Understanding what makes people tick has always been at the center of marketing. For decades, CMOs and others have left no stone unturned in the quest to fathom consumer behavior and take marketing to a new and better level. Yet, as every marketing professional knows, data from surveys, focus groups, point of sale, credit cards, click behavior, and even beacons can only go so far. Consumers don’t always do what they say, and they don’t always behave predictably.
“In some cases, there are significant gaps and discrepancies,” said Michael Smith, vice president of consumer neuroscience solutions at Nielsen, in an interview with CMO.com.
As a result, researchers--as well as engineers, product designers, and marketers--are attempting to delve deeper into the human mind and transform electrical brain impulses, eye and face activity, and skin response into discernable, actionable data about how a person thinks and feels about an automobile, liquor bottle, clothing item, food product, smartphone, television commercial, software app, or corporate brand. Neuroscience--the study of the nervous system and, in the marketing world, the ability to transform sensorimotor, cogitative impulses, and affective response to stimuli into actual data and insight--is steadily marching forward and moving into the mainstream of marketing.
Already, an array of companies--including Coca Cola, Frito-Lay, Gillette, Google, P&G, Philips, and Hyundai--have turned to neuromarketing techniques to test products. The approaches include functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI), electrodes and sensors, facial coding using cameras and computing, and biometrics that measure heart rate, galvanic skin response (GSR), or eye movement to understand how a person reacts to images, audio, and other sensory information.
“The field is steadily advancing. It represents a way for marketers to get their heads around consumer emotions. It’s a very different way of looking at and evaluate marketing efforts--and not simply relying on self-reporting,” explained Dan Hill, an industry pioneer who runs the neuroscience firm Sensory Logic and is author of “About Face: Ten Secrets to Emotionally Effective Advertising.”
Neuromarketing is not a new concept. Ale Smidts, a professor of marketing research at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, coined the term in 2002. Over the years, neuromarketing has grabbed the attention of marketing professionals--and there’s now nearly unanimous recognition that emotional responses drive many consumer decisions.
“Human beings are not truth machines,” Hill told CMO.com. “We essentially want to feel good about ourselves, and we have conscious and unconscious motivations for why we watch something, why we buy something, and how we act, in general.”
The goal of understanding humans and their trigger points for buying has contributed to academic research, along with companies offering neuromarketing products and services.
“A growing number of marketers are turning to these tools, which are becoming far more user-friendly, more affordable, and more scalable,” said Elissa Moses, CEO for Neuroscience and Behavioral Science at market research firm Ipsos, in an interview with CMO.com. “People are beginning to accept that these techniques are useful for understanding nonconscious behavior and activity. As a result, we have reached a tipping point where neuromarketing is considered a legitimate, useful, approachable, affordable set of measurements.”
Today, neuromarketing goes by a few names, including consumer neuroscience and decision science. These tools are being used in a growing array of fields, including politics. Yet, regardless of the specific term or exact approach an organization takes, there’s also a recognition that it’s still not a fully baked concept. Roger Dooley, author of “Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing,” told CMO.com that he believes a good deal of research is still required, though neuroscience is no longer pseudoscience.
“Academic validation of neuromarketing is an important and necessary step for the nascent industry,” he said, yet findings from studies may “prove unsettling to some vendors.”
Part of the problem is that over the past decade, a number of companies delving into the field and offering neuromarketing services have “taken some of the findings and made big, broad claims about what neuroscience can bring to the marketing field,” according to Vinod Venkatraman, an assistant professor of marketing and supply-chain management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Some of these claims, he told CMO.com, haven’t been thoroughly tested or validated, and they may exceed real-world results. He and other researchers are now attempting to apply greater academic rigor to the concept and deliver useful data about why people do what they do.
A 2015 research project funded by the Advertising Research Foundation, and involving teams at Temple University and New York University, separately collected and analyzed data and then compared it to actual results for a 30-second television ad. Researchers tested individuals across six commonly used methods (traditional self-reports, implicit measures, eye tracking, biometrics, electroencephalography, and functional magnetic resonance imaging). The controlled study, which was designed to be impartial and reproducible, essentially validated the effectiveness of neuroscience in marketing--especially when companies use multiple methods and the right tools for the right job. Yet Venkatraman and other researchers also found that the data wasn’t always useful in drawing definitive conclusions or leading to actual results.
Nevertheless, neuromarketing is evolving rapidly. According to Ipsos’s Moses, various methods--facial coding, implicit reaction time testing, eye tracking, biometrics, and EEG--are becoming increasingly reliable and useful for understanding thinking and reactions. She also pointed to a growing awareness about which tools work best for specific situations, with experts becoming more adept at applying them at the right place and time.
For instance, a GSR test will indicate that a person is experiencing a strong reaction to something he or she is seeing, hearing, or smelling, but it’s not necessarily obvious why this response is taking place and whether it’s a desirable or undesirable response. This requires additional context that may derive from a secondary test, such as facial coding, voice pitch analysis, implicit reaction time, or self-reporting. A marketer might also benefit by dropping in social media data or click-stream data and running analytics on everything.
“The environment is becoming far more multidimensional,” Moses said.
In the past few years, many of the early and often marginal players have fallen away, Nielsen’s Smith said. The end result? Remaining solution providers are savvier and better equipped to address an organization’s specific needs and requirements.
Likewise, “Among many companies, particularly larger organizations, utilization of these tools has become a far more standard part of their testing process,” Smith added. “There’s growing knowledge about how to approach neuromarketing and use it to and realize value. The discussion is shifting from choosing the right tool to how to best integrate tools and achieve the best possible results.”
Neuroscience can lead down many paths. Putting the technology into play may mean connecting an EEG to an individual and combining it with eye tracking to see how the person responds to different video content. While the EEG puts a microscope to brain activity, the eye tracking delivers insight into where the person is looking. Yet the process might not stop there. A neuroscientist might attach electrodes and measure GSR and integrate it with facial-action coding to understand expressiveness. In the end, all of this allows neuroscience teams to flesh out a response at a far more granular level. Meanwhile, the researchers may use self-reporting tools to better understand conflicts and inconsistencies in the subjects they test.
It’s critical to think broadly and creatively when using neuromarketing--and the data it generates, Smith said. As CMOs look for ways to put it to work, they should think broadly about such factors as demographic and weather data and how the intersection points yield deeper insights. In addition, neuroscience technology is advancing rapidly. For instance, EEG headsets are far less expensive than only a few years ago. They’re also more portable and no longer require gel--making them much easier to use and more flexible than ever before. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology also has potential “as the analytical ability gains in precision,” Hill said, “but invasiveness and costs are likely to remain major barriers to surmount.”
What’s more, the boundaries of neuromarketing technology are expanding rapidly--and CMOs should tune into these changes. Personal devices could take the field where it hasn’t gone before. “We can expect even more testing and monitoring options to come with rapid innovations in technology for both hardware and software,” Moses said. For instance, with the explosion of consumer wearables, including Fitbits and Apple Watch, “There are also new possibilities emerging with mobile biometrics that capture heart rate and GSR,” he added. As prices drop and adoption grows, these could become widely used tools that deliver large-scale and fast insights.
Not surprisingly, it’s also critical to consider security and privacy issues when designing a neuromarketing program, experts said. The misuse or abuse of personal data could lead to a backlash and hinder an organization--and the field—from moving forward. Smith said it’s critical to adopt an opt-in approach to any neuromarketing campaign, particularly if it involves wearables and other personal devices.
Finally, ethical issues must be considered. “There’s a need for organizations to create guiderails and consider how the process is being used,” Smith said. “It’s possible to step outside ethical boundaries.”
Yet he discounted the ability of organizations to use neuromarketing data to fashion a zombie consumer that’s easily manipulated. “Part of the hyperbole of the past is that there was an easy route to manipulation, that there was a buy button in the brain--and all you had to do was figure out how to push it, and you’d own the world,” Smith stated. Evidence suggests that that’s certainly not the case. The world is not that simple.”
In fact, he and others said that, in the end, neuromarketing is not a silver bullet. It’s simply another tool in the CMO’s arsenal. “These tools don’t have an opinion, biases, or an agenda,” Smith said. “They’re simply a measurement mechanism that provides constructive input and feedback to marketers.”
Added Moses: “Marketers cannot ignore these emotional nonconscious forces. It’s better to attempt to understand them and leverage them in order to build a more comprehensive marketing framework. Neuromarketing takes marketing beyond the linear and allows a CMO to achieve greater insight.”