Can Reading The Brain Rewire Marketing?.

By Posted in - Marketing Advice & Insight on June 29th, 2015

So the marketing industry has started using neuroscience. Critics say the reality is a mixture of bad science, bullshit and hope, but maybe the idea is not as flawed as they would have us believe. For years the standard technique for measuring the effectiveness of television advertisements was the focus group. Gather a group of people into a room, show them an ad, and ask survey questions about what they saw. It worked, to a degree, because human nature is unpredictable. People don’t always say what they feel. These days marketers use more sophisticated dial-testing techniques that register the intensity of positive and negative reactions to ads in real time, rather than merely asking people for their opinions. But even these methods have limitations. Factors such as unreliable memory, self-deception, and the desire to “please the researcher” can lead to responses that do not accurately reflect the myriad ways ads engage viewers.

The big hope is that neuroscience, aka consumer neuroscience or decision science,can get around some of these problems by targeting the unconscious desires of consumers, which are supposedly revealed by measuring the brain. The holy grail is to predict which ads will lead to most sales before they’ve been released. Ever since a highly publicised fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scan study in 2004 was used to explain why people say they prefer the taste of Pepsi but buy Coke, marketers have been hyping up the potential of neuromarketing in product, packaging and advertising design. The basic idea is that measuring brain or other physiological responses can bypass rationalising biases and misinterpretations that plague the validity and reliability of self-reports.

Surveys may lie and you may lie, but your brain doesn’t lie, or so the theory goes. Asking consumers to watch TV ads while wearing EEG (electroencephalography) caps that record electrical signals from the brain, to discover how effective, memorable, attention grabbing, emotionally stimulating, and engaging did these participants find the ads, is hardly rocket science. And such highly accurate customer insights offer obvious benefits to advertisers. They could use the technology to determine how frequently an ad must be run, for instance, to be most effective. They could also use the technology to determine when an ad should be run i.e. which ads should be placed in a sequence together to maximise engagement.

The concept is that if neuroscience can look at your brain and see that the same ad—whether it is 30 seconds or 20 seconds—is just as memorable, emotional, and engaging, then neuromarketing can help companies figure out the optimal length to make the ad, potentially saving a lot of money. Identifying the most and least engaging moments in an ad is key to this process, and the theory is that the real-time nature of EEG makes this possible.
There is a catch, however. Signals from electrodes placed on the scalp can be drowned out by electrical activity in the muscles and are sensitive to interference from other electrical devices. Even results from fMRI brain scans are sensitive to slight changes in analysis and much of commercial neuromarketing uses cheap EEG equipment anyway, often in poorly controlled, poorly designed experiments, that often produces dubious data.

A recent study attempted to validate the effectiveness of these neuromarketing technologies. The work was done at Temple University’s Centre for Neural Decision Making at the Fox School of Business, in Philadelphia.The project was funded by the Advertising Research Foundation, which has been engaged in a multi-year effort to develop standards for neuromarketing. The scientists tested eight different methods: traditional surveys; implicit measures; eye tracking; heart rate; skin conductance; breathing; brain activity, using fMRI; and brain waves, using EEG. Their experiments and subsequent data analysis, by a separate team at New York University – who conducted a rigorous analysis to evaluate the correlation between neuroscience data and performance – showed that only fMRI provided a significant improvement in predictive power over traditional surveys.
While the study seems to cast doubt on the usefulness of most of the methods, the results themselves are open to scrutiny.

For example, some neuromarketing firms use multiple technologies in their work, an approach which may increase accuracy. Specific technologies also may have niches where they perform best, e.g., measuring which emotions consumers associate with a brand. But even if the jury is still out on the emergent area of consumer neuroscience, we should not dismiss it.

There is no doubt that brain scans can indeed predict the effectiveness of marketing material, and tapping into people’s brains predicts their behaviour better than simply asking them. And understanding how to connect emotionally with consumers on a deep level not only improves marketing but also leads to stronger brand relationships and—ultimately—better in-market performance.

Among the challenges facing neuromarketing are improvements in measurement technology, automation and standardised approaches, which are required to reduce cost while increasing the speed of study execution and insights. Marketing must also find ways to bring neuroscience outside the lab environment and directly into the real-world environment, evolving it to the point that it is ready for major market penetration. Time will tell.

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