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Neuroscience in branding: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study on brands' implicit and explicit impressions

  • University of Maia / Faculty of Medicine, University of Porto

Abstract and Figures

Although the use of neuroscientific knowledge to investigate marketing issues has been widely discussed, to date, few empirical studies have been published. This study is a first approach in the development of a theory of the perception of brands, which is based on neuroscience. In a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging experiment, we stimulated participants with commercial brands’ logos, with and without explicit instructions on how to assess them, in an attempt to capture the real-life experience of evaluating brands. We found common activations in both situations in the medial frontal pole, the paracingulate gyrus, the frontal orbital cortex, the frontal medial cortex, and in the hippocampus. In a general scheme of brands’ perception, we hypothesised a relationship between Theory of Mind and meta-representations, in particular self-reflexive ones: ‘I think about what others are thinking about me’. We suggest that brands have an important social dimension. Brands may function like a social currency, which every individual uses to assess others, and which others are expected to use in their assessments of the individual. Brands are most probably social tools.
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© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Jos é Paulo Santos
ISMAI Superior Institute
of Maia, Av. Carlos Oliveira
Campos Cast ê lo da Maia,
4475-690 Avioso S. Pedro,
Original Article
Neuroscience in branding:
A functional magnetic resonance
imaging study on brands
implicit and explicit impressions
Received (in revised form): 21 st May 2012
Jos é Paulo Santos
recently completed the PhD programme from the Institute of Economy and Management, Technical University of Lisbon,
Portugal, with the theme Neuroscience in Branding. He has 15 years of professional experience in industrial management,
focusing on business-to-business brands, and, more recently, end-customer brands. Also, Santos researches at Socius,
focusing on consumer behaviour. His research interests include Social Neuroscience and associated neuroscientifi c
techniques as fMRI and fNIRS, sociology of brands, Symbolic Interactionism, and self-concept drive by brands.
Daniela Seixas
has a primary degree in medicine, and is currently a neuroradiologist at S ã o Jo ã o Hospital, Portugal. She is also a PhD
student at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto, in collaboration with the Pain Imaging Neuroscience
Group, Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB), University of Oxford, United
Kingdom. Seixas s main research interests are neuroimaging techniques applied to neuroscience research: she is at
present studying pain in neurological diseases using DTI and fMRI, and also collaborating in neuromarketing research.
She has published a recent review on ethics in fMRI studies.
Sofi a Brand ã o
completed her BD in Radiology from the Superior School of Health Technologies of Porto, Porto, Portugal and is
currently pursuing an MD on Biomedical Engineering, and another MD on Medical Informatics, at the Faculty of Medicine
of the University of Porto. Her thesis focuses on segmentation of deep grey nuclei using SPM5 software tools. Brand ã o
has been working since 1999 at the S ã o Jo ã o Hospital, in the Resonance Magnetic Unit. She is also a lecturer in the
Imagiology area. She has several published papers in medical and technical conferences. Her research interests include
Resonance Magnetic techniques.
Luiz Moutinho
is Professor of Marketing and holds the Foundation Chair of Marketing at the School of Business and Management,
University of Glasgow. He has held posts at the Cardiff Business School, University of Wales, Cleveland State University,
Northern Arizona University and California State University, as well as Visiting Professorship positions in several countries.
Moutinho has published 22 books, and extensively in academic journals. He is the Editor of the Journal of Modelling in
Marketing and Management . His research interests include mathematical and computer modelling in marketing, consumer
behaviour and marketing of services.
ABSTRACT Although the use of neuroscientifi c knowledge to investigate marketing
issues has been widely discussed, to date, few empirical studies have been published.
This study is a fi rst approach in the development of a theory of the perception of
brands, which is based on neuroscience. In a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
experiment, we stimulated participants with commercial brands logos, with and
without explicit instructions on how to assess them, in an attempt to capture the
Santos et al
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
overt verbalisations and which directly tackle
the brain structures and networks that sup-
port human behaviour. Despite this, few
empirical articles have been published in
peer-reviewed journals. As our aim is to
con tribute to cutting-edge research, we
chose commercial brands, represented by
their logos, to target a neuroscientifi c app-
roach to the perception of brands.
We selected Functional Magnetic Reso-
nance Imaging (fMRI) owing to certain
advantages. For example, it is ethically accep-
table to apply this technique to healthy parti-
cipants. Other advantages include spatial
resolution and the long established wealth
of knowledge based on cognitive studies
using fMRI. This is crucial in guaranteeing
the nomological validity of the eventual
ndings. However, it is important to indi-
cate certain disadvantages to fully under-
stand the results. The most important is the
association of magnetic resonance ima ging
(MRI) scanners with hospitals, which brings
an unusual context to the expe ri ments. The
extent of the contribution of such an envi-
ronmental infl uence is unknown, notwith-
standing the adoption of practices that aim
to reduce it, such as the wearing of informal
clothes by team members and, before scan-
ning, 15 min of conversation in a relaxing
atmosphere to reduce anxiety. Other major
Neuroscientifi c knowledge has been used
by several researchers and practitioners to
investigate marketing issues ( Zaltman, 2003 ;
Lee et al , 2007 ; Plassmann et al , 2007 ;
Ambler, 2008 ; Hubert and Kenning, 2008 ;
Penn, 2008 ), and a theory of brand building
has already been proposed ( Walvis, 2007 ).
Neuroscience can help in overcoming
known hurdles in the realm of social
science. Direct measures of marketing para-
meters, for example, may be considerably
biased if collected outside important con-
text attributes, such as engaging subjects in
unusual cognitive processes, which produces
spurious measures and reports ( Mueller et al ,
2010 ). In another example, Bernard et al
(1984) studied the problem of informant
accuracy and the validity of retrospective
data and concluded that on average, about
half of what informants report is probably
incorrect in some way ( Bernard et al ,
1984 ). They also add that a weak relation-
ship between a concept and the accurate
measurement of the concept is unaccep-
table . Such deviations are important mainly
when subjects are required to self-report on
their own emotional states ( Chamberlain
and Broderick, 2007 ). Neuroscience, in parti-
cular neuroimaging techniques, may pro-
vide methods that overcome the need for
real-life experience of evaluating brands. We found common activations in both
situations in the medial frontal pole, the paracingulate gyrus, the frontal orbital
cortex, the frontal medial cortex, and in the hippocampus. In a general scheme of
brands perception, we hypothesised a relationship between Theory of Mind and
meta-representations, in particular self-refl exive ones: I think about what others
are thinking about me . We suggest that brands have an important social dimension.
Brands may function like a social currency, which every individual uses to assess
others, and which others are expected to use in their assessments of the individual.
Brands are most probably social tools.
Journal of Brand Management advance online publication, 13 July 2012;
doi: 10.1057/bm.2012.32
Keywords: brand names ; impression management ; social neuroscience ; symbolism ;
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Neuroscience in branding
disadvantages of fMRI are the noise (which
is intrinsic to MRI scanner operations) and
the extremely limited interaction with parti-
cipants. The Appendix at the end of this
article includes some introductory notes on
fMRI that describe the basics of this tech-
nique and which also help in paving the
way to the correct interpretation of the
results. The newcomer to Neuromarketing
is invited to fi rst read the Appendix.
In the present study, we aimed to cap-
ture the same strategy that individuals use
in everyday life when they face brands
logos in the social environment. We believe
that when individuals make social inter-
actions within social groups, they gene rally
do not use rational, fully conscious and
expli cit strategies. On the contrary, they
employ implicit and automated, ready-
made short cuts as a matter of routine
( Greenwald and Banaji, 1995 ; Pelzmann
et al , 2005 ). People have a tendency to
use simple heuristics, theorised as Boun-
ded Rationality ( Selten, 2002 ; Todd and
Gigerenzer, 2003 ). In the Bounded Ration-
ality theory, individuals learn social rules,
which are obedient to general standards
of their culture (such as those astutely
discerned by Goffman (1959) ), and each
indivi dual constructs a repertoire of social
beha viours, which is adapted to each situ-
ation ( Gigerenzer, 2001 ). It is then expected
that humans act socially mostly by implicit
rather than by explicit strategies, that is,
without full cognitive awareness ( Critchley
et al , 2000 ). Indeed, Critchley and his co-
workers believe that common experience
reveals that individuals form impressions of
their peers implicitly, and implicitly use this
information when they interact ( Critchley
et al , 2000 ). In spite of this, most of the
studies in neuroscience use explicit para-
digms. For this reason, we designed an fMRI
experiment to study whether implicit and
explicit brands appraisal is in fact different.
It is worth emphasising the methodo-
logy of our approach. The purpose of the
present study is not to fi nd proofs on the
dimensions of brands from an exact disci-
pline. This is rather the fi rst study of a series
that aims at an experimental use of neuro-
scientifi c techniques and knowledge to
investigate brand perception. Three princi-
ples from Grounded Theory are recognis-
able in our strategy ( Strauss and Corbin,
1990 ; Corbin and Strauss, 2007 ). First, we
do not have previously constructed models
from neuroscience, nor psychology, nor
sociology, nor, of course, from marketing.
Previous models tend to introduce a bias
in the studies and, if we aim to capture a
different perspective on brands, in this case
a neuroscientifi c perspective, such biases
could introduce infl uences from established
knowledge pertaining to other disciplines.
That is why this fi rst study is broad, loosely
bounded and very simple; it contrasts assor ted
brands logos with non-emotional words,
and uses simple, yet very robust, fMRI
block design. However, we introduced
some level of complexity in the fMRI data
analysis by employing a model-free tool
that is not commonly used. The results
produ ced by this tool are stressed exactly
because it is model-free and diminishes
eventual infl uences originated by the para-
digm structure. Second, all the fi ndings
must be data grounded. The activated brain
structures will be used to infer concepts that
support brands dimensions in the same
way when texts are coded to generate
higher level concepts, categories and theo-
ries. The difference is that the researcher s
subjec tive perspective is considerably
reduced as the coding (activated and deac-
tivated brain structures) will be done by
computer programs. Nevertheless, compa-
risons with simi lar neuroscientifi c studies
will be present throughout to guarantee
nomological validity, and this specifi c work
will be carried by human researchers, who
will decide on the more pertinent according
to their perceptions. Third, we aim to
produce a theory on consumers brands
Santos et al
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
be acquired. In each slide, a brand logo was
placed over a black background. It is worth
noting that none of the participants in the
screening procedure took part in the actual
As a baseline, we used words without
emotional content that could not evoke
objects or actions. These words were deter-
miners, conjunctions, prepositions or
adverbs, and they were written in white
(lower case, font Arial, 150, bold) over
a black background. Because this was the
rst study of a series, an option for an
elaborated baseline (for example, brands
logos of products and services from other
markets) could disguise important activa-
tions, and eliminate possible relevant trends
prematurely ( Matthews et al , 2003 ). The
natural option would be a baseline that
could achieve high contrasts with the
logos, as a fi xation cross, despite knowing
that looking at a fi xation cross is not resting
at all ( D Argembeau et al , 2005 ). Other
studies on passive viewing and on the
default mode have reported cortical activa-
tions in structures related to self-referential
refl ective activity ( Iacoboni et al , 2004 ;
Schilbach et al , 2008 ). Thus, the use of
a baseline that could induce self-referential
refl ective acti vity, such as a fi xation cross
or chequered patterns, would cancel such
an important characteristic. Hence, for the
baseline, we ultimately chose words that
could not evoke emotions, in the hope of
retaining an eventual emotional content
associated only with the brands, and that
simultaneously could provide some inno-
cuous activity that would swerve self-
referential thoughts from the participant s
perception. The fi ndings of the present
study will be used to design future inves-
tigations, which will challenge previous
concepts and constructed concepts links.
Initial studies will examine general brands
perception, but subsequent ones will intro-
duce the necessary refi nement to produce
a grounded theory.
Experimental design
We designed an fMRI experiment made
up of two identical runs where commercial
brands logos were the stimuli visually pre-
sented to the study subjects. In the fi rst
run, stimuli were presented without pre-
vious instructions, which aimed to capture
implicit behaviours. Before the second
run, participants received explicit instruc-
tions, which aimed to capture overt behav-
iours. The scheme of the study is depicted
in Figure 1 .
The experiment was designed in blocks,
where the slide set used was the same for
both runs, employing as stimuli brands
logos, with their characteristic shapes, col-
ours and wording in everyday life. Before
the scanning sessions, 237 commercial
brands logos were screened by a question-
naire delivered to 147 volunteers. The pur-
pose of this preliminary screening was to
decide on the brands that were most well
known to the population from which the
study sample was to be taken, thus mini-
mising the risk of including unknown
brands in the slide set. It was our assump-
tion that unknown brands would elicit dif-
ferent brain processes, and thus would
introduce cognitive noise in the data to
Figure 1 : Complete sequence of the experiment. Duration is approximate.
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Neuroscience in branding
In each run, the slide set was composed
of 16 baseline periods alternated with 16
stimuli periods, starting with a baseline
period. The stimuli period had the same
duration as the baseline period, 30 seconds
long. Within each 30-second period, fi ve
slides were visually displayed, each for
6 seconds. Thus, the slide set contained
80 stimulus slides and 80 baseline slides, and
lasted for exactly 16 min. Figure 2 depicts
the structure of the paradigm showing some
examples of the stimulus and baseline.
In the fi rst run, the implicit one, volun-
teers only had to look at the screen during
the scanning procedure. Nothing was men-
tioned with regard to what they were about
to see. In the interval between the fi rst
and the second runs, the subjects completed
a questionnaire on the brands logos they
saw in the fi rst run, and which they would
see during the second run. The volunteers
were asked to evaluate each brand hedoni-
cally, rating them as unknown, or negative,
or indifferent, or positive. In this way, they
were trained in the brand assessment they
were asked to do in the second run.
The order of the runs was crucial; as the
implicit task was fi rst, we hoped to avoid
any expectations and strategies from the
participants, in capturing covert evalua-
tions, to then compare with the explicit
assessment of the same brands. If the explicit
task had been fi rst, the next task could
never have been implicit, as the participants
would have guessed the intention owing
to the biasing effect of previous exposure
to instructions. Although it is good practice
to randomise or alternate runs, this would
have spoiled the intended effect in the
present study.
Human subjects
The participants were six healthy male and
eight healthy female volunteers, right handed,
with neither a history of neurological nor
psychiatric disturbances (mean age: 28.4
years, 5.4 SD ; mean education: 16.2 years,
1.5 SD ). None of the participants was taking
psychoactive medication. Informed consent
was obtained in all cases. A safety form for
MRI was completed by the participants.
This research project complied with the
Declaration of Helsinki and was approved
by the local ethics committee.
Two female participants were excluded
from the analysis, one due to excessive
head movement and the other due to
Data acquisition
Functional images were obtained using a
T2 * -weighted EPI sequence in a Siemens
Magnetom Trio 3 Tesla MRI scanner
(Siemens AG, Germany) (TR = 3000 ms,
TE = 30 ms, 64 × 64 matrix, FOV = 192 mm,
36 axial slices with 3.0 mm thickness). A
whole brain structural scan was also acqui red
for each volunteer, using a T1-weighted
MPRAGE protocol (256 × 256 matrix,
FOV = 192 mm, 36 axial slices with 3.0 mm
thickness), for co-registration purposes. Both
acquisitions were interleaved. Gradient fi eld
mapping was additionally obtained. In each
run (implicit and explicit), 340 functional vol-
umes were acquired. The fi rst 20 volumes
were discarded because of pulse stabilisation.
Figure 2 : Structure of the paradigm with some examples of the baseline (non-emotional words).
Note : Slides with real brand logos were used in place of LOGO.
Santos et al
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
outlier detection ( Woolrich, 2008 ). In this
level, group means were calculated from
the fi rst-level contrasts.
z (Gaussianised T / F) statistic images were
thresholded using clusters determined by
z > 2.3 and a (corrected) cluster signifi cance
threshold of p = 1.00 ( Worsley, 2001 ). Only
clusters with more than 50 voxels survived
the threshold.
Conjunction analysis was performed acc-
or ding to Nichols and colleagues method
( Nichols et al , 2005 ), that is, the voxels con-
sidered active in the conjunction were those
that cumulatively were statistically signifi -
cant in the implicit and explicit analysis.
In the MELODIC analysis, 24 data sets
(12 implicit and 12 explicit) were com-
puted, aiming to extract independent spatial
components common to both runs. The
following data pre-processing was applied:
masking of non-brain voxels, voxel-wise
de-meaning of the data and normalisation
of the voxel-wise variance. Pre-processed
data were whitened and projected into a
113-dimensional subspace using proba bi-
listic Principal Component Analysis where
the number of dimensions was estimated
using the Laplace approximation to the
Bayesian evidence of the model order
( Minka, 2000 ; Beckmann and Smith, 2004 ).
The whitened observations were decom-
posed into sets of vectors, which describe
signal variation across the temporal domain
(time-courses), the session / subject domain
and across the spatial domain (maps) by
optimising for non-Gaussian spatial source
distributions using a fi xed-point iteration
technique ( Hyv ä rinen, 1999 ). Estimated com-
ponent maps were divided by the standard
deviation of the residual noise and thresh-
olded by fi tting a mixture model to the
histogram of intensity values ( Beckmann
and Smith, 2004 ).
The identifi cation of the main ana-
tomical structures in the clusters was made
with masks based on the statistical para-
metric maps produced by both analysis
Image analysis
FMRI data processing was carried out
using FEAT (FMRI Expert Analysis Tool)
Version 5.98, a model-based GLM (Gene ral
Linear Model) analysis tool, and also
using Tensorial Independent Component
Analysis ( Beckmann and Smith, 2005 ) as
implemented in MELODIC (Multivariate
Exploratory Linear Decomposition into
Independent Components) Version 3.09, a
model-free analysis tool, both part of FSL
FMRIB s Software Library, www.fmrib ( Smith et al , 2004 ).
In the FEAT analysis, the following pre-
statistics processing was applied: motion
correction using (Motion Correction using
FMRIB s Linear Image Registration Tool)
( Jenkinson et al , 2002 ); slice-timing correc-
tion using Fourier-space time-series phase-
shifting; non-brain removal using BET
(Brain Extraction Tool) ( Smith, 2002 ); spa-
tial smoothing using a Gaussian kernel of
full width half maximum 5 mm; grand-mean
intensity normalisation of the entire 4D data
set by a single multiplicative factor; highpass
temporal fi ltering (Gaussian-weighted least-
squares straight line fi tting, with sigma =
30.0 s). Time-series statistical analysis was
performed using FILM (FMRIB s Improved
Linear Modelling) with local autocorrela-
tion correction ( Woolrich et al , 2001 ). Reg-
istration to high resolution structural and / or
standard space images was done with FLIRT
(FMRIB s Linear Image Registration Tool)
( Jenkinson and Smith, 2001 ; Jenkinson et al ,
2002 ).
At the fi rst-level analysis and separately
for each run, stimuli and baseline were sub-
tracted, resulting in the contrasts implicit >
baseline and explicit > baseline, and also
stimuli were subtracted between them,
resulting in the contrasts implicit > explicit
and explicit > implicit.
Higher-level analysis was performed
using FLAME (FMRIB s Local Analysis
of Mixed Effects) stage 1 ( Beckmann et al ,
2003 ; Woolrich et al , 2004 ) with automatic
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Neuroscience in branding
tools (GLM and model-free). The masks
were designed according to the probabil-
istic atlases Harvard-Oxford Cortical Structural
Atlas and Harvard-Oxford Subcortical Struc-
tural Atlas provided by the Harvard Centre
for Morphometric Analysis ( www.cma ), which are part of FSL
View v3.0.2, part of FSL 4.1.2. Each voxel
of each cluster was assigned to a single brain
structure. In cases where several structures
could be probabilistically attributed to a
voxel, the structure that had the highest
probability was chosen.
Behavioural results
The subjects reported as negative 14 per
cent of the brands, as indifferent 32 per cent
of the brands and as positive 53 per cent of
the brands. The unknown answers were
negligible (1 per cent).
Activations produced in the brain
common to the implicit and explicit
The main activations produced in the brain
common to both the implicit and explicit
paradigms are depicted in Figure 3 . The
activations found in the paracingulate gyrus,
medial frontal pole, left frontal orbital cortex,
hippocampus and fusiform gyrus (occipital
fusiform gyrus and temporal occipital fusi-
form cortex) are of special interest.
Figure 4 illustrates the hemodynamic
response of the medial frontal pole and the
paracingulate gyrus. The response in the
frontal pole is similar in both runs (implicit
and explicit), only pointing the decay in
the implicit response along the stimulus
block. In the paracingulate gyrus we draw
attention to a decay along the stimulus
block in both runs, with a very similar pat-
tern. In the graph, the results show that the
signal change is stronger in the explicit run
Figure 3 : Activations obtained with the conjunction analysis (statistical parametric maps produced by FEAT).
Note : In each pane, the left column refers to the thresholded map ( z > 2.3), and the right column refers to the thresholded activations
with the brain structures highlighted with false colours (R: right; P: posterior; FFG: fusiform gyrus; FOC: frontal orbital cortex; Hip:
hippocampus; mFP: medial frontal pole; pCG: paracingulate gyrus; MNI152 coordinates ).
Santos et al
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
synchronous activity in the following areas:
amygdala, fusiform gyrus, frontal medial
cortex, frontal orbital cortex, frontal oper-
culum cortex, insular cortex, medial frontal
pole and paracingulate gyrus The activation
of these structures had a unique period of
60 seconds (1.67 Hz / 100), which was exactly
the same of the stimulus onset.
than in the implicit run, although both are
In the model-free analysis with MELODIC,
the independent component # 32 was selected
due to the high correlation of its timecourse
with the block-design sequence of both runs
(implicit and explicit) of the experiment
( P < 0.00001). This component included
Figure 4 : Selected peristimulus hemodynamic response in two voxels. ( a ) ( 08, 62, 30) with 67 per cent probability in the frontal
pole, and ( b ) ( 06, 16, 44) with 61 per cent probability in the paracingulate gyrus (MNI152 coordinates).
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Neuroscience in branding
The statistical parametric maps and cor-
responding graphs are shown in Figure 5 .
Activations produced in the brain that
characterise the implicit paradigm
(contrast implicit > explicit)
The amygdala, the parahippocampal gyrus
and a ventral medial region comprising the
ventral medial frontal pole, the frontal
medial cortex and subcallosal cortex were
brain structures signifi cantly activated when
the implicit run was contrasted with the
explicit run (see Figure 6 ).
Activations produced in the brain that
characterise the explicit paradigm
(contrast explicit > implicit)
The activations produced in the brain
when the explicit paradigm was contrasted
with the implicit are shown in Figure 7 .
Figure 5 : Independent component # 32 selected from the model-free analysis with MELODIC. This component explains 1.04 per
cent of the total variance. ( a ) The top row depicts thresholded activations and deactivations. The bottom row refers only to the
thresholded activations with brain structures highlighted in false colours (R: right; P: posterior; Amy: amygdala; FFG: fusiform gyrus;
FMC: frontal medial cortex; FOC: frontal orbital cortex; FOp: frontal operculum cortex; Ins: insular cortex; mFP: medial frontal pole;
pCG: paracingulate gyrus; MNI152 coordinates). ( b ) Timecourse of the independent component # 32 and full model fi t; F -test on the
full model fi t: P = 686.01 (dof1 = 2; dof2 = 317) P < 0.00001; Contrast of parameter: z = 22.96; P < 0.00001. ( c ) Powerspectrum of the
timecourse. The frequency of the peak is 1.67 Hz / 100, which corresponds to a period of 60 seconds.
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© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Figure 6 : Activations that characterise the implicit task when contrasted with the explicit (statistical parametric maps produced by FEAT).
Note : The left column refers to the thresholded map ( z > 2.3), and the right column refers to the thresholded activations with the
brain structures highlighted in false colours (R: right; P: posterior; Amy: amygdala; FMC: frontal medial cortex; pHG: parahippocampal
gyrus; MNI152 coordinates).
Figure 7 : Activations that characterise the explicit task when contrasted with the implicit (statistical parametric maps produced by FEAT).
Note : The left column refers to the thresholded map ( z > 2.3), and the right column refers to the thresholded activations with the brain
structures highlighted in false colours (R: right; P: posterior; FOp: frontal operculum cortex; IFG: inferior frontal gyrus (comprising the
pars opercularis and the pars triangularis); Ins: insular cortex; lFP: lateral frontal pole; Pal: pallidum; Put: putamen; MNI152 coordinates).
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Neuroscience in branding
The brain structures identifi ed include the
inferior frontal gyrus (comprising the pars
opercularis and pars triangularis), insular
cortex, frontal operculum and nucleus
lentiformis (comprising the pallidum and
As the slide set that contained the brands
logos that served as stimulus was the same
for all subjects, there was the possibility that
unknown brands / logos could introduce
cognitive processes that would interfere with
brand appraisals. However, as the stimuli
were pre-screened, the unknown logos were
negligible (1 per cent of total stimuli). There-
fore, we can conclude that subjects per-
formed only brand assessments, at least during
the explicit scanning session.
When contrasting the two tasks, implicit
and explicit, our goal was to capture specifi c
processes in the hope of a better under-
standing of how individuals deal implicitly
with brands logos, and of how they assess
the brands, in an explicit and purposeful
manner. There is, however, a methodo-
logical diffi culty. In order to allow subjects
to make free implicit assessments of brands,
they could not be instructed beforehand,
and it was not also possible to control
the execution of the task. Nevertheless, our
rm hypothesis is that, on a daily basis,
we evaluate brands implicitly more often
than explicitly. As such, we circumvented
this problem by doing a conjunction analysis
of the two runs, and therefore uncovered
a general mechanism of brands assess-
ment, common to both implicit and exp-
licit situations.
Common processes: The self-related
We registered a common activation to the
implicit and explicit tasks in the medial
frontal pole. The location of this activation
is consistent with what Amodio and Frith
named as the anterior rostral medial frontal
cortex, arMFC ( Amodio and Frith, 2006 ).
From their meta-analysis results, this region
was found to be important in the neural
processing of different categories of tasks:
self-knowledge, person knowledge and
mentalising. All these categories are crucial
for social interactions; the ability to read
how others evaluate our self-image is an
example. Self-knowledge is pivotal for an
individual to be able to differentiate himself /
herself from others ( Ruby and Decety,
2004 ), and promotes the capacity to self-
attribute preferences and dispositions ( Kelley
et al , 2002 ). In addition, activations in this
region were found to occur when trying
to differentiate people from objects ( Mitchell
et al , 2005 ), which raises the possibility
that brands are not considered mere objects,
but are judged to be closer to people, as
distinctive components. Self-knowledge is
a reference to self-concept, so that the moti-
vations self-esteem and self-consistence can
act purposefully ( Sirgy, 1982 ; Banister and
Hogg, 2004 ), mainly in the social envi-
ronment ( Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967 ;
Johar and Sirgy, 1991 ). This self-referential
processing in the social domain has been
shown to have neural correlates, again in
the medial frontal pole ( Northoff et al ,
2006 ). Schaefer and colleagues have dem-
onstrated that culturally self-relevant familiar
cars brands, displayed implicitly, also acti-
vate the medial frontal pole in a way
similar to our study s fi ndings ( Schaefer
et al , 2006 ). All of these fi ndings suggest
that commercial brands, together with
their symbolic content, are landmarks that
each individual recognises as useful for
self-characterisation, and are used to con-
struct his / her identity within the social
milieu ( Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998 ).
Other phenomenological studies have been
reporting the role that brands and com-
modities have in self-construal ( Belk, 1988 ;
Fournier 1998 ; Ahuvia, 2005 ; Escalas and
Bettman 2005 ; Allen et al , 2008 ). There is
therefore convergence between this body
Santos et al
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
action, the self-refl exive nature of the
individual and the negotiation of each indi-
vidual s self-concept in the social context.
Consequently, the Theory of Mind plays
a crucial role, as every individual, during
a social transactional process, must infer the
mental state of his / her peers (namely beliefs,
aims, intentions and strategies), and brands
socially relevant meanings may have a con-
tribution in such inferences. Considering
our fi ndings and the supportive literature,
we hypothesise that brands are meaningful
utensils that each individual gathers and
uses to diffuse his / her own identity and to
perceive and interpret the messages ema-
nated by his / her peers. Our interpretation
is that brands are a culturally accepted social
currency, for an individual to make infer-
ences reliably of others: brands are indeed
social tools.
Common processes: A probable
general valuation mechanism also
used for brands
Damasio established the connection bet-
ween damage of the orbitofrontal cortex,
emotions and decision-making ( Dam á sio,
1994 ). Other neurological cases of lesions
in the same cortical area have been reported
to have similar consequences, for example
the inability to perform advantageously in
the Iowa Gambling Task ( Bechara, 2004 ),
and inappropriate social behaviour, in spite
of the conservation of the awareness of
social norms ( Beer et al , 2006 ). The modu-
lation of the orbitofrontal cortex extends
to non-conscious brain areas, with indivi-
duals being able to anticipate rewards whilst
performing economic decisions ( Bechara
and Dam á sio, 2005 ). It also participates in
emotion modulation and behaviour condi-
tioning, through a top-down control over
structures such as the insula or the amygdala
( Adolphs, 2001, 2003 ). The orbitofrontal
cortex is subdivided into three regions: one
medial, which comprises the ventral medial
frontal pole, the frontal medial cortex and
of knowledge and the fi ndings of our study
obtained with fMRI. Interestingly, these
processes seem to happen both consciously
and also beyond conscious awareness, that
is, explicitly and implicitly, which supports
our initial assumption.
Common processes: The social
Another important activation common to
both runs was found in the paracingulate
gyrus. In accordance with the discussion in
the previous paragraph, functional investi-
gations that study social interactions usually
report activations in this area. The Theory
of Mind, mentalising, meta-representations
and second-order meta-representations have
been linked to the paracingulate gyrus
( Gallagher and Frith, 2003 ; Rilling et al ,
2004 ; Amodio and Frith, 2006 ; Brunet-
Gouet and Decety, 2006 ; Saxe, 2006 ; Frith,
2007 ). The same brain area is thought to
be involved when subjects make judge-
ments about similar and dissimilar individ-
uals ( Mitchell et al , 2006 ), and again when
forming impressions of people as opposed
to objects ( Mitchell et al , 2004, 2005 ). The
Theory of Mind is important in making
predictions about others behaviour on the
basis of their mental states ( Baron-Cohen
et al , 1985 ). Stone defends this as one of
the underpinnings of the complexity of our
social groups ( Stone, 2006 ), attributing to
humans a social cognition ( Adolphs, 2001,
2003 ). The refl exive meta-representations,
or second-order representations, where an
individual predicts what other individuals
think about himself / herself, are essential for
communicative intentions between indi-
viduals ( Ermer et al , 2006 ; Frith, 2007 ), and
brings up the triadic social interaction: Ide
ntity Communication Image. On the
other hand, according to the theory of
the Symbolic Interactionism, the value of
a brand is asserted within the social group
( Ligas and Cotte, 1999 ). Symbolic inter-
actionism is a complex play among social
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Neuroscience in branding
the subcallosal cortex as delineated in the
Harvard-Oxford Cortical Structural Atlas , and
two lateral relative to the medial, corre-
sponding to the lateral frontal pole and the
frontal orbital cortex. Stimuli valence rep-
resentations are usually assigned to the late ral
regions ( O Doherty et al , 2001 ; Rolls,
2004 ; Ursu and Carter, 2005 ), although
this is still controversial ( Elliott et al , 2000 ).
The medial region decodes rewards and
implements a reinforced learning mecha-
nism that monitors and sustains the relevant
reinforcers ( Rolls, 2004 ; Windmann et al ,
2006 ). In our study, the lateral regions parti-
cipated extensively in both runs, although
specifi c sub-regions activated more signi-
cantly in the explicit run. A small area of
activation in the medial region was regis-
tered only in the model-free analysis, and
was more extensive in the contrast implicit >
explicit. More studies are needed to explore
these fi ndings further. Perhaps the orbitof-
rontal cortex, represented by these medial
frontal areas, participates in the perception
and valuation of brands.
The common activation between the
implicit and explicit paradigm that we have
found in the hippocampus was expected,
because of its function in declarative and
mnemonic memories ( Critchley et al , 2000 ).
This structure participates in the process
of recall based on recognition ( Paller and
Wagner, 2002 ; Yonelinas, 2002 ; Bailey and
Kandel, 2004 ; Fortin et al , 2004 ), and in
a study performed on culturally familiar
sodas, both the right and left hippocampi
responded preferentially to brand-cued versus
light-cued soda delivery ( McClure et al ,
2004 ).
Interpretation of the processes
observed in the implicit run
Looking at the results of our study, it is
apparent that the implicit and explicit para-
digms recruited a network of brain regions
that does not completely overlap. In other
words, our data strongly suggests that the
neural substrates of forming impressions
on commercial brands are different accor-
ding to whether or not the participants are
given instructions. The same may happen
in other types of experiments. For example,
games are often used in neuroeconomic
research, where the participants are previ-
ously instruc ted on their rules (for a review,
see Montague et al , 2006 ). In some cases,
the participants are even trained before the
study session, as we did in our second
explicit fMRI run. Considering our results,
we would suggest caution in the interpre-
tation of such studies, where conditioning
the subjects performance may modulate
the resulting neural activation. Economic
behaviour is not always conscious and
rational. Emotions drive most of the deci-
sions ( Dam á sio 1994 ; Bechara and Dam á sio,
2005 ), and emotions tend to induce beha-
viours implicitly ( Critchley et al , 2000 ;
Pelzmann et al , 2005 ).
We consider the activation of the amy-
gdala, just observed in the implicit run and
in the model-free analysis, a key result, due
to its role in primary emotional processing
( Adolphs et al , 1998 ; Bechara et al , 1999 ;
Adolphs, 2003 ; Zald, 2003 ; Norris et al ,
2004 ; Ashwin et al , 2007 ; Beaucousin et al ,
2007 ), with connections to the frontal medial
cortex and the hippocampus ( Stefanacci
and Amaral, 2002 ). This suggests that the
human emotional network can be involved
in the perception of brands, although the
logos that were chosen for our study were
varied and were not screened purposefully
according to their emotional content. Adolphs
(2006) proposed that the amygdala is neces-
sary for humans to probe the social envi-
ronment systematically, in the search for
clues that allow them to make inferences
about the minds of others and to use other
people as a collective resource . This also
supports the social role that we hypothesise
that brands have. Interestingly, the amy-
gdala activated in the implicit run, but
not in the explicit one. It may happen that
Santos et al
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Sirgy, 1991 ). Thus, tracking him / herself in
the social milieu is crucial for a purposeful
navi gation ( Blumer, 1969 ; Stryker, 1990 );
the individual s emotional system is the best
adaptive behavioural trump to be successful
( Rolls, 2000 ). Brands supply socially rele-
vant meanings to help individuals construct
their self-concepts ( Sirgy, 1982 ; Belk, 1988 ;
Kleine III et al , 1993 ). This study allowed
for the emergence of the social dimension
in the perception of brands as one of the
most relevant. Based on our fi ndings, new
hypotheses can be formulated and further
studies should investigate the involvement
of each of the concepts discussed in more
detail (and respective neuroanatomic cor-
relates). To strengthen our fi ndings, brands
logos should be contrasted against diverse
baselines. This is particularly relevant for
the inferior frontal gyrus, which activated
unexpectedly in the explicit run. Was this
due to speech inhibition, as the participants
were instructed to assess the brands covertly,
without speaking? Was it part of the explicit
reasoning process? It should also be further
pursued if the social relevance found is
common to all brands, or if it is specifi c to
some classes.
We used as stimuli assorted brands logos
without any kind of categorisation or
screening (except for their recognition).
Future studies should introduce differences
in brands and should search for anato mical
structures or networks that could be brain
signatures for such categories and which
might surpass traditional limitations of ver-
balising when individuals are faced with
questions in marketing research interviews
the non-natural behaviour that subjects
performed in the explicit run may have
suppressed the activation of the amygdala.
Further studies are required to make clear
the amygdala s role in brands impressions.
Interpretation of the processes
observed in the explicit run
Signifi cantly more in the explicit than in
the implicit paradigm, we have found acti-
vations in the frontal operculum, inferior
frontal gyrus, insular cortex, pallidum and
putamen, structures that are possibly invol ved
in deliberative reasoning. Referring in
more detail to the activation found in the
inferior frontal gyrus, it is well known that
it is part of Broca s area in the left-brain
hemisphere. Intriguingly, the paradigm s
baseline was composed of words that had
neither emotional content, nor suggested
objects or actions, and every stimulus had
only the wording correspondent to its
respective brand. Therefore, in theory, non-
emotional language areas should have not
produced activations in the brain. We ack-
nowledge though that language processing
is complex and far from being completely
understood, and that the participation of
Broca s area obtained in our study, together
with other brain regions that activated sig-
nifi cantly more in the explicit run, may have
other explanations and should therefore be
further investigated.
Although without obtaining defi nite answers
in our fi rst approach to brands logos per-
ception using neuroscientifi c knowledge
and methods, we inferred several abductive
concepts ( Peirce, 1931 , CP:5, pp. 188 191)
that can be part of such a process: emotions,
self-reference and social relevance (see
Figure 8 ). The interplay among these con-
cepts is logical under a social cognition
umbrella: any individual seeks to attain his /
her ideal social self-concept ( Johar and
Figure 8 : Constructs and model inferred in the experiment.
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Neuroscience in branding
or when they are asked to report about
their own emotions ( Chamberlain and
Broderick, 2007 ).
In the present study, the meaning of the
brands was conveyed through their respec-
tive logos. Although it may be expected
that logos with their usual vivid colours,
shapes, fonts and wording express a large
amount of brand experience, in fact only
the visual sense was recruited (in addition
to the noise, the scanner imposes some
limitations to interact with subjects, which
largely compromise the recruitment of the
other senses, although some researchers
have tried to overcome such limitations
with success ( Plassmann et al , 2008 )). How-
ever, it may be expected that brand
know ledge is also suggested through other
means, for example sounds or smells that
were not tested in the present study. It
would be interesting to have a parallel
investigation of the neural bases of these
brand imprints, either by fMRI, or by
other techniques. Such investigations could
reveal if it is possible to deliver the brand s
meaning through several senses and if these
channels converge or act in tandem provi-
ding complementary dimensions. In such a
case, it would be also important to probe
whether the social brain still has a role in
brand perception, in the same way as in
our study.
Strengthening further the model of brand
perception that we have proposed may
yield useful guidelines for practitioners
in the near future. It can be useful in brand
construction, focusing on emotional, self-
related and socially relevant content, which
may be assessed with neuroscientifi c tech-
niques. There is already suffi cient litera-
ture that considers these constructs in
branding, but novelty lies in the possibility
of accessing these dimensions with the
exemption of self-reporting and indirect
techniques. In fact, it may be now possible
to question directly the source of all beha-
vioural responses: the brain.
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Neuroscience in branding
This section is intended to give a basic
knowledge in order to interpret the results
and conclusions in this article correctly. We
recommend complementary readings that
focus on some important aspects on this
technique so that deeper understanding
may be achieved ( Jezzard et al , 2001 ; Huettel
et al , 2004 ).
What is measured in fMRI?
The last word in fMRI, imaging, means
that this technique delivers mainly images.
In this article, the fi gures of brain images
included are used to report the results. In
fact, these pictures are not like common
photos; they result from the overlaying of
two distinct images. The one that lies below
is the anatomic and is an image of the
physical brain, that is, its biological tissues.
It is acquired using a T1-weighted
MPRAGE protocol (see Methods section)
and is fi nely detailed. The side of a pixel
is usually around 1 mm (in the present study
it is 0.75 mm). The image that is above
corresponds to the fi rst letter of fMRI:
functional. This image represents the blood-
oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal,
is acquired at a different stage (although
usually within the same session) using a
T2 * -weighted EPI sequence (see Methods
section), and it is not as detailed as the ana-
tomical; usually the side of the pixels is
around 3 mm (as in the present study).
The purpose of the anatomical image is
to indicate the place in the brain to which
the functional data belongs. As the brain is
anatomically divided, it is then possible to
assign a certain function to a specifi c brain
region. However, this matter is not con-
sensual and there is enough evidence that
the functional organisation does not coin-
cide with the anatomical division ( Tong,
2011 ). In any case, naming structures in the
brain where there is activity helps in com-
municating the fi ndings among the scien-
tifi c community.
The BOLD signal, the essence of fMRI
technique, is far from being understood
( Logothetis, 2008 ). It is believed that it
indirectly represents the neural activity.
Supposedly, the BOLD signal is generated
when oxyhaemoglobin molecules in red
blood cells release oxygen, transforming
into deoxyhaemoglobin. The former mole-
cule is diamagnetic, whereas the latter is
paramagnetic. This distinct magnetic beha -
viour is detectable and measurable in mag-
netic resonance scanners and constitutes
the core of the T2 * -weighted EPI (func-
tional) acquisitions.
Thus, in fMRI, perturbations in the
magnetic fi eld that occur when oxyhaemo-
globin liberates oxygen are the target of
measurement. This is an indirect assessment
of neuronal activity. Supposedly, the con-
sumption of glucose and oxygen increases
through the delivery of energy when neu-
rons are recruited for a cognitive process,
and promotes the chemical reaction that
transforms oxyhaemoglobin in a paramag-
netic compound (deoxyhaemoglobin). All
this process has a magnetic imprint that is
This means that absolute quantifi cations
of neuronal activity in fMRI are neither
practical nor useful. If the purpose of the
study is to realise whether a certain brain
region participates or not in a process, it
has to be put in two (at least) different stages
of oxygen consumption (activation and
resting state). It is the contrast between
these two stages that will allow the com-
putation of the differences between image
signal intensities, supposedly proportional
to active neuronal performance. Activated
brain areas will show signal intensity vari-
ations, whereas non-requested areas will
not have fMRI-detectable hemodynamic
changes. Moreover, when two stages are
compared, if the signal in the stage of
interest is stronger than in the other stage,
activation in that brain region has occurred;
when the opposite is shown, it is called
Santos et al
© 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
deactivation. Thus, there is activation of
a certain brain region if the stimulus of
interest participates more than the contrast
situations, and deactivation when the oppo-
site happens. These phenomena are marked
in functional images. Contrarily to the ana-
tomical image, which is usually shown in
grey scale, the functional image is colour-
coded. Two ranges of colours are estab-
lished: red to yellow representing increasing
activations, and blue to light blue repre-
senting increasing deactivations.
Functional data are commonly analysed
with the GLM. This method yields statis-
tical signifi cances, which means that the
more the signal follows the model, the
higher is the positive signifi cance, which is
coded with the range red to yellow; on the
contrary, the higher is the negative signifi -
cance, the more the signal follows the
inverse o