All in the mind’s eye

Maeve Hosea looks at the research methods that claim to be able to go beyond what consumers say to us and to instead read how they think

Marketers are always trying to understand why consumers form certain opinions and make specific choices; they want to know what they truly believe rather than simply what they say.

Conventional research relies on people engaging their conscious brain but, say purveyors of cutting edge techniques, to quantify an emotion is extremely difficult. But a branch of methods has evolved that measure people’s thought processes before they become contaminated by conscious thoughts. These methods include brain scans, eye tracking and facial coding.

There is a new buzz around such scientific techniques that, recording elements of emotional arousal, measure what the brain or body are doing and claim to reach those parts of the human mind that traditional research techniques cannot.

Thom Noble, managing director of Neurofocus, practises an electroencephalography-based (EEG) form of neuromarketing. The technique measures brainwaves to capture consumers’ levels of attention, emotional engagement, and memory retention. Additional metrics for persuasion, awareness, and novelty are derived from this data.

“You are getting truer reflections of what people are really thinking and there is a frustration in traditional methodologies in terms of uncovering how people are really responding to something,” he explains.

Noble argues that neuromarketing has value across the board but says there are some markets where it has particular benefits as a research tool.

He cites Asian markets as an example, where it is hard to get people to express an opinion and African markets where people typically don’t want to admit to switching away from something on the basis of price because of a sense of a loss of face.

Noble says: “Everyone is looking for insights, for the threads of information they haven’t been able to piece together before and with this technique, you are more likely to uncover them because you can’t cheat.”

Shopping consultancy TNS Magasin has recently completed work for a major European retailer that combines EEG and eye tracking for the first time in a commercial context to deliver deeper insights into the decision-making process in-store. The eye tracking process enables every single eye fixation of individual shoppers to be recorded and analysed.

TNS Magasin founder, Siemon Scamell-Katz, explains the significance of the project: “At last we are able to gain insight into responses to the visual stimuli that the shopper actually looks at, as well as prefrontal cortex responses.

“This enables us to gauge the relative roles of emotion and cognition at each and every stage of the shopping journey to understand, literally, what is going on in shoppers’ minds.”

The value of the combination comes from contextualising what people are thinking about when they are looking at something. For example, it can identify what people look at and don’t look at on-shelf, if what they feel is positive or negative when they do. This has the most obvious ramifications for marketing and new product development.

Chrissie Wells, director at Leapfrog Research and Planning, believes scientific research methods are gaining in popularity because of the emphasis on making an emotional connection with the consumer.

“The implication for research is that since people don’t know why they buy things, there’s a limit to what we can learn from asking them directly,” says Wells. “There will always be a role for expert researchers to muster a variety of techniques, whether traditional or leading edge, to interpret consumer behaviour.”

For the last ten years, Dan Hill, president of scientific consumer insights consultancy Sensory Logic and author of Emotionomics published by Kogan Page, has been looking into people’s minds using facial coding.

First developed in the 1960s by Dr Paul Ekman and Wally Friesen from the San Francisco School of Medicine, the ‘Facial Action Coding System’, FACS, categorises the activity of 43 facial muscles linked to different emotions.

Hill claims this method is superior to other established methods of measuring emotional response, including electroencephalography (EEG), brain scans and muscle-recording electromyography (EMG).

“Unlike the other techniques, it is not invasive. All you need is to turn a camera on a subject,” Hill explains, “What I like about the face is that it is transparent. There are six ways to show anger for example and every muscle movement will have an onset, peak and fade which this system accurately records.”

Hill applies facial coding on behalf of companies such as Toyota, Kraft, and GlaxoSmithKline and claims the data from the method allows brands to create a stronger bond with their clients.

He predicts a greater emphasis on such emotionally-focused research techniques in future: “Aided by the fact that huge percentages of households have a computer with a web camera, I believe facial coding will be a mainstream option by 2015 at the latest,” he contends.

While a growing number of companies are creating noise around these techniques, not everyone buys into them. Steven Phillips, managing director of Spring Research argues that whilst scientific approaches are re-emerging and becoming quite popular in the research world, they are merely a part of the puzzle and as yet unsophisticated: “It is at a very early stage where it is expensive, not at all natural and the results are poorly understood. In the next five years I see the future of market research more in Web 2.0 applications rather than neuroscience.”

Similarly, Richard Watson, author of Future Files, is sceptical of the value of this kind of science and until techniques develop further, advocates good old-fashioned quantitative and qualitative research: “Eye tracking has some validity, especially for researching in-store behaviour but I am highly sceptical about using brain imaging,” he says.

He adds: “Ninety-nine per cent of people that talk about this stuff have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. It’s a bit like flying over London at night and seeing the lights on in the houses below and suggesting that you can tell what people are talking about inside their houses.”

Despite such scepticism, it seems increasing numbers of marketers are willing to consider these techniques. Relentless pressure on budgets and demand for improving returns on any investment made in marketing activity will ensure marketers leave no stone unturned in an effort to discover what the consumer is thinking.

Scientific research techniques explained

Neurological testing claims to provide accurate, reliable and actionable knowledge about how consumers really respond to stimuli at the deep subconscious level of the mind.

Functional MRI or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a type of specialised MRI brain scan. It measures the haemodynamic response related to neural activity in the brain or spinal cord.

EEG (Electroencephalography) measures the brain’s electrical activity via electrodes placed on the scalp. Combined with respiration, heart rate, temperature and head motion measurements, this can capture emotional and cognitive responses.

EMG (Electromyography) is a technique for evaluating and recording the activation signal of muscles. Sensors on muscles around the smile and eyebrow record emotions.

Eye tracking uses sensors to record eye movement and calculate the field of view of the wearer’s eyes and what they are looking at specifically.

Facial Coding is a non-invasive technique for looking at emotions linked to facial expressions by analysing film of what is happening to 43 muscles in the face.

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