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Brands Are Imprinted on Our Brains

• June 11, 2013 • 4:00 AM

HANS ENGBERS/SHUTTERSTOCK

Research from Germany finds people like the taste of brand-name colas more than generic ones—even when the soft drinks are identical.

Why do so many of us instinctively reach for brand-name products at the supermarket, even when less-expensive generic ones are available as an option?

If pressed, we’d probably say we like them better—which is odd, given that the generic brands are often identical to the originals. Why would we get more pleasure out of products that come wrapped in a familiar label?

Newly published research from Germany suggests it’s because certain brands are imprinted on our brains.

Participants in a study reported they got more pleasure from tasting colas labeled “Coke” and “Pepsi” compared to generic ones. Brain scans revealed they were indeed reacting differently to the drinks on a neural level. This effect was found despite the fact that all the samples consisted of the same beverage.

Participants in a study reported they got more pleasure from tasting colas labeled “Coke” and “Pepsi” compared to generic ones.

The belief that you are drinking a specific brand impacts “neural responses signalling reward in the brain,” researchers Simone Kuhn and Jurgen Gallinat report in the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers describe an experiment featuring 15 people ranging in age from 23 to 50. While their brains were scanned using fMRI technology, they were given a series of small drinks of cola. After each swallow, they rated how pleasurable it tasted on a scale of one to eight.

They were told they were sampling Coke, Pepsi, River Cola (a generic brand sold in Germany), and a new drink created in a test laboratory, which was labeled T-Cola. In fact, they always received the same mixture of the first three brands.

Participants rated the “Coke” and “Pepsi” samples as tastier than either the generic or the test brand. “We did not find a significant difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola preference,” the researchers write.

Moreover, researchers recorded differences in brain activity when participants were told they were tasting the name brands. Compared to the generic brands, those who thought they were trying Pepsi or Coke had “more activity in the left ventral striatum,” an effect that was particularly pronounced among those who don’t normally drink cola.

“In humans, the ventral striatum has been found to be activated when reward is received, as well as when reward is expected,” the researchers note.

In contrast, the generic brands triggered more activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex. That section of the brain has been associated with assigning value to products, and it sprung into action when participants were asked to evaluate an unknown or little-known cola.

The “strong brand cue” delivered by the news that they were sampling Coke or Pepsi apparently “overrides elaborate processing” in the medial oribtorfrontal cortex. “Since the brand is well-known,” the researchers write, “its associations can be easily retrieved without an additional assessment.”

This suggests the term “Coca-Cola” instantly cues up the idea of pleasure (or, for some people, displeasure), making further assessment unnecessary. Past experiences with the drink—and, perhaps, all those advertisements—creates a shorthand reaction that bypasses the part of the brain that might actively evaluate its quality.

So in a world dominated by corporations and the brand-name items they produce and market, it appears our taste buds can be effortlessly overridden, our enjoyment modulated by our mental associations with a particular product. For better or worse, this is your brain on Coke.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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