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Marketing Placebo Effects: Evidence from a Cosmetic Test using Neuromarketing Methods

By Billy Nascimento

Several studies have shown how expectancy could be very effective in shaping how we perceive and feel in reality. The known placebo effect, further investigated in pharmaceutical industries, has a remarkable influence in marketing issues as well. A wealth of evidence has shown that context, brands or even prices are capable of modulating consumers’ experience; a phenomenon named Marketing Placebo Effects (MPEs). In the early stages of product development, a huge number of companies customarily perform blind tests, without branding, to measure the acceptance of consumers regarding the sensorial aspects of the products. This kind of research allows companies to evaluate the efficiency of their products without the bias that brands could imbue. In the research discussed here, Forebrain conducted a study for the O Boticário Group, a market leader in fragrances in Brazil and the largest beauty franchise in the world. Neuroscience was applied to help understand how a slight change in the formula of one of its bestselling body lotions could affect consumers’ experience. The study was conducted taking MPEs into consideration and was performed blind and with knowledge of the brand to see how it could influence the consumers’ perception.

Applying neuromarketing methods, Forebrain measured the consumers’ emotional response when wearing the new version of the body lotion, in comparison with the current one. The main goal was to evaluate if consumers’ reactions regarding the fragrance and texture of the new product version would differ from the current one. The study was divided into two phases conducted on two different days. On the first day, all the interaction was carried out in a blind paradigm, and participants were informed that it was a test of different body lotions. On the second day, the brand and the product concept were presented before the beginning of the test. The 64 participants in the sample of the study were monitored using ECG (electrocardiography), fEMG (facial electromyography), and pupillometry (a technique that measures pupil diameter) when wearing and smelling the two product versions. After this interaction with the products, the participants performed a behavioral economic test, to evaluate their preferences and purchase intention.

Forebrain analyzed the attentional engagement provoked by each product through ECG. Pleasantness, on the other hand, was measured by fEMG aiming for the activation of the corrugator and zygomatic muscles. Psychophysiological research has shown that high activation of the corrugator is closely related to unpleasant emotions, while high activation of zygomatic muscles is closely related to more pleasant ones. The pupil diameter was used to analyze emotional arousal. The findings of the two product versions were compared in both phases (blind and branded) to see how the expectancy generated by the brand could impact the consumers’ response.


Secondly, it was observed that the slight change in the product’s formula did not generate any difference in the consumers’ emotional responses during the blind phase, indicating that both products, the new version and the current one, tease the same emotional experience. However, the results of the branded phase showed that consumers reacted differently when they knew the brand being tested. Just a slight change in the fragrance formula of the new product version generated a more unpleasant reaction when compared with the current product version. When the consumers know the brand previously, they react with a higher activation of the corrugator muscle (see figure 2), indicating a more unpleasant response to the new version in relation to the current one. Results showed that neuromarketing methodologies enhance the understanding of how even small differences in a product’s formulation can change the consumers’ emotional experience. Furthermore, the current study provides extra evidence regarding marketing placebo effects, demonstrating the impact of a brand in modulating the consumers’ perception. The use of neuromarketing techniques can help companies to evaluate how brands may influence consumers’ emotional response, even if the impact is very subtle.


The study helped O Boticário to better understand how their brand and concept are able to influence the consumers’ perception and increases public engagement, enabling them to see how slight differences matter when associated with a major brand. The main conclusion was that when consumers know the brand, they are more attentive and are able to detect, even unconsciously, slight differences in products. It is important to understand the power of a brand and how it may be strategic to test the brand
impact on the new products’ development.

Blind tests are common in industries that make high investments in product development, such as the cosmetics industry. The evidence has shown how brands may have a remarkable influence on consumers’ experience. Whilst blind tests are very relevant to evaluate the real efficiency of products, the results here bring evidence that emphasizes the importance of performing branded tests as well, before launching new lines of products or different versions of existing ones. Since humans are very sensitive to context and their perceptions are modulated by expectancy, testing new products using a blind and branded approach would bring more reliable results.

Billy Nascimento (Forebrain, Brazil)

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook. Order your copy today