Neuroscience and marketing: what you need to know

Facebook and OKCupid have come under fire for attempting to manipulate people’s emotions but behavioural techniques can be useful for brands. How can marketers gain an insight into consumers’ minds while avoiding controversy?

3 things you need to know

1. Marketers are experimenting with small triggers that can lead to big changes in consumer behaviour. However, the recent backlash against experiments run by Facebook and OKCupid shows that brands must tread carefully.

2. Neuroscience is also playing an increasingly important role in brand strategy and design. This requires marketers to tap into their subconscious, ‘System 1 brain’ and think more intuitively about consumer responses.

3. Brands are spending significantly more of their market research budgets on neuroscience than two years ago. Advancements in technology and pressure on marketers to understand consumer decision making at a deeper level are driving this growth.

In June Facebook was heavily criticised for revealing it had run an experiment on its network that intentionally manipulated the emotions of certain users without telling them. Dating website OKCupid followed suit last month by announcing it has also run tests on users without their knowledge.

Despite the concern about these experiments (see Ethics of Behavioural Experiments, below), brands are increasingly turning to disciplines such as neuroscience to better understand consumer behaviour and to find new ways of engaging with people at a deeper and more intuitive level.

Value of neuro research

Facial coding testing
American FMCG giant Kimberly-Clark uses methods such as facial coding and implicit reaction times to tap into the System 1 brain

This week market research agency Ipsos MORI predicted that its neuro research business will generate more than five times as much income this year as it did just two years ago. The company puts this rapid growth down to advances in technology and scientific understanding, and to a rising awareness of the value of neuroscience as a market research tool. This work involves testing marketing stimuli on consumers who
have knowingly opted into the research.

Ipsos MORI clients include American FMCG giant Kimberly-Clark, which has used neuroscience for years and recently confirmed plans to put it at the heart of its market research.

Driving this ambition is global chief marketing officer Clive Sirkin, who has suggested that traditional research methods such as customer surveys do not provide true insights into behaviour because the responses derive from the rational, conscious part of the brain – also known as the System 2 brain.

To gain a fuller understanding of how consumers behave, Sirkin believes that marketers must also understand the System 1 brain, which is continually computing information and shaping responses at a subconscious level.

Systems 1 and 2 were explored by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book entitled ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, which suggested that too much confidence is placed in human judgement. Kimberly-Clark uses methods such as facial coding and implicit reaction times to tap into the System 1 brain (see The Techniques, below).

John Humphrey, director of analytics, insights and consumer services at Kimberly-Clark Europe, says: “The biggest challenge that has been thrown down to us [from the global board] is to say ‘no more focus groups’. A traditional market researcher would recoil at that idea, so it requires a big mindset change to say that we will find other methods that give us richer insights and [a better] understanding of human behaviour.”

Humphrey says that while it is too difficult to put a figure on the return on investment that Kimberly-Clark derives from using neuroscience, the results are clearly visible on a project-by-project basis. These often serve to validate marketers’ own instincts with regard to how consumers will respond, he says, allowing the brand to break free from “the testing and validation paradigm” of the past and take new ideas to market more quickly.

Talking rationally [about a brand] leaves the potential for grey areas: consumers’ responses are more intuitive

Not all marketers are sold on the benefits of neuroscience, however. Some continue to put their faith in tried and tested methods, and believe neuroscience is expensive, non-scalable and unsuitable for a business environment.

One concern, for example, is around the ability of neuroscientists to translate their findings into tangible marketing solutions, or the ability of marketers to grasp the meaning and relevance of the science.

Beau Lotto, professor of neuroscience at University College London, believes these issues can be resolved by bringing neuroscientists and marketers together to create controlled experiments in which people knowingly participate. His Lottolab studio runs these experiments by creating pop-up environments that monitor how participants instinctively respond to certain situations.

Lottolab’s previous experiments include a pop-up at London’s Science Museum that looked into people’s motivations when they donate money to good causes. People who entered the space had the option of donating publicly or privately. If public, they had their photograph taken with their donation value and their image was projected onto a wall in the middle of the space in which a party was taking place.

The experiment revealed that women donate the same amount whether publicly or privately, but men donate significantly more publicly than they do privately. This suggests that men are partly motivated by a desire to impress others when they donate money – a finding Lotto believes would not have appeared in responses to a straightforward survey.

Last week Lotto launched a messaging app called Traces that will monitor users’ behaviour and determine how digital media can help to build empathy between people. He plans to open the app up to partners including brands, educational organisations and publishers.

“Most brands ask questions aimed at gathering information in a particular context – who, what, where, when questions,” he says. “Marketers should be asking the ‘why’ question to determine why we do what we do. Once you understand that you can apply it to any context.”

Deeper insights

Humphrey at Kimberly-Clark agrees that market researchers should seek to improve their understanding of human behaviour by drawing on different scientific disciplines.

“Areas like psychology and anthropology are going to become much more important,” he says.

The company recently worked with Ipsos MORI to test a new TV advert for its Andrex brand in which children describe what it feels like to wipe their bottom. The campaign is part of a new strategy by Andrex to talk more openly and directly about toilet care, following a campaign last year that asked people to say whether they ‘fold or scrunch’ their toilet paper.

Humphrey says that, given the sensitive nature of the new advert, it was particularly important to measure people’s implicit reactions to ensure that Andrex was getting the tone right. The company tested the creative on a sample of 150 people, measuring their facial expressions and the speed of their responses to survey questions to determine how confident they were in their views.

“We work in sensitive areas of intimate care and because of that people are not always willing to open up and give us their opinions, which makes it even more pressing for us to get to a true consumer understanding,” explains Humphrey. “The level of detail we got from the tests meant we understood straight away which areas of the advert needed improvement and tweaking.”

Keith Glasspoole, client programme leader at Ipsos MORI, claims such techniques are relatively easy to use and can be highly scalable. Implicit reaction times can be added to any online survey, for example, while facial coding is available whenever the test participant is using a computer that has a webcam.

He argues that while there is still a place for traditional survey research, neuroscience can help to provide an extra, deeper layer of understanding. The company also offers biometric testing, which uses sensors to measure the physical reactions of test participants such as heart rate, respiration and galvanic skin response (tiny changes in sweat levels).

Advertising is an emotive topic. Neuroscience helps take some of the subjectivity out of that decision

These methods can help brands to check the intensity of emotion at key moments in adverts, such as when a celebrity brand ambassador appears on the screen. Brands are able to see whether such moments are having the desired effect at a physical level.

“Advertising is an emotive topic in client companies,” notes Glasspoole. “It’s a big, important investment and something that lots of people in the company have an opinion about. Neuroscience helps to take some of the subjectivity out of that discussion.”

In addition to advert testing, brands are using neuroscience and behavioural analytics to measure consumer views on packaging, service or their feelings about the brands themselves. Audience insight firm Sensum recently ran a test with an unnamed national rail network to monitor changes in the emotions of certain passengers for the duration of the journey.

Participants used a Sensum app to record their conscious opinions, while a wireless finger sensor recorded their galvanic skin responses and relayed the data to an online dashboard to show how their emotions changed at certain points in the journey. Gawain Morrison, co-founder of Sensum, says mobile technology has advanced to the point that brands can use neuroscience in a wide range of settings.

“You can now research a full ‘day in the life’ if you want to, and conduct tests wherever the individual happens to be – indoors, outdoors, sitting at home watching TV and so on,” he adds.

Visual planning

Co-op visual planning board

In addition to testing marketing stimuli, brands are using neuroscience to inform their work in the planning and design stages. The Co-operative Group is one of several brands to have recently worked with creative agency Coley Porter Bell on a new ‘visual planning’ process that aims to tap into the System 1 brain.

The process requires both the client and the agency to discuss a brief in intuitive, emotional and visual terms as opposed to the strategic and rational language of the System 2 brain. The Co-operative Food engaged in this process last year after it came to Coley Porter Bell with a brief to relaunch its standard tier own-label ranges.

Marjorie Murphy, own-brand strategy manager for Co-operative Food, explains that the process involved intensive meetings in which the agency team encouraged members of the Co-operative’s management to talk about the brand’s own-label products in irrational terms. This included discussing what the brand would be if it was an experience, a season or a day.

After interrogating these concepts and coming to agreement about which fitted the brand, the teams introduced visual elements to determine the pictures, colours and textures that should represent the own-label range.

Murphy says that while it was initially strange to bring emotional language into a corporate setting, it helped the company get into the consumer mindset and agree a common platform. This also enabled the brand to roll out the designs quickly, she says, as both the Co-operative and the agency developed an instinctive understanding of the range.

“I’ve learnt from this process that when you talk rationally, you may reach agreement but there is still the potential for grey areas,” says Murphy. “Consumers don’t think like that – their responses are more intuitive.

“Imagining in experiential terms what the own-brand would look, feel and smell like gave us a powerful sense of clarity and common platform that enabled us to have honest, intuitive conversations as we developed it.”

This common platform enabled a relatively speedy roll-out of the own-label range, which was unveiled last August under the strapline Loved By Us. According to Murphy, it has already enjoyed double-digit growth compared with the previous design. Co-operative Food has since worked with Coley Porter Bell on visual planning for its new in-store designs and layouts.

Changing behaviour

New designs are one way for brands to achieve big changes in consumer behaviour through relatively small triggers. MasterCard and Dutch retailer Hunkemoller, for example, succeeded in increasing the proportion of people using Maestro debit cards by simply changing how it presented the Maestro logo in-store.

Working with market research agency BrainJuicer, the companies placed small stickers with the logo in various areas such as on the shop window, in the changing rooms and by the tills. The companies alternated between control weeks (with no stickers) and activation weeks (with stickers) over six weeks in several stores.

They found that stickers placed particularly close to the till increased the proportion of Maestro purchases by four percentage points, but that the use of multiple stickers throughout stores actually caused sales to fall.

“‘Nudge them, don’t bludgeon’ was the lesson we took,” says Tom Ewing, content director at BrainJuicer . “A negative effect took hold once customers began to notice the stickers.”

Behavioural expert Steve Martin also believes  that small changes can have a big impact. While he accepts that neuroscience technology is a useful tool, he believes there are simpler ways to influence consumer behaviour.

“There are things we can do like changing the words on a letter or the timing of a request that can make big differences – and they don’t require costly investments in technology,” he says.

Martin is co-author of ‘The small BIG’, which looks at the smallest changes brands can make to make the biggest differences. The book, published at the end of the month, includes a case study that shows how, by adding a single line of copy to a letter from HMRC, the UK government increased tax-paying by 29 per cent.

The line simply stated that a high percentage of the reader’s neighbours paid their taxes on time. This tapped into people’s need to conform to social norms.

According to Martin, there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates these patterns of consumer behaviour and that can support brands seeking to devise cost-effective marketing strategies.

“The age-old question in any meeting is ‘what’s your ROI?’ – and marketers often struggle with that,” Martin notes. “We can be really clear now – if you do this, based on previous experiments, this is the result you can expect.”

How to get into consumers’ minds

Testing senses 1


Cameras are used to monitor where people look when confronted with a particular marketing stimulus. Applicable to a wide range of uses including testing adverts or packaging. Can also be used in stores to determine what grabs people’s attention on shelves and displays.

Implicit reaction times

Used to test how quickly people respond to survey questioning. Useful for providing greater insight into how confident respondents feel about their answers. Easily integrated into most online surveys.

Biometric testing

Covers heart and respiration rate monitors, and galvanic skin sensors that pick up tiny changes in sweat levels. Useful for showing intensity of emotion as people’s physical state changes in response to a marketing stimulus.

Facial coding

Cameras pick up slight changes in facial expressions as people watch a piece of media or look at a design. Easy to incorporate into online surveys if respondents have webcams.

Brain scanning

Includes MRI scanners and electroencephalograph (EEG) machines. The most sophisticated neuroscience technology but also the most expensive to use and least scalable. Useful if brands want a forensic understanding of how marketing stimuli affects the brain.

The ethics of behaviour experiments

The recent revelation that dating website OKCupid had experimented by putting the ‘wrong’ people together has added fuel to the debate about how brands influence – some would say manipulate – their customers.

Following the Facebook outcry in June, OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder stated in a blog that his site also runs tests on users.

“If you use the internet you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site,” he said. “That’s how websites work.”

In one, people rated as “bad matches” by the site’s algorithm were told that they were “exceptionally good” matches. The site found that, as a result, people acted as if they were good matches by sending each other more messages than they usually would. Users were told their real compatibility rating afterwards.

Rudder argues that all websites run tests to refine how they work.

“It’s not like people have been building these things for long, or you can go look up a blueprint,” he says. “Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out.”

Many disagree. In the US, a senator has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook over its test that involved manipulating users’ news feeds. OKCupid users have also complained of its lack of transparency and abuse of trust.

There are grey areas around the issue of personal data. Behavioural expert Steve Martin points out that “influence doesn’t happen in a vacuum” and that organisations constantly affect people’s behaviour. He adds, though, that if brands add value and act transparently, consumers are less likely to feel deceived.

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