Niall joined FreshMinds as Head of Research, Expertise and Development
in 2010 following senior positions with boutique agencies JRA Research
in Nottingham, and PCP in York. With over 10 years' experience in
Market Research, Niall has worked with the full spectrum of private and
public sector clients on projects that cover pretty much every
Read the full biography here.
I’m not a Neuromantic
By Niall Smith, - 4th October, 2011
There is something about neuromarketing that I find deeply attractive. I find the argument quite persuasive. Proponents of neuromarketing see it as a great leap forward in our ability to understand the mind of the consumer. ‘90% of consumers’ decisions are made at an unconscious level,’ they are fond of claiming, ‘Traditional methods only work on the conscious 10% - the tip of the iceberg. It is only through neuromarketing, by exploring how the unconscious mind works, that we can understand the rest.’
In August 2010, New Scientist chose a cover from three different options on the basis of a neuromarketing study. This experiment was not intended to be a cast iron test of the neuromarketing method, but the magazine with this choice of cover sold better than would have been expected for August, and the neuromarketing world claimed that here was proof positive of the power of this approach. (See MrWeb's coverage at the time: news and feature.)
I believe, however, that neuromarketing has a long way to go before it has proved its value.
First let’s take recruitment. Different peoples’ brains are wired differently, notably; men and women, and left and right-handed people. To avoid a lot of expensive recalibration for different brain-wiring, neuromarketing studies often focus only on one gender, and only on the right-handed.
Being a lefty I might be somewhat biased, but I can’t help but feel that if we acknowledge that different people think differently, any study needs to make allowances for this. Would we be comfortable basing the launch of a new product on the findings of one focus group in one location? A focus group made up exclusively of right-handed males?
Recruitment issues aside, my real concern relates to that “90% of decisions” claim – that without the use of neuromarketing we are missing a vital part of the decision making process. But what can neuromarketing tell us that traditional (and better value for money) approaches can’t?
Neuromarketing monitors the brain and is able to determine whether respondents are reacting positively or negatively to stimulus material, and the strength of this feeling. This is a long way from being able to read other peoples’ minds. But reading peoples’ minds is largely irrelevant anyway. The human race overcame our disappointing lack of telepathy a long time ago, by evolving a different way of understanding what was going on in other peoples’ heads. We ask them, and they tell us.
Apologies for sounding facetious, but there is very little wrong with this approach.
Let’s take the New Scientist story. Do we believe that we would have got a different result if we had just asked people to name which of the covers they preferred? Whilst 90% of their decisions may well be happening on an unconscious level, by the time they’ve communicated their decision the outcome is the same.
The only time you might expect a different outcome would be if the image was in some way offensive, but respondents secretly liked it and were uncomfortable telling you. So neuromarketing is reduced to a fancy lie-detector (and what would it say about a company that went with a deeply uncomfortable and inappropriate image anyway!).
Furthermore, whilst neuromarketing might well be able to tell us that respondents unconsciously preferred one cover over another, it still cannot tell us why. Advocates of neuromarketing are keen to dismiss any reasons respondents give as ‘post-rationalisation’. But neuromarketing can’t tell us why a respondent preferred one image over another, only that they have. So we are forced to ask the respondent anyway.
And if I go down the traditional approach of talking to the respondent rather than reading their mind, I might use the money I’ve saved on a longer survey, and ask respondents to tell me what was wrong with the covers they rejected, or how they might be improved. Or perhaps I could afford a larger sample size, and compare how different sub-groups reacted to the covers; did the cover appeal to men more than women? How did the New Scientist’s core consumer react to it? Or perhaps I could just decide to save my company some money.
Now, I realise that the New Scientist story is an illustrative example, but these concerns hold true of other more robust studies. I remain excited by the potential of neuromarketing, and would dearly like to find a compelling application for it. I can see that as the field develops it might one day be able to tell us a great deal about consumers’ instinctive purchase decisions, for example; was it the packaging that made you pick up this item, was it the promotion on the shelf, or was it the influence of advertising seen weeks before?
But until neuromarketing advances to the point where it becomes sensitive enough to dissect and interpret an unconscious thought, or it is at least as cheap as traditional approaches, it remains very hard to recommend to clients as good value for money.
And ultimately isn’t great insight and value for money what all clients are after?
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Thanks for your response Niall. Firstly, no-one's talking about reading thoughts! I should have made myself clearer, hence my asking what your definition of 'neuromarketing' was. Prof Calvert defined it thus (CIM 2010), “Term broadly used to describe the application of tools tasks/tests derived from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to measure non-conscious biological (as opposed to conscious psychological) reactions to (marketing) stimuli”. I find that a useful definition and you'll notice that it draws together pure neuro and psychology. The daddy of BE, Prof Daniel Kahneman, is after all a psychologist.
I think the key issue here lies in the separation of direct and automatic responses, overlaid with cognitive and affective responses. Traditional research is based on direct. The new approaches are based on automatic. (I draw a distinction between automatic and indirect; there are a number of traditional techniques which are indirect but which are still prone to bias). Why is this important? We know from Bargh et al 1996 and Schneider & Schiffrin 1977 that much of the brain implements automatic processes, which are faster than conscious deliberations & which occur with little or no awareness or feeling of effort. People have little or no introspective access to these processes or volitional control over them; these processes evolved to solve problems of evolutionary importance. We also know that behaviour is strongly influenced by affective systems (LeDoux 96 and Panksepp 98), proof being that the logical deliberative system (Kahneman's system 2 2002) cannot regulate behaviour if it's damaged or perturbed (eg by stress, heat of the moment, chemical imbalance or injury). So, behaviour requires a fluid interaction between controlled and automatic process, and between cognitive and affective systems (Camerer 2005). The critical point for market research is that, because the automatic processes operate 'offline' or below consciousness, we have far more introspective access to the controlled, rather than the uncontrolled, processes - so we naturally tend to exaggerate the importance of control & many behaviours that emerge from the interplay between the systems are 'routinely and falsely interpreted as being the product of cognitive deliberation alone' (Camerer 2005).
In our approach we're careful to separate what is valid to measure based on these automatic/deliberative/cognitive/affective systems & processes. As I stated in my original post, there are some metrics where a 'traditional' direct approach is valid but there are others where tradition can mislead - simply because of the way these systems & processes operate. I can show you a couple of similar case studies where a client's launch decision was based on their benchmarks of focus groups and quant testing. Green lights all the way and then failure in the market. Subsequent fMRI testing (in one case) and implicit testing of neuro-psychological 'rewards' (in the other) both gave strong predictions of failure. I don't know what your cost benchmarks are but this predictive power would have had huge value given the total cost of resources used in a typical launch.
In answer to your question about the case I cited in my original post ie whether the same insight could have been obtained from classic qual or quant research compared to these new approaches the simple, and emphatic, answer is a resounding 'no' - the new approaches which I employed as the client were able to provide insights & answer many questions that classic approaches could not & I extend an open invitation to you to contact me so that I can show you the evidence.
I guess the bottom-line for me, with 25 years client-side marketing experience, is what would I do differently given what I know now? I am utterly convinced that if we'd started using these approaches years ago they would now be the norm, and many 'classic' methods would not have even seen the light of day.
You are of course quite right to point out that the study I have referenced only draws on one particular type of neuromarketing (EEG) and there are many others. I have used the New Scientist study only as an illustration.
However, the suite of techniques that you mention here is so broad as to make discussion of the pros and cons of the approach impossible. Behavioural economics is not the same thing as neuroscience. ‘Decision science’ could equally include conjoint techniques, or price sensitivity studies.
I do see value in understanding people’s actual behaviour, and sometimes this does throw up interesting and irrational quirks. But the same insights can be identified through traditional techniques, including observational research.
The case study you cite does sound like good value for money, but the question remains as to whether the same insight could not have been obtained through classic qualitative or quantitative research. And whilst I agree that people can sometimes be unreliable witnesses to their own behaviour, there is no reason to believe that if a person tells you that they like one advert over another, they are unaware of their own preferences (even if they can’t explain why they prefer it).
I do not agree that neuro techniques can tell you the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’. Regardless of the technique, neuromarketing cannot tell you what another person is thinking. Our scientific understanding of the brain is not advanced enough to be able to isolate an individual thought, or even draw solid conclusions as to what is happening when different parts of the brain respond to stimuli. Whilst the scientific community has a very broad consensus of opinion of the types of activity that occur in different parts of the brain, much of this remains speculation.
The brain does hate change, and I can understand why you might mention a need to “protect vested interests” (but this applies as much to practitioners of neuromarketing as it does to traditional researchers). For my part I would like to find a use for neuroscientific techniques, I just think they are at too early a stage in their development to represent a genuine alternative to traditional methods.
Niall, interesting comments but, I'm afraid, not fully informed and I'd love the opportunity to discuss this more with you. What do you mean by 'neuromarketing' anyway? The study you cite was conducted by one company using a combination of EEG and eye-tracking. These are only two techniques. There are others, all of which have different strengths & weaknesses - but don't, like many others, catch 'toolitis'. There are new tools but this is really about changing mind set, and combining neuroscience, cognitive psychology, social psychology and behavioural economics - what we call 'decision science'. The study itself is flaky (no control for example), with few data points and certainly shouldn't be used to draw any conclusions or make any claims about neuromarketing's efficacy. Also, what's your definition of 'value for money'? We have a client whose TV ad drove a 49% sales increase (in a fiercely competitive, mature, market) with an ROI of £1.46 per £1 spent and, after 3 years of applying our approach, has halved their customer churn. They have now replaced their traditional research methods with our approach worldwide. Is this VFM?
You rightly point out that the last thing a client needs is more data so our approach focusses on the 'why' as well as the what - but the crucial thing is that neuro techniques reveal things that traditional approaches don't - and can't, because people are, despite what you say, unreliable witnesses to their own behaviour. I can show you lots of evidence of people saying one thing but their brains telling a different story - and it's their brains that drive their behaviour, not what they say they'll do. I would agree that there are some pieces of information, because of the way the brain works, where direct questionning is wholly valid. However, there are others where traditional techniques are, at best, inadequate and, at worse, misleading. It's not surprising that traditional research suppliers are hanging on to their methods though - the brain hates change (not to mention the need to protect vested interests). Please do get in touch as I'd be happy to explain further. I speak as an ex-Marketing Director (25 years with Unilever, Diageo and T-Mobile) and have witnessed, in my last client role, the power of using these new approaches - more insight, better explanatory and predictive power and, ultimately, commercial value.
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