Brain Trust

Revolutionizing legal disputes

Box of Crust toothpaste with the branding of Crest toothpaste.

Imagine you’re browsing the toothpaste aisle and see next to Colgate a new brand called Colddate, packaged in a box with similar colors and design. “You might think this is clearly a copycat brand,” says Associate Professor Ming Hsu, the William Halford Jr. Family Chair in Marketing.

Yet in a real-life trademark infringement case involving these two brands, Colgate-Palmolive lost the suit—the judge deemed they were “similar” but not “substantially indistinguishable.”

Judges and juries in trademark cases often disagree about how similar the brands in question are, leading to inconsistent rulings. Evidence frequently takes the form of consumer surveys, which have been shown to be susceptible to manipulation—for example, through the use of leading questions. Many judges end up ruling based on gut instinct.

Hsu and colleagues propose a more scientific measure through the use of brain scans—employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) along with a specialized technique called repetition suppression.

In Hsu’s study, participants in fMRI scanners were rapidly shown pairs of images consisting of the main brand and a supposed copycat. Previous research has proven that when presented with two similar images, the brain suppresses activity for the second image, perhaps out of efficiency, thinking it’s already seen the image. By measuring the amount of repetition suppression in brain activity for the second image, the researchers determined how similar a person found the two images. 

Participants are blind to the goal of the study and don’t need to be asked any questions, which further reduces bias. 

When comparing neuroimaging against survey results intended to be either pro-plaintiff, pro-defendant, or neutral, the brain-based measure reliably matched the more neutral survey results—indicating that the brain scans can improve the quality of legal evidence in these cases.

With a cost comparable to presenting survey data, neuroimaging could be provided as a supplemental “spot check” to survey evidence, giving a judge or jury confidence the surveys are accurate, Hsu says. It also holds promise for a range of legal applications involving people’s mental reactions—for example, determining music copyright infringement or how a “reasonable person” would judge obscenity, negligence, or other legal issues.

“While we are not there yet,” Hsu says, “one can imagine a future where we ask the brain to help us answer these difficult questions.”

Pricing Strategies

The value of subscription services

Women's hands holding a credit card and choosing a subscription service on a tablet.

The market for online subscription services accounted for roughly $70 billion in 2021—a figure that could reach $900 billion by 2026. New research co-authored by Prof. J. Miguel Villas-Boas explains the benefits of the model. Subscription services, he finds, often permit companies to reap the most profit from a product or experience.

Consider a luxury handbag company that could either sell or rent its bags. “Renting would be more profitable,” says Villas-Boas. If a customer buys a bag then realizes that she would gladly have paid a higher price for it, then the company has lost money. A subscription or rental program, however, allows for a larger profit over time.

The research, which is rooted in a mathematical model of consumer decision-making, also found that when consumers can learn deeply about a product or service prior to purchase, they’re both slower to buy and more loyal; repeat purchases account for a larger share of their value. When most of the information about a product or service is instead gathered post-purchase, then the opposite is true: Value is generated by the first purchase, which is less likely to be repeated.

Counterintuitively, companies that can’t offer a subscription can use high prices to defer consumer purchases. This forces people to research before buying, which makes it more likely they’ll be satisfied and become repeat customers.

Pep Talk

Diane Dwyer’s pro tips for managing media interviews

Silhouette of a person made from reporters microphones.

So you’ve been working on an exciting project or product, or maybe you’ve developed deep expertise in a specialized area. A reporter is interested in what you have to say. Now what?

A media interview can be a great opportunity to showcase your company or personal brand, but if you’re new to interviewing it can provoke anxiety. Even more so if you’ll be appearing on camera. Knowing what to expect is key, says Diane Dwyer, BS 87 (shown far right), a Haas professional faculty member and former broadcast journalist.

“There are two main tips I always start with when preparing someone for a media interview,” she says. “First, know your audience: Who is the interviewer? What do they want? And second, practice—a lot.”

Dwyer, who created a course called Innovations in Communications and Public Relations at Haas and runs her own media consulting firm, advises her clients that “no matter how great a public speaker they are, they have to spend serious time preparing if they want to accomplish their goals.” 

 But you don’t have to hire a trainer to get results. Here are Dwyer’s top tips.

Play “baseball.” Determine your goal for the interview—that’s your “home plate.” Then decide on two or three stories or facts that support the goal—those are your “bases.” Use the “bases” no matter what you get asked.

Record yourself answering potential questions at least three times. You must watch yourself to make it worthwhile. Even if you’re not on camera for the actual interview, you’ll catch things you wouldn’t notice otherwise. 

If you don’t know an answer, say “I’m not sure, I’ll get back to you on that.” And always get back to the reporter. 

Always answer the interviewer’s question first, then bridge to one of your “bases.”

Drink warm or room-temperature water before and during the interview. Cold water constricts vocal cords. 

Use body language: Lean in, smile.

Wear solid colors and nothing distracting. 

Use a prop, if you have one, like a graph or object. Visuals are always more memorable than words.

Keep your answers between 15 and 45 seconds.

Use the reporter’s name whenever you’re saying something you want them to use. It makes reporters feel important!