Neuromarketing refers to a variety of techniques that can be applied to marketing, advertising and product development research that rely on measures of brain activity rather than on direct questioning or behavioural studies. It is a mixture of disciplines – marketing, cognitive-neuroscience, psychology, and behavioural economics – many of which have been around for decades or longer but which have only recently been blended together for marketing applications. Usually neuromarketing refers to research that has been done to answer a marketing question, but sometimes it’s also used to refer to the application of previous neuroscience findings to understanding marketing questions.
A wide array of techniques are used under the banner of neuromarketing research. They fall into five main categories: Neuro-Metrics, Eye-Tracking, Bio-Metrics, Implicit Response Testing and Facial Action Coding.
Neurometrics are measurements of brain activity and include fMRI and EEG measures in particular.
One of the most frequently used techniques in neuromarketing is EEG or electroencephalography. This is a measurement of the electrical activity patterns of the brain, typically recorded by a series of sensors placed around the scalp, held in position by a cap. Usually the sensors require gel to make good electrical contact with the scalp but there are also dry electrode systems available. The technique is safe, relatively inexpensive compared to fMRI and can be used in most ordinary buildings (as long as there is a quiet environment). One important benefit of EEG is that it provides moment-by-moment data on how someone is responding. Typical measures include attention and emotional engagement scores.
fMRI or Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a measure of blood flow in the brain, on the basis that when any brain area becomes active, it starts to use energy and thus draws more blood to it to replenish its energy supplies. fMRI measures require use of an expensive special facility (usually in a University) which houses the chamber-like fMRI device. The prime benefit of fMRI is that it can measure any region of the brain – including the deeper regions that EEG can’t directly measure. However, it is relatively more expensive than EEG and requires a very specialised environment. The fact that EEG can still make useful measurements without directly imaging deep into the brain, means that fMRI has a fairly narrow range of applications as far as day to day marketing studies are concerned. It is used most often for questions that involve very specific measurements of emotional or sensory activation.
Eye-tracking is probably the technique with which marketers are most likely to be familiar, having been in wide use for at least a couple of decades now. A dedicated camera (increasingly nowadays a webcam is used) measures movements of the participant eyes; software then correlates that with what they were seeing in order to plot a trace over the image or video. Numerous metrics can be derived from this data, such as the typical order in which people looked at each visual element, how long they looked at each element, and whether certain elements were viewed at all.
Eye-tracking is one of the simplest neuromarketing techniques, and one whose results often require the least expert interpretation. However, because it cannot measure how respondents think or feel, it is often paired with other techniques (such as Neuro-metrics)
Bio-metrics are measures of nervous system activity which reveal something about a person’s level of emotional arousal. The most frequently used measures include heart rate, muscle tension, and skin conductance (often called either Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) or Electro-Dermal Response (EDR). These measures are often less expensive to study than neuro-metrics, but they may require more highly emotional stimuli in order to capture the most meaningful data.
Implicit response testing is a relatively new range of software-based reaction speed tests that have recently been developed in the academic world and are now being adapted through specialist vendors for marketing research studies. The scientific underpinning for the methodologies is based on the idea that whenever we seen two constructs paired together, we can react to them faster if they are to some degree naturally associated with one another, than if they are a mis-match. As an example, try reading the following two lists of words:
Red Green Blue Orange Grey Black
Black Grey Orange Green Red Blue
Most people find they can read the second list more quickly, as the colours of the letters matches the words, whereas it doesn’t in the first list. This reaction-speed measure of closeness of association is at the heart of Implicit Response Testing.
The value of Implicit Reaction Speed Testing, is only just beginning to be recognized. For the first time it is now possible to measure at a granular level the degree to which stimulus triggers association with an array of different attributes, be they emotions, benefits, values or for example concerns. Specialists such as NeuroStrata are blending this technique with most other forms of neuro, bio or explicit (traditional) research tools to give a richer, deeper evaluation of all kinds of stimulus material.
Facial Action Coding detects facial expressions in order to measure emotional state. Typically seven different universal emotions – happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust and contempt – are measured on a moment-by-moment basis whilst a participant watches a video. Specialised software takes a video-feed of the respondent’s face (often from a computer webcam) and extracts muscle movement data in order to match it to known facial expression patterns.
Note that FAC centres on those expressions derived by Ekman which are a) universally measurable across cultures b) detectable in muscle-movement. As such they provide a useful moment by moment measure and insight, but not a full picture of emotional response.
There are a number of advantages offered by neuro-marketing methods compared to traditional research methodologies.
Firstly, it can reveal fleeting or non-conscious responses which participants would not be aware of, and thus not typically able to describe to a traditional researcher. For example, when viewing a TV commercial, moment-by-moment the viewer may have constantly changing, subtle responses that are just impossible for them to consciously recall afterwards.
Secondly, it can measure emotional responses which people might find difficult to accurately express for a number of reasons (e.g. because they don’t have the vocabulary to express them, or because if they consciously think too much about how they feel about something, it can change the way they feel about it!).
Thirdly, by not relying on verbal reports, these measures are free of cultural differences in how people express themselves, and hence produce data that is more easily comparable between cultures.
As the advertising, marketing and product development industries are increasingly recognising the importance of connecting emotionally with their customers and of the important role of non-conscious mental processes in decision-making, these benefits of Neuromarketing are driving its increasing popularity.
Almost any question that marketers/advertisers might have can be answered by at least one of the Neuromarketing methodologies. Here are some examples of typical questions that previous Neuromarketing studies have been commissioned to answer:
- Which of three potential TV ads will best capture viewers attention, engage their emotions and communicate key brand messages?
- Which of several potential package designs will work best on-shelf in the supermarket and why?
- Which desired brand values is our brand managing to communicate and which require enhancement?
- What emotions are triggered by our print ads, TV ads, and shelf displays?
- How can we help supermarkets re-design the aisles to make browsing our category, a more emotionally engaging experience for shoppers?
- How can we create the most compelling proposition for our new brand?
- How can we create more of a ritual around our brand experience?
- How should we enhance our soundtrack to trigger the intended emotions more powerfully?
Prices vary widely according to the scope of the study and the methods used. Costs may vary from several thousand dollars for a basic study to several hundred thousand for a large, ambitious study.
As a generalisation, and all other things being equal, eye-tracking, facial coding and implicit response measures are at the lower level of the price scale, with biometrics being low-to-mid range, EEG being mid-to-high range and fMRI being the most expensive.
Within each methodology, prices are usually determined by the number of stimuli to be tested, and the number of groups you need individual data cuts on (e.g. age, sex or brand-usage groups).
This varies by methodology and by the experimental design. Some measures, like EEG and fMRI, or ‘in facility’ eye-tracking, facial coding or implicit response measures capture data with very little variance ‘noise’ and therefore are able to use what may seem like small sample sizes of between 15 and 30 participants. Larger studies or on-line / web-based techniques may use up to several hundred.
No serious vendors of any of these measures would claim that they are capturing a fully comprehensive picture of all brain activity. Instead, each measure concentrates on finite areas of responses that are reasonably or well understood. For this reason, each type of measurement has its place in being better suited to answering some questions than others.
Whilst most of the software and hardware is available for anyone to buy, we would not advise non-experts to attempt to run their own studies without advice. All of these techniques require not only extensive interpretation, but often require expert input at the study design and preparation stages.
The industry is still evolving. Some vendors have created ‘products’ from ‘off the shelf’ tools to address specific questions. Others have their own unique proprietary techniques. Some suppliers will only handle a limited range of standardized and formatted stimulus. Others specialise in bespoke solutions.
Usually an expert in the use of the techniques needs to interpret your research questions and design a study accordingly. Often there are specific details of your question or of the proposed testing stimuli that impact on the study design, meaning that it’s not always appropriate to pick an ‘off-the-shelf’ design.
One key trend is for techniques to be blended together in order to provide the best possible solution to specific business questions.
Note that many of the newest on-line vendors (e.g. Eye Tracking and Facial Action Coding) provide standardized reports with only superficial commentary and diagnosis.
They do not have the skills / expertise, capability and business models to offer anything more than lighter weight consultancy; some see themselves as tech based businesses which rely on the client or another intermediary to extract deeper insights and form coherent, actionable recommendations.
Often the best way to begin with Neuromarketing research is to commission a small scale study either on a current, pressing business question, or on some area which you feel you already understand well from your previous research. Alternatively you might want to commission an ‘in house’ training or seminar day for your team, run by Neuromarketing vendors or consultants in which you all have the opportunity to get to grips with all the possible methods and ask questions.
First be clear on your reasons for wanting to commission a neuro-study. For example: do you need to understand a particular method, or do you have a particular research question you want to address? Bare in mind that not all methods are necessarily equally appropriate for all research questions.
If you want to test a methodology, it’s a good idea to screen as many vendors as possible. Amongst your questions, it’s a good idea to ask each vendor what would be a good, small-scale first project that would best show off the capabilities of their method.
If you want to test a research question, then the task is to find the methodology best suited to answering that question. In this case an independent consultancy might be the best answer. Alternatively you could ask vendors how well their methodology is suited to answering your question. Also ask them exactly which outputs/measures you will get from their study and then ask yourself: ‘If I had these measures, would it answer my question(s)?’
Yes it’s certainly possible to mix methods together. It very much depends on the experimental designs you’re using and vendors. For example, the way that the stimuli is being presented in one method might be different from another method, and therefore the results might not be directly combinable. It’s usually easier to treat the results of different methods as two parallel lines of data which don’t actually cross. In other words they are two ways of looking at the same questions but you can’t directly combine them within the same calculation or table. Also, you need to have a very clear understanding of what each method is telling you; when combining data from multiple sources the possibility of misunderstanding is multiplied!
It’s also worth being aware that whilst most vendors are experts on their own methods, they might not be so expert on other methods. If you are combining metrics from two or more vendors, there could potentially be pitfalls of misunderstanding in how to interpret the two sources of data in comparison to eachother. This is another reason why it’s best to consult with an independent third party who understands both methods.
Whilst this is possible, it is a potentially advanced exercise requiring a lot of consideration! The best way to approach it is to plan ahead from the very beginning and design your Neuromarketing program of research in such a way that it will best combine with your existing databases. One important consideration is to understand the definitions of the measurements that a vendor is supplying. For example, the term ‘engagement’ is widely used to mean different things. Just because a vendor is supplying a measurement of ‘engagement’, does not necessarily mean it will be equivalent to what you’ve been measuring as ‘engagement’ with your traditional research methods, or even what other Neuromarketing vendors mean by it!
Some of these techniques (e.g. the neurometrics and the biometrics) require participants to come to a central testing facility for the research. However, often these don’t have to be dedicated/bespoke facilities and can be locations such as a rented market research testing centres, or even a quiet meeting room in a hotel or office. Whilst eye-tracking, facial coding and implicit response measures can be conducted in the same kind of facilities, many vendors now also offer these studies online (with participants taking part using their own computers + webcams from home).
The ethical considerations are largely the same as for any market research study. For example, the importance of getting fully informed consent from participants, and of maintaining the privacy of personally identifying information. Most neuromarketing studies examine group averages, so an individual’s personal responses are rarely under consideration anyway.
Some might imagine that Neuromarketing allows for ‘manipulation’ of people’s responses, but this is not the case. There is no ‘buy button’ within the brain that, if stimulated, will blindly hypnotise viewers to buy! Neuromarketing is simply another tool available to researchers to unearth greater insight into consumer’s usually complex patterns of response and behaviour. And as the old adage goes, no consumers are going to repeat purchase anything that lets them down or fails to live up to its marketing promise.
It is difficult to estimate, as there are currently no industry figures, but some observers have estimated that globally around ten percent of TV ads, for example, have been subject to neuromarketing testing.
What we can say is that the field is growing rapidly with most large brands in the FMCG, Beverages, Pharma, Financial Services, Entertainment, Media, Automotive and Consumer Electronics industries having experimented with or currently using these methods.