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Opinion

Neuroscience in marketing: separating fact from fiction

05 August 2015
Neuroscience in marketing: separating fact from fiction

Understanding what consumers really think about your product or service, or the way that you communicate it, is advertising’s Holy Grail.

The pursuit of that insight has led to ever more sophisticated research methods over the industry’s lifetime, so it’s small surprise to see marketers now turning to the field of neuroscience for those answers.

Measuring brain activity provides a means of looking at consumers’ emotionally-driven subconscious responses – responses which are difficult to assess objectively through traditional research methods. However, due to sci-fi headlines about “brands reading your mind”, applying neuroscience techniques to consumer marketing is sometimes met with controversy.

So how do businesses interested in this research tool separate fact from fiction?

Fact: Understanding how the brain works can improve advertising effectiveness

New imaging techniques have led to huge advances in the understanding of basic brain functions. By measuring which parts of the brain are active while someone is watching an advertisement, it’s possible to understand their responses to it on a second-by-second basis.

The resultant granular data gives an insight into the intangible (and often inexpressible) nuances that make up our overall responses to advertising messages. By identifying how an ad is impacting brain activity, it’s then possible to recommend changes including production edits, casting choices and script rewrites that can improve that ad’s effectiveness at conveying a given message.

Aside from analysing the creative message of an ad, media owners have also found neuro research valuable for understanding audience relationships with their media channels. One such study by Neuro-Insight for Twitter demonstrated the strong emotional response that the social network evokes in its users, due to the immediacy and high personal relevance of the messaging format.

Fiction: Neuro science is about reading consumers’ minds

Although the methods and technology have developed fast, neuroscience is far from being able to read consumers’ minds, and may well never get there.

Current techniques are simply able to identify which parts of the brain are active at a given time – from there it is down to established neuroscientific understanding of the brain regions and the skills of the research specialists to attribute that activity to the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ that constitutes the all-important insight into the effectiveness of an ad or medium.

Fact: Memory is the key to influencing purchase decisions

Memory encoding (how our brains store information into memory) is one the most important things to measure, because there is a strong correlation between what our brains store into memory and how we make decisions – including what we intend to purchase.

For advertising, we measure memory encoding in the right brain (which gauges holistic experiences, like the overall feel of an ad) and for left brain (which picks up words and detail, such as branding or specific product messages).

Therefore, if an ad campaign elicits high levels of memory encoding while the most important messages are being presented, advertisers can be confident that their messages are landing and the advertising (both facts and associated feelings) is likely to be evoked the next time a viewer comes across the brand or product in question.

Fiction: Neuroscience offers just one way of looking at the brain responses to advertising

Actually there are several neuroscience methodologies, and they all have pros and cons. The two most common are fMRI and EEG.

The former measures blood flow in the brain – it’s great at measuring what happens where in the brain but, because blood flow is a delayed response, changes are not relayed in real time. EEG, which measures electrical responses in the brain, shows second-by-second brain activity but the data can be “noisy” so multiple readings are required from each respondent – not ideal if your audience is supposed to feel at home, for instance.

A third option, Steady State Topography (SST), provides the same second-by-second electrical activity analysis, but uses a unique type of analysis which reduces “noise” in the data, meaning that only a single reading is required from each respondent to deliver a high quality output.

Choosing which technique to use can be a challenge for businesses – often it comes down to a businesses’ particular needs and a given neuro research company’s track record in that area. Some fundamental questions do always apply, though: consider the detail of how the research will be conducted (location, equipment used, readings per respondent for instance) and make sure that the proposed sample size is big enough to be representative.

As the specialism continues to grow and gains greater exposure across the marketing industry, neuro research will become a keystone of modern marketing. Understanding how the brain reacts to communications is an invaluable tool in marketers’ armoury, giving them great scope to develop effective creative concepts and executions.

For consumers, the depth of information now at advertisers’ fingertips should be good news too, resulting in ads which are more entertaining and relevant, and won’t drive us to the ad blockers or the mute button.

Heather Andrew, UK CEO, Neuro-Insight

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