Understanding Consumer Behavior

Last Updated Nov 7, 2008 5:47 PM EST

It's a new game out there, which will either stoke the fires for new consumer marketing tools like neuromarketing and data analysis, or kill them entirely.

Handily, there are new books out to help companies use the trends. "Buyology," by Martin Lindstrom, examines neuromarketing, using our increased understanding of how the brain works and conjoining it the troves of customer data that now exist at many companies. Business Week gives it 3 (out of 5) stars in Neuromarketing: When an MRI Predicts What You'll Buy. But it calls this book "uneven," while suggesting that Lindstrom is not telling us all he really knows about the subject, perhaps because his clients forbade him.

I would call the review a thumbs-down.

Coincidentally, Business Week's "Buyology" review was written by Stephen Baker, whose book "The Numerati" was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. In They've got your number, Baker's book is credited for having a 'crisp pace,' but too much speculation on whether the number crunchers really know as much about consumers as they think they do. While the reviewer, Rob Walker, doesn't say this directly, the review suggests that the algorithmic models for consumer behavior aren't any better than those for derivative trading.

Perhaps the most telling guide to how consumers will behave in the next few months is based not on fancy tools and techniques but on old-fashioned journalistic research. Peter Gosselin's "High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families," gets a good review from Nobel Prize-wininng economist Robert Solow. In Trapped in the New 'You're on Your Own' World, Solow calls the book "excellent and thoughtful," and says it is both broader and more intimate than other recent books on the subject.

Unfortunately for marketers, the book's theme suggests that even if the neuromarketers and number-crunchers know what we want to buy and how to make us want it now, we won't be able to afford it.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.