It’s all in the mind

Every brand’s dream of being able to get inside the minds of consumers has moved a step closer with the development of neuromarketing techniques. Matthew Valentine looks beneath the skin

Marketers have always wanted to be able to read the minds of consumers; many of them are now excited by the prospect of that dream becoming a reality. Neuromarketing, the field of research that studies consumers’ conscious and unconscious responses to marketing stimuli, promises the type of access to thoughts and feelings about which brands can only imagine.

Neuromarketing uses techniques such as fMRI scanning, which takes images of the brain, or electroencephalography (EEG), which measures the brain’s electrical impulses (see box on next page). The theory behind the technology is an ability to create ads, communications and packaging that are more likely to appeal to consumer instincts.

Unconscious thoughts

Advocates of the technique suggest that it can give marketers a deeper insight into the unconscious thoughts of consumers that might be lost in interrogative market research techniques. For example, it can avoid the problem of research respondents giving untruthful answers to questions because they want to appear more wealthy or intelligent.

Siemon Scamell-Katz, founder of specialist retail group TNS Magasin, enthuses: “It could be the holy grail. Early indications suggest it could be very powerful.”

But he cautions: “The vast majority of work done so far has been on advertising and our responses to it. This generally involves research subjects sitting in a quiet room and having their reactions measured – a situation far removed from the daily exposure to marketing messages we experience.”

Scamell-Katz has been working on a project for a global brand that measures shopper brain patterns and eye movements. Using portable EEG equipment and its own eye-tracking technology, TNS Magasin measured the reactions of hundreds of US consumers, conducting interviews afterwards to find out their perception of the decisions they made and why. A joint US/UK study, using the same methodologies along with fMRI scanning and a degree of virtual reality, is in the planning stage.

“It is fundamentally challenging ideas about in-store decision making. It looks at memory and low-attention recall,” says Scamell-Katz, who adds that while the research has so far confirmed some theories, it has disproved others. It has also raised questions about the practical applications of academic knowledge. “When you have a bunch of neuroscientists on one side of the room and a bunch of marketers on the other, the question ‘what does this mean?’ crops up a lot,” he says.

John Bunyard, of the Newcomen Group, which promotes the use of scientific methods to improve the effectiveness of marketing, also advises caution and fears that interest in neuromarketing from traditional market research companies could spell trouble. “The market research industry has evolved into a monster worth about $20bn (13.72bn), but there are big issues with the quality of its output,” he says.

One major issue is that consumers sometimes simply don’t know how or why they make decisions so are unable to relate their unconscious and conscious feelings effectively. “When our subconscious brain talks to our conscious brain, it’s like hearing Gordon Brown telling you the views of a divided cabinet,” says Bunyard.

Market research projects

He maintains that neuromarketing cannot be simply bolted on to market research projects, as it needs to be scientifically rigorous if it is to be effective. “There is a great danger of over-selling this,” he says, adding that ill-informed claims by researchers with insufficient knowledge of the subject could reflect badly on the whole discipline.

“The whole market research industry is based on getting the answer you want to hear,” he says. For neuromarketing to work effectively, this requires clients to be open-minded about what they may find out, rather than looking for specific outcomes to support work already in motion.

Clients are hesitant about coming forward publicly to talk about neuromarketing as the idea of “reading minds” is still seen as controversial. Martin Lindstrom, the author of Buy-ology, a book on neuromarketing, which claims to be based on a 7m study, says many companies are staying quiet about their interest.

Lindstrom’s book was part-funded by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), but he claims about half the brands in the Fortune 100 ranking are showing interest in the technique or actively engaged in research.

“It has changed a lot now, but when I first approached companies about four years ago, nobody wanted to touch it,” says Lindstrom. “That is all to do with fear. They didn’t know what we could measure and the ethical side was not clear. But we can’t read people’s thoughts and we can’t plant a ‘buy’ button in their brains. We can see what goes on in brains, but not why.”

Disney has already announced that it will create a research lab in Texas to look into the effectiveness of advertising. While it’s not clear what this will comprise, it is likely to use a number of techniques, one of which may be a version of neuromarketing.

Cost implication

Huge multinationals such as GSK or Disney may be able to afford involvement in this area, but there is a cost implication for companies using the technique. To be at the cutting edge of scientific research does not come cheap. The fMRI scanning is expensive and time consuming, meaning it is only practical to use small groups; EEG measurement is more mobile but it is expensive when compared to most other types of consumer research.

Lindstrom compares the neuromarketing industry now to the internet in its earliest days; companies are intrigued but unsure how to progress. He believes the industry needs to develop an ethical code to help its progression, which can inform consumers what is happening so they are more informed and feel positive about the techniques.

While a depressed global economy makes neuromarketing an expensive pursuit for all but those with the healthiest balance sheets, it appears that if it can demonstrate its ability to measure marketing effectively, it may have a buoyant future.

Since those ads that are not effectively targeted are “deleted” by consumer brains, says Lindstrom, there is plenty of potential for the technique to flourish as soon as the market begins to pick up. “What we are discovering is not extremely accurate,” says Lindstrom. “But if you live in a world of the blind, it is better to have one eye.”

Case Study:

The Pepsi Challenge blind taste test aimed to demonstrate that while more people bought Coca-Cola, it was the Pepsi taste they preferred when blindfolded.

But Martin Lindstrom’s book Buy-ology suggests the results may have been misunderstood. A recreation of the test in 2003 found the majority of the tasting volunteers preferred Pepsi over Coke, while fMRI measurement performed during the tasting showed a flurry of activity in the part of the brain that is stimulated by taste.

But when the volunteers were told which brand they were trying before tasting them, 75% preferred Coke. Brain activity was different too. Blood flow was registered in the medial prefrontal cortex, which deals with higher thinking.

Brands that engage us emotionally will appeal more than rivals that don’t, says Lindstrom, who argues Coke’s sponsorship of TV show American Idol essentially cancelled out the money spent by Ford on ad spots during the programme.

“Watching the Coke-saturated show suppressed viewers’ memories of the Ford ads,” claims Lindstrom. This may not convince marketers to invest in neuromarketing right now, but it is certainly food for thought for brands trying to get the most out of every piece of marketing.

And now… the science bit

fMRI scanning Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging uses scanners about the size of a car (pictured above) to measure blood flow and blood oxygenation in the brain, as this denotes brain activity. The process is non-invasive but it does require those taking part to remain entirely still while the process is underway, which critics claims compromises the results.

Electroencephalography (EEG) uses pads fitted to a subject’s head to measure electrical activity along the scalp, produced by the firing of neurons in the brain. It is cheaper and more mobile than fMRI scanning but does not offer a full ‘brain map’ like fMRI.

Eye tracking Special goggles measure and record where participants look while performing everyday tasks such as shopping for groceries. When combined with techniques such as EEG, it may give clues as to how the brain responds to stimuli such as advertisements or logos.

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