46 most accessible, and scored them according to the average number of stars that readers have given them, the total number of ratings each book has received, and their relevance to developing an understanding of the discipline. Only the highest rated, most rated, and most relevant books rose to the top of our list. See if you recognize some of the titles. If you’ve been to a bookstore in the past decade, we bet you’ll recognize at least one title that you’ve heard of, seen, or perhaps even read yourself.
1. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
The Power of Habit is a book of Business Psychology written by NYTimes business reporter and Harvard Business School graduate, Charles Duhigg. Duhigg’s quips on productivity have earned him a place of distinction among contemporary business writers, with his book also appealing to the broad audience of anyone interested in exchanging a bad habit for a good one, while also also holding the special interests of businessmen and businesswomen who desire a crash course in the psychology of changing consumer behavior.
Published in 2012, Power of Habit does not venture into the deep end of research on current neuromarketing trends, preferring instead to visit briefly the big picture principles of neuroscience as they affect the formation of habit. Duhigg makes explicit reference to some definitive marketing case studies, such as Procter & Gamble’s study of bed-making habits that revolutionized how Febreze would market its spray product, and whose results have made a considerable impact on what marketers look for when conducting studies of the mind. Such marketers understand that the brain is a part of the body that has always been influenced by habit, rather than the other way around, and that if we can market our products to either fit or change a habit, then we need not worry so much about what a consumer thinks about their novelty. As Duhigg says, “[w]hether selling a new song, a new food, or a new crib, the lesson is the same: If you dress a new something in old habits, it’s easier for the public to accept it.” A must-read for everyone new and old to neuromarketing, as well as anyone trying to kick a bad habit and start a good one.
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2. Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind: How to Be Seen and Heard in the Overcrowded Marketplace by Al Ries and Jack Trout
Positioning is widely considered one of the foundational works of Marketing Psychology. Dual-authored by American marketing professionals, Al Ries and Jack Trout in the 1970s, the authors rose to fame in 1972 when they co-wrote a three-part series of articles for Advertising Age magazine, where they coined the term “positioning.” In so doing, they started a discussion about “the place a product occupies in consumers’ minds,” especially in relation to similar and competing products. Published in 1981 as a more in-depth follow up to this series, the book Positioning explained their theory of the role of marketing in business, the effect it should have on a product’s place in the popular imagination, and the change it should affect on consumers’ minds so they would prefer one product over another. While this may seem obvious enough to merit a chorus of “well, duhs!” from us now, the concept shifted the marketing paradigm of the time—which had been focused largely on mass marketing in an increasingly global marketplace—to a more targeted paradigm in which brands would focus more of their energy on finding and occupying a niche instead of monopolizing the entire global marketplace. Inasmuch, Ries and Trout laid the groundwork for neuromarketing to begin pinning down exactly how and where certain advertisements affect our brains. Positioning is required reading for everyone interested in proto-neuromarketing, and the history of how marketing met psychology.
3. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Rom and Ori Brafman
Sway is a Business and Psychology book written by the brothers Rom Brafman and Ori Brafman, a psychologist and businessman, respectively. The Brafman brothers draw on research from several fields, including but not limited to social psychology and behavioral economics, to conclude that irrational biases influence how we react to most stimuli in both the workplace and the home, with emotion instead of reason. Although not explicitly a book on neuromarketing, the Brafmans’ explanations of new cognitive biases and logical fallacies have vast implications for marketers who are interested in new ways that the brain can be swayed to affect social and economic behavior. In fact the principles it extolls concerning group behavior and the strategies it advocates for combating irrational biases have great potential for neuromarketers who want to mine hypotheses to test on the persuasiveness of certain advertisements that implement such biases. Published in 2008, Sway files in with many similar books released around the same time, especially Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Richard Thaler’s Nudge, making it accessible to marketing newcomers, especially those who are skeptical of certain marketing methods and want to develop less irrationally biased and more rationally driven marketing strategies.
4. Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom
Buyology is a Marketing and Psychology book written by the famous Danish brand consultant and one of Time Magazine’s most 100 Influential People of 2009. One of the first books to bring the practices and principles of neuromarketing to a broad audience, Lindstrom draws on his experience as a researcher who has used neuroimaging for over 2,000 human subjects over a three-year period to design a $7 million study that was able to conclude the subconscious mind plays a major role in affecting the consumer’s decision to buy or not to buy. Other conclusions Lindstrom is able to draw include the fact that health warnings do little to deter most smokers from smoking and can in fact have the opposite effect they intend; brands borrow from religions by associating themselves with rituals and routines that make them stand out; and subliminal advertising is alive, well, and all around us despite governmental bans in many countries. Written primarily for a consumer audience, the book’s straightforward delivery helped it reach the global business community, international journalists, and academic classrooms across the world, largely because its findings were new and original. Essentially the book that put current neuromarketing on the map as a serious field of inquiry, Buyology is an instant classic on neuromarketing that demands our full, undivided attention.
5. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal
Hooked is a Business and Psychology book written by Israeli-American author, educator, and entrepreneur, Nir Eyal. Published in 2014, Eyal’s book focuses on how certain products, especially technological ones, hook us into popular use. As the culmination of years of research, client consultations, and practical experience, Hooked entertains examples like Twitter, Pinterest, and even a Bible app to answer the question of what do our brains look like on software as a service? Of course startup junkies, brand managers, and all parties involved in developing a better understanding of how digital interfaces affect user behavior will find the book riveting. Eyal wrote it with them in mind. But its content also applies to the students of neuromarketing because it explains why the discipline is so important: mindmapping gives us a leg up in understanding how content marketing strategies in the future will likely rely on getting us hooked by simple, attractive, and habit-forming design. Indeed, Eyal writes “Companies who form strong user habits enjoy several benefits to their bottom line.” The implication is that if getting users hooked by design makes for forming strong habits, then companies who design with habit in mind will be sure to rake in rewards. Inasmuch as this message relies on the powers of habit, Hooked is an excellent companion to our number one book above, as well as a fantastic stand-alone book about the virtues of crafting elegant user design for a pleasant user experience.
6. The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
The Art of Choosing is a Psychology and Business book written by Dr. Sheena S. Iyengar, a Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. As an expert on the dynamics of choice in the fields of both business and psychology, Dr. Iyengar wrote the book for a broad audience to address some of her (and our) biggest questions about why we choose certain things over others, how we can improve our decision-making processes and their outcomes, as well as why we even desire choice in the first place. Drawing on her own research, experience, and identity, Iyengar asks us to entertain the following proposition: “Your choices of which clothes to wear, which soda to drink, where you live, which school you attend and what to study, and of course your profession all say something about you, and it’s your job to make sure they’re an accurate reflection of who you are. But who are you, really?” Of course we don’t entertain this proposition every time we choose to buy something, but Iyengar contends identity considerations are part of every decision we make, whether we realize it or not. Such big ideas are ripe for neuromarketers to open their minds to, especially as issues of identity have strayed largely to the margins of neuroimaging research. In other words, The Art of Choosing is perfect for new marketing scientists looking for hypotheses to test and theories to prove, as well as marketing students interested in where behavioral economics meets identity formation.
7. Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom
Brandwashed is the second Marketing and Psychology book written by Martin Lindstrom to appear on this list. Published in 2011, Brandwashed peels back another layer of the marketing industry’s onion to reveal tricks of his trade for a consumer audience. This time Lindstrom cites studies performed not just by himself but by other neuroscientists and marketing researchers, a sign that neuromarketing has grown in scope and research output since his first publication. In taking these tactics to take, Lindstrom exposes how subliminal, targeted marketing strategies affect our sexual inhibitions, take advantage of our fear instincts, and subtly manipulate children’s brand preferences. The biggest addition that Brandwashed contributes to the conversation, however, is its introduction of neuroscientific research on the addictiveness of smartphones and their applications, which shows that overuse can require treatment for addiction. Although many reviewers found the book too cynical as it may seem at times to brand consumers too harshly as unthinking sheep, neuromarketing researchers will find a boon of information in the studies Lindstrom makes reference to. This new scientific content is the key contribution of Lindstrom’s second big seller—another instant, if somewhat more controversial classic for neuromarketers, consumers, and scholars worldwide.
8. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
Influence is a Psychology and Business book written by Arizona State Professor Emeritus of Marketing and Psychology, Dr. Robert Cialdini. Published in 1984 to much applause, Influence has been translated into over 30 languages. It explains why people say “yes” to certain questions, as well as how businessmen and businesswomen can be genuinely persuasive yet guard against manipulative tactics of persuasion. Dr. Cialdini draws not only on his training in research psychology but also his experience in business to impress upon a broad audience the six key principles of influence. Concerning such influence, Cialdini writes “Often we don’t realize our attitude toward something is influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past,” or in other words, our past habits and experiences influence how we act in the present, whether we know it or not. Cialdini’s theory of influence has wide-reaching applications for the study of neuromarketing, which accepts on principle the idea that we are unaware of what influences us to buy something, and that previous experience (or habit) will tend to dictate how we react to given stimuli. In these respects, Cialdini’s book was largely ahead of its time in explaining how habit influences consumer behavior, only without neuroimaging to rely on at the time. As a foundational work on the intersection between marketing and psychology, Influence popularized key neuromarketing concepts before neuromarketing was even a concept, and inasmuch, it deserves our nod as a canonical work of proto-neuromarketing literature.
9. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
The Selfish Gene is a Philosophy of Science book written by the contemporary acclaimed British biologist and philosopher, Richard Dawkins. Published in 1976, The Selfish Gene is the book that saw Dawkins rise to enormous popularity, particularly for introducing the term “meme” to contemporary conversation. Based on the notion of a gene, or self-replicating unit within a biological organism, Dawkins coined the word meme to imply an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person-to-person within a cultural context. Although Dawkins makes no explicit reference to either business or psychology in this book, his conception of how ideas spread from person to person affords neuromarketers a simultaneously classic and novel way to view the spread of messaging about their products in the popular imagination. Diehard theoretical neuromarketers searching for grand and controversial theories whose hypotheses they’d like to test will find Dawkins’ meme theory is ripe for the picking, especially during a time when the Internet traffics very literally in viral memes that often market certain products, individuals, and ideas for mass consumption. Should a neuromarketer effectively use neuroimaging to illustrate how memes spread from cultural context to cultural context in terms of virality, they would likely be applauded not only by the business and marketing community, but also the science and philosophy community writ large. That makes The Selfish Gene a read that’s slightly off the beaten path, perhaps even a slight risk in terms of business relevance, but a book that offers a big reward for those willing and able to draw connections between its theories and those of neuromarketing.
10. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Khaneman
Thinking, Fast and Slow is a Economics and Psychology book written by Israeli-American psychologist and professor emeritus at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, Daniel Kahneman. Published in 2011 when it won the Nobel Prize in Economics, the book summarizes much of Kahneman’s research, particularly his findings about the brain’s two distinct systems of operation, which he simply calls “System 1″ and “System 2.” Using neuroimaging in conjunction with economic research, Kahneman describes the first of these functions as being based in the brain’s emotive regions and operating more quickly, while he describes the second of these functions as emanating from the brain’s logical regions and operating more slowly. He goes on to characterize several biases that influence how we interpret information with either a positive or negative spin, extrapolating from economic-based cases of how individuals’ making business decisions find that we tend to act more on the basis of loss aversion than potential gain. Neuromarketers will likely find both conclusions intriguing, as they have implications for how to market products based on affecting System 1 of the brain while persuading audiences that they stands to lose more than they gain or retain if they don’t purchase a certain product. Although not a light read by any means, there is a reason Thinking, Fast and Slow won the Nobel Prize, and that reason lies in the fact that it offers multitudes of audiences the chance to understand the life’s work of one of the world’s greatest behavioral economists. Dedicated neuromarketers and students of marketing will find it well worth the work it asks of them.
Interested in why neuromarketing works and how to use it in your own campaigns? Check out our infographic, It’s All in Your Head.