A mashup of marketing and neuroscience

Wharton’s Visual Marketing course examines the real-world applications of visual cognition and its influence on consumer behavior.

The Visual Marketing course is so popular at Penn that there isn’t enough space for all the students who sign up to take it each spring.

“We get more demand for the class than we have seats,” says Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn, who teaches the course with Elizabeth “Zab” Johnson, executive director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative.

Four students and Elizabeth Johnson in a Wharton lab.
Elizabeth “Zab” Johnson (far right), executive director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, hosts a demonstration in the Wharton Behavioral Lab where students collect eye-tracking data that they later analyze for a group project. (Image: Wharton Magazine)

Not bad for a class that came together by chance. A few years ago, the women were attending the same campus luncheon when Kahn noticed Johnson writing some notes to herself and asked what she was working on. Johnson, who was on the neurobiology faculty at Duke University before coming to Penn, told her that she was developing an idea for a course that would combine the principles of visual neuroscience with the practical applications of marketing. Kahn, whose research includes the sensory appeal of packaging, was instantly intrigued.

“We tuned everyone out and got into it,” Johnson recalls. “It sort of seemed like fate.”

The result of that meeting is MKTG 239/739, a class that teaches students to understand visual cognition and how it influences consumer behavior and choice through marketing, advertising, packaging, and design. Now in its fourth year, Visual Marketing is open to graduate and undergraduate students from different disciplines across Penn—not just business majors.

The mix of students is intentional; the instructors want them to learn from each other’s different backgrounds and experiences. It’s not unlike the collaboration between the two instructors, who had to blend different teaching styles and research expertise. Johnson and Kahn said they continuously refine their course based on what they learn from working with each other.

“We’re acting out the collaboration that we want our students to do, and I’m watching how my material is improving by collaborating with another professor,” Kahn says. “That’s a discipline you don’t necessarily get when you’re teaching alone. There’s learning and there’s value in it.”

“In the first year, we were trying to separate the neuroscience and the marketing, and we realized what students want is integration,” she says. “I think we’re always trying to iterate. We’re constantly integrating new information, even if the overarching structure of the course doesn’t change.”

The Visual Marketing class starts with a 13-page syllabus that makes it clear the students won’t be spending all their time listening to lectures. Johnson and Kahn emphasize experiential learning, so they give assignments that get the students out into the real world. For the spring semester, each student had to choose a store in Fashion District Philadelphia, go there as a customer, and evaluate the store layout and design based on what they learned in the course.

Johnson and Kahn want their students to have a modern approach to marketing, which means understanding all the visual components that have become even more important in the digital age, when so much brand information is conveyed via screens.

“Packaging has moved into our new storytelling area. In the past, it might have been your advertising or commercial. Now, the package is the way the brand is communicating with you. Think about this TikTok phenomenon of unboxing,” Kahn says, referring to wildly popular videos in which social media influencers show themselves unpacking an item they have ordered.

“The components of the course make it such that we have to keep moving to keep up, but what ties it all together is the element of visual,” she says. “That’s our guiding principle. It gives us structure to the course that allows us to harness the creativity and diverse views.”

This story is by by Angie Basiouny. Read more at Wharton Magazine.