What your business needs to know about consumer neuroscience
Consumer neuroscience has emerged as an innovative field in the crowded space of research methods, as a growing number of brands seek to prove their advertising budget are delivering value for money. 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, such as focus groups or online surveys, which rely on conscious responses.
That said, the idea of monitoring the brain’s reaction to ads has raised concerns that advertisers will be able to “read consumers’ minds” – a sci-fi notion which is far from the truth. So what exactly is consumer neuroscience, and how can it help marketers and their ad agencies improve the effectiveness of their ads? Heather Andrew, UK CEO of consumer neuroscience specialists Neuro-Insight, explains:
So, how does consumer neuroscience work?
Within consumer neuroscience there are a number of different techniques, such as fMRI which measures blood flow in the brain and EEG, which measures second-by-second electrical responses in the brain. Both these approaches have benefits and downsides: fMRI is 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, reveals second-by-second brain activity but the data can be “noisy” so multiple readings are required from each person taking part in the study.
My company, Neuro-Insight, uses a technology called Steady State Topography (SST) which reduces “noise” in the data, meaning that only a single reading is required from each participant to deliver a high quality output. People who take part in our studies wear headsets with sensors that pick up electrical signals in different parts of the brain as they watch an ad. Key measures we report on include how engaged a person is by an ad, (i.e. how personally relevant it is to them); what aspects of the ad are being stored into their long memory and the extent to which they are emotionally energised by an ad.
Do consumer neuroscience techniques allow advertisers to read minds?
No. Research into how the brain works has advanced quickly but not to the point where we can read minds – it will probably never get there in fact, nor would we want it to! Current techniques can only identify which parts of the brain are active at a given time. From there, it is down to the research specialists to use their neuroscientific understanding of the brain regions to provide that all-important insight into the effectiveness of an ad or medium.
What sort of businesses use consumer neuroscience?
My company, Neuro-Insight, work for big brand owners such as Direct Line and Pladis (formerly United Biscuits), who usually want us to assess how well their advertising is working from the brain’s point of view, and then use that insight to tweak their ads to better engage with their audience. 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. We also carry out research for media owners such as Twitter, News UK and Royal Mail who want to better understand consumers’ subconscious relationships with their media channels.
Why are businesses turning to consumer neuroscience over and above other market research techniques?
With UK advertising spend forecast to grow to £21bn in 2016, businesses are under pressure to demonstrate that the vast sums spent on advertising are effective at selling their products. A large percentage of consumers' decision-making is influenced by our subconscious level. Consumer neuroscience adds value by providing insights into consumers’ subconscious reactions to ads.
It’s not an either/or thing however - quite often advertisers use consumer neuroscience to complement other market research techniques.
What are some of the most interesting insights consumer neuroscience has revealed into how the brain responds to ads?
When it comes to the brain’s take on ads or on media channels, we track a number of measures, the most important of which is long term memory encoding. There’s a lot of evidence which shows that those aspects of an ad that get encoded - or stored - into consumers’ long term memory have an impact on decision making and purchasing intent, which is valuable information for advertisers.
However, there are lots of other contributing factors that have subtle but important impacts on our subconscious reactions to ads. For example, one interesting finding we have uncovered is that our brains register a strong ‘withdrawal’ response when we see animals or robots acting in an overly human manner – imagine a hyper-realistic dog walking on its hind legs and speaking as a person – because this combination crosses a line into unnatural territory that we are often very uncomfortable with. The brain also hates overtly aggressive body language, such as pointing fingers (think Lord Kitchener’s Britain Needs You WWI recruitment ads) or characters staring directly at the camera, both of which drive strong negative responses in the brain.
Neuro-Insight is a market research company that uses unique brain-imaging technology to measure how the brain responds to communications. It is the only company in the world licensed to use this patented technology, enabling the measurement of second by second changes in brain activity. Neuro-Insight delivers unique insights into how a piece of design or advertising is affecting people at both a rational and an emotional level.