Remapping marketing to the changing consumer brain

Our brains are rewiring in response to the trend for consuming several media simultaneously, say scientists. This has far-reaching implications for marketers, who must find ways to grab the attention of a new type of consumer, who, while a natural multi-tasker, has a much shorter attention span.


The consumer of the future will have a weakened sense of identity and find it hard to empathise with others or concentrate well. The scale of multi-tasking people carry out in daily life is dramatically affecting the human brain and resulting consumer behaviour, warns Baroness Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford.

People now commonly undertake more than one activity at a time. Sixty per cent of people in the UK claim to watch TV and surf the internet at the same time two or three times a week, say figures from TV marketing body Thinkbox.

Greenfield calls this phenomenon “mind change” and argues that brands will need to get used to serving this type of consumer or risk losing people’s attention. Companies such as BT, Microsoft (see case study, below) and Ted Baker are already working on how they can meet these new demands.

“The brain is so adaptable,” Greenfield explains. “It has something called plasticity, which means that, more than other species on the planet, we will occupy more ecological niches.

“We don’t run fast or see well, we’re not strong but we learn. This means that the brain adapts to the environment, and if the environment is changing in an unprecedented way then the brain will also change.”

While Greenfield and her fellow neuroscientists are still researching the full impact of mind change on humans, it is clear there will be significant implications for brands. Marketing Week explores how companies can appeal to the new consumer mind.

Appeal to short attention spans

The human brain and short-term memory can only cope with a limited amount of input. Advertising messages on TV and billboards have been replaced with multiple channels – social networks, email, phone and face-to-face communication. Everything is scrambling for our attention, but according to Greenfield we can only cope with so much.

Baroness Greenfield

She explains: “When you are on a computer it draws your attention to it and then fragments that. Because the images and inputs are coming thick and fast, you are required to make responses very quickly and not reflect on them or think about them. The whole process is very agile but that is not the same as deep understanding.”

BT’s customer experience futurologist, Dr Nicola Millard, agrees, adding: “The problem comes not when we multi-task but when we ’task switch’ – the point when we turn our attention from one train of thought to the other.

“We get interrupted. It’s an issue because it damages productivity and it causes tremendous amounts of stress.”

Both BT and Microsoft have investigated how best to appeal to diminished attention spans caused by this change in the brain. They want to engage consumers who may be consuming several different media at the same time.

Microsoft has looked at how consumers engage with TV, PC and mobile devices to help create advertising that chimes with people’s emotional connections to them. It worked with agency BBDO to speak to 1,500 consumers in five countries.

Three archetypes came out of the study. TV was deemed as being like an old, reliable and entertaining friend, the PC like an older sibling and the mobile device a new lover.

Microsoft Advertising director of global insights and analytics Natasha Hritzuk says: “If you’re treating mobile like a mini PC, you’re probably not going to have much impact with your advertising. The core driver with the mobile phone is that it’s a personal device so communications have to be relevant, contextual, meaningful and feel like they are designed to address something personal to the consumer.

“It is different to if you are approaching something on the PC, which is more engaging and more intellectually driven.”

Road testing ads: An Xbox study into effectiveness used neuromarketing

The good news is that attention can be grabbed by the right creative on the right device. “The content has to be different because the mindset is different. If you’re not delivering the right content to the right device then you’re not going to have any attention span. But if you deliver content that is relevant and your mindset is attuned then consumers’ attention spans will be phenomenal.”

True multi-tasking hasn’t really existed until now, according to neuromarketing expert and author Martin Lindstrom (see Viewpoint, below). Previously, all we were doing was task-switching, which he says is inefficient.

“Our brains are rewiring themselves because of multi-tasking, so the new younger generation are in fact more able to multi-task than older generations. This isn’t because they have trained themselves to do it, it’s because the brain is literally redesigning itself around the fact they are multi-tasking from birth.”

If this theory is right, marketers will soon have the additional challenge of appealing to both those who can truly multi-task and those who can’t.

Lindstrom adds: “Some brands are already doing it well – Lego for instance – but some aren’t. The poor ads are very linear and focused on talking to one particular audience in a specific way.

“With advances in technology, a concept could be executed a million different ways depending on the data you have amassed about the customer. The challenge for the future will be not only coming up with a concept that will work for many different audiences, but also finding a mechanism to be able to do that.”

Provide sensory experiences

Marketing to the consumer brains of the future is not just about optimising on-screen communication. When people play games and become excited, their brains release dopamine, a chemical linked to addiction and the feeling of needing reward. So Greenfield suggests there is a link between more time spent playing video games and preference for highly sensory, fast-paced interactions.

This means that engaging field or experiential marketing will become increasingly important and people will expect them to happen much more often.

“In the future, consumers will value instant gratification much more than they did in the past,” she says.

Game on: earlier this year Sony created a highly sensory environment for its fans to experience its new Xperia Play

Dopamine also encourages people to behave more recklessly and take more risks because it dampens down the front part of the brain that is responsible for this.

“If you are spending a large amount of your time in a [gaming] world where your actions don’t have consequences and people can come back from the dead, then you’re going to take more risks [in daily life] because there’s nothing to lose. You’re both excited and safe at the same time, which is quite unusual.”

However, Kevin Bachus, co-founder of Xbox and now chief product officer at Bebo, says children do know the difference between real life and the screen (see Q&A, below).

Earlier this year Sony Ericsson sought to engage gamers for the launch of its Xperia Play phone by creating a highly sensory environment in London’s Holborn, which replicated some of the phone’s most popular games. Burnt-out helicopters vied with a replica Kung-fu noodle restaurant and rapper Tinchy Stryder for people’s attention. The aim was to make them feel like they were in the game.

Sony Ericsson UK head of PR and sponsorship Matt Beavis says: “Immersing consumers in a brand environment designed to bring to life the concept of ’going in game’ we felt was a great way to give guests an exciting introduction to the new handset.

“It created deep engagement with consumers and social currency for bloggers to talk about beyond the event itself.”

Lego launched the game Ninjago in a similar way with a travelling roadshow at shopping centres and family festivals that brought to life high-action Ninjago battle sequences shown in the TV and digital campaigns.

Similarly The Old Spice Man campaign is touring universities this month, giving consumers the thrill of going ’in-ad’ by emulating the aftershave’s ’Smell like a man, man’ TV spot atop a white horse.

Help put back lost identities

While sensory experiences might get consumers more excited about brands, there is a dark side to how the brain is changing.

Greenfield says that an increasingly homogeneous childhood centred around gaming, TV and social media runs the risk of eroding identity, as young people do not have the time or experience to shape a sense of themselves.

“You, like me, think of yourself as someone with a unique past filled with events that shape you as a person,” explains Greenfield.

“But imagine if you live in a world where you have a standardised past, where people all just play [computer] games and are constantly tweeting and communicating with each other. It would be harder to know where you end and someone else begins.”

As a result, the consumer of the future might get more of a kick from something that gets them noticed, and their enjoyment of a brand will in part be linked to acknowledgement from peers.

Greenfield gives the example of two girls, who when sat in the iconic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car on a film set, were asked how they felt. Instead of expressing their feelings with an emotion, they said the experience was “Facebook-worthy”.

If marketers build their brands explicitly by feeding consumers’ desire for acknowledgement, their businesses will find meaning in the social media ecosystem

Greenfield says: “In a way, people are living through others almost because that’s what gives them meaning and an identity. It means that marketing will be a lot more reward-based.”

People post on Facebook not because they want to keep up with friends but because they have a certain need to be wanted, says Dr A Pradeep, author of neuromarketing book The Buying Brain.

“We carried out a study last year to find out why people log into Facebook and why they post. People say they’re there because they like staying in contact with friends, but the results of our study show something quite different.

“People want to know if anyone wants to ’friend’ them. It’s a need for social relevancy. You want someone to want you as a friend – but people are loathe to admit it.”

If marketers build their brands explicitly by feeding consumers’ desire for acknowledgement, their businesses will find meaning in the social media ecosystem, says Pradeep. Although it is important to listen and amass data through social networks, giving consumers validation – making them feel wanted – by interacting with them is key.

“If a brand responds, suddenly I as a consumer feel that this monolithic company wants to know what I think about how to make things better – it has given me communication relevancy. It moves the relationship on from being merely transactional.”

BT’s Millard agrees: “Companies are using social media as broadcast media, but it’s actually about engagement. The challenge is that if a customer wants to talk to you, you have to find the person with the right skills to engage back, and that might exist somewhere beyond the marketing department. So it’s important to start thinking about how you break the boundaries between back office and front office, marketing and PR.”

Relevance is also important when making recommendations through social media, according to Facebook. Its research found that click-through rates of sponsored stories increased by 60% when the names of a user’s friends who had liked the page were visible underneath.

New style of marketing: Ted Baker and Sony get customers involved in campaigns, tapping into their need to feel important

Facebook’s director of platform partnerships Christian Hernandez attributes this to the release of the brain chemical oxytocin, the ’cuddle hormone’, when we see a familiar face.

It’s not just in the digital sphere that customer engagement will become more integral. Greenfield predicts: “In future, customer service will be increasingly important. There will be emphasis on the methods brands use in their service around the supply of goods to make people feel special or different, rather than the product having some intrinsic superiority, like Abercrombie & Fitch does.

“Brands will need to make you feel wanted, important and individual. During the riots this summer, young people talked a lot about being ’disrespected’, meaning that they wanted to be respected or acknowledged. I think we all feel that.”

This autumn Ted Baker intends to make its customers feel involved through its ’retail theatre’ concept. The brand wants its customers to come into stores and mimic its autumn campaign, called ’It’s Rutting Season’, which was shot in Richmond Park (see picture, top left). Customers will be styled before donning a stag or doe mask and then photographed. The pictures will be shared by link-ups with prominent fashion bloggers and retro photography iPhone app Instagram. Those who get the most Facebook ’likes’ will win a £500 shopping spree.

Ted Baker brand communication director Craig Smith says: “Unless your communications are customer-centric and focused on giving them exactly what they want when they want it, then you’re going to struggle to develop a meaningful brand. The power is going back to customers and they have such high expectations, it’s a 24-7 global proposition now.”

Greenfield concludes: “Goods or services that help people be creative, do something that no one else has done, or join the dots up in a new way, will be very powerful as they give people a sense of uniqueness, approval from others or help them understand things better or see something in a different light.

“Just as we adapt to the environment, the environment drives what’s happening to the brain and will create different needs and motivations. Marketers are in a very important and responsible position to help people feel good about themselves and make contributions [to society], but that’s not discrepant with making a profit.”

Case Study: How Microsoft has tracked brain activity

With an overload of information from multi-screen use and diminishing attention spans, how can marketers assess just how engaged consumers are with advertising on different platforms?

To gauge the effectiveness of some of its campaigns on the Xbox platform, Microsoft looked to neuromarketing. It wanted to get a clearer picture of how stimulated the brain was during 30 and 60-second TV ads compared with in-game ads run on the Xbox.


“We knew intuitively from our own behaviour that when we are on a gaming console we are highly engaged, but effectiveness research also showed us an incredible lift in the traditional brand metrics – favouribility, awareness, memorability – on Xbox,” says Ginny Musante, director of marketing at Microsoft’s Xbox Live advertising business.

Working with Mediabrands and EmSense, the company fitted test subjects with an unobtrusive headband that tracked brain activity, breathing rate, head motion, heart rate, blink rate and skin temperature while watching the three types of advertisement (30 second TV, 60 second TV and in-game ads).

While viewing TV ads for [automotive brand] Kia Soul, the most brain activity happened in the first half of the ad. However, when watching on Xbox Live [via in-game advertising], brain activity peaked at the repeat image of the car, reinforcing the advertisement’s memorability, claims Microsoft.

This was supported by traditional metrics: respondents spent an average of 298 seconds interacting with Xbox live ads and the ad delivered a 90% unaided brand recall rate, compared with 78% for the traditional TV spot.

Musante says: “It used to be that when you put an ad on TV you could interrupt people’s entertainment and you would get their attention. All you had to do was buy an ad slot in a prime-time programme. Now to get true engagement, advertisers have to do more.

“Invite the consumer into a conversation and don’t interrupt their experience, make the interaction natural, reward customers for their undivided attention and be relevant with content or offers.

“We have a lot of advertisers that sponsor games tournaments or offer gamers tricks and tips to go to the next level – that opens up a brand conversation and gives consumers a chance to truly interact.”



Martin Lindstrom, neuromarketing expert and author of Buyology

The role of the marketer will be obsolete really soon. I predict that it will not be about marketers running online communication, instead it will be in the hands of psychologists and data miners.

The amount of data that social media sites can crunch through and use to simulate the effect of advertising even before they’ve been on air is enormous. The entire industry of communication online will leapfrog any other traditional marketing technique because print and TV ads do not have that quantity of data.

Effective advertising of the future will be all about data analysis and the marketing field will not have enough intelligence to understand this data as it’s just too complicated. You are talking to an industry right now of which 99.9% will understand the concept but most likely will never work with it, because it’s too complex.

Another key issue is that messages are frequently being fragmented into such small pieces, dramatically changing our experience of them

For example, if I asked you to read all the Harry Potter books you will have one type of experience; if I ask you to read just one of the books, you will still get a feel but it will not be so comprehensive. If I take out a chapter it will be different again but if I create a Twitter version of it, a short summary in just 140 characters, that’s not going to engage you properly.

The communication industry has to find a way of communicating things in an engaging way in just 140 characters. It may mean using pictures or sound or other aspects of engagement that aren’t that active right now.

TV advertising should be used as a story-telling platform, then the fragmented media used as a follow-up that links back to the longer version of the TV commercial.



Kevin Bachus, chief product officer Bebo and co-founder of Xbox

Marketing Week (MW): How do you feel about the suggestion that social networks are ’infantalising’ the brain?

Kevin Bachus (KB): I can easily hear things like that being said 60 years ago with the emergence of television; that people were just living in the moment watching television shows. I think it’s natural to be concerned about new technology but Bebo users see social media as something to augment their real-life friendships. It’s just another way to socialise with others. People think that instant messaging doesn’t give children a cohesive narrative because it’s very brief snippets of text and some of it can be quite juvenile – “I just had a cheese sandwich” for example – but I would argue that it’s part of a much larger long-term narrative they’re having with friends.

MW: Are these social behaviours going to change the way brands target consumers?

KB: I agree with Baroness Greenfield’s comment that marketers will have to try harder to make consumers feel like they have a relationship with the brand. There is no question that consumers are looking for authenticity and they want to know the individuals behind the brand. That is something that social media amplifies because we provide the tools for consumers and marketers to have that dialogue.

MW: Do young people have a more unstable sense of identity because of changes to the brain?

KB: Children form their identities based on their interaction with friends, parents, peers and teachers. What teenager doesn’t want validation? But now there’s more immediacy and a broader exposure to potential validation than there was before. Social networking is just a tool. It can be silly, or it can provide broader communication possibilities – as we saw in the Middle East [revolutions] this year.

MW: Do you feel gaming could have an impact on young people’s understanding of actions having consequences?

KB: There has been a lot of research on this topic and it’s pretty consistent. Not only is it not the case but actually quite the opposite. Children are absolutely able to distinguish between things that happen in real life and things that happen on screen – virtually every major study that’s been done on video games proves that. In fact, when you can go back and try something again to see if has a different outcome, it shows a very direct link between your actions and the consequences and reinforces problem-solving skills.


Microsoft saw a 157% increase in the time spent watching movies through Xbox Live in the past year.

More than 4 million personal messages are sent between Xbox members every day.

Recent research by Microsoft shows that Xbox users are more likely to be focused solely on the console than when using other types of screen. On average, respondents surfed the web three times during an Xbox session, compared to 25 times while watching TV.

Respondents also sent a text message just five times while on the Xbox, compared with 12 times while watching TV and 23 times when surfing the internet.



Making DM relevant

Lucy Handley

Do you want to know an open secret? Marketers who prefer an all-singing, all-dancing creative would do better to focus on making DM relevant to their target audience, according to an annual study seen by Marketing Week.


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