Surfing the Brainwaves

Neuroscience methods may hold the key to delivering more effective advertising

March 7, 2017

By Anne Field



The grim story of a man beaten down by the system, from childhood to old age, doesn't sound like the trappings of a winning commercial for a maker of microwaveable burgers. But the spot was an immediate hit for the Rustlers brand when it aired last year in the U.K., thanks in part to a surprising conclusion. When the man, now old and weary, bites into a juicy Rustlers burger, he suddenly becomes joyful and animated. The ad ends with the tagline "What a time to be alive."

What inspired Rustlers' parent company Kepak Convenience Foods to run such a risky ad? Mostly, it was the recommendation of TransgressiveX, a London-based market research and consulting firm specializing in applying neuroscience to marketing. When researchers working on behalf of the firm tested Rustlers' ad, viewers had positive responses to such key emotional drivers as empathy and clarity of purpose. Based on that analysis, TransgressiveX suggested that Kepak develop a premium hamburger and be more assertive in the marketplace.

"[Neuroscience] gets you deeper into the core issues and the areas likely to have a significant impact on moving a brand forward," says Simon Walker, CEO at Kepak Convenience Foods.

Marketers long for tools with which they can scientifically evaluate consumers' emotional responses to everything from promotions to price points and pinpoint how to manipulate their loyalty and inclination to buy. Neuroscience techniques can do just that, from measuring activity in certain parts of the brain to assessing facial expressions. By gauging consumers' deep-rooted reactions to products and services, marketers can develop sharper campaigns and messaging.

"You can measure things second by second, picking up little things people may not remember, be aware of, or want to talk about," says Horst Stipp, EVP of research and innovation: global and ad effectiveness at the Advertising Research Foundation. "It's more precise."


Seeking a Deeper Response

Consumers' gut reactions, experts argue, are more powerful than their conscious ones and have a greater likelihood of guiding their actions and purchasing patterns. To get a better sense of what people feel deep down, TransgressiveX delves into "System 1" subconscious thinking for what motivates consumers to interact with a brand, says CEO Nadim Sadek. "We find their most heartfelt feelings — an unmoderated and deeper response," he notes.

There's a veritable cornucopia of neuroscience methods, some more invasive than others (see sidebar below), and different levels of predictive power.

Consider a five-month study conducted by CBS, Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, and Nielsen Catalina Solutions. The study examined the "explanatory power" of several neuroscience methods and whether they could predict consumers' purchasing behavior. More specifically, researchers evaluated participants' reactions to about 60 ads, in nearly 20 categories, from consumer packaged goods companies and looked at the effect on in-store purchasing data. The results ranged from an explanatory power of 9 percent for some methods and up to 62 percent for others.

Each neuroscience method is particularly useful for assessing specific reactions. "No one technology has a monopoly," says Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, which combines several tools and techniques when conducting its research for clients. "Each is better at measuring different things."

"You need to get the creatives on your side. That way, art and science can meet in a highly profitable way."
— Horst Stipp, EVP of research and innovation: global and ad effectiveness at the ARF


Spike in Viewers

According to Pranav Yadav, CEO at Neuro-Insight USA, 80 percent of memories are stored in the subconscious. "The key measurement for the effectiveness of any message is whether it's automatically linked to your long-term memory," he notes. "A section of the brain lights up when you're processing a memory."

Yadav points to a campaign his company worked on two years ago for Spike TV. The Viacom-owned cable and satellite television brand wanted to rebrand and target a broader audience. With that in mind, Spike produced Tut, a three-day extravaganza starring Ben Kingsley.

While 60 percent of viewers who saw a promotion for the show said they would watch it, few remembered it was on Spike, Yadav says. Even the date and time it was scheduled to air were remembered by significantly fewer people than those who expressed interest in watching the show. After analyzing the results of its proprietary Steady-State Topography (SST) test, Neuro-Insight came to the realization that the key messaging followed a crescendo in the music and a set of scenes that indicated the end of the promo. As a result, viewers' brains assumed the story was over and whatever came after wasn't being recorded in their long-term memory, a key predictor of future behavior.

Spike then changed the promotion so the crucial messaging was delivered during the musical crescendo, making use of the memory peaks created by that moment. The outcome was that many more viewers remembered the key messaging later and the show received the biggest audience Spike had garnered since 2009, Yadav says.


Combining the Old and New

Still, there's no magic bullet. Few industry experts would suggest throwing away conventional methods such as focus groups. Consider a 2013 study conducted by the ARF, which analyzed consumer reactions to 37 commercials with neuroscience techniques. The ARF concluded that neuroscience methods were better able to predict emotional responses to ads and that they could identify commercials that result in more sales. "Our recommendation is to use [neuroscience] methods as a complement to traditional survey techniques," Stipp says.

That said, marketers may encounter reluctant team members, especially those on the creative side. "This is all about science and you have to educate people," Marci says.

Stipp suggests researchers work closely with advertisers so they have ample opportunity to explain what their findings show. "You need to get the creatives on your side," he says. That way, art and science can meet in a highly profitable way.


Mind Meld

Marketers should deploy a variety of neuroscience methods to track how consumers respond to their campaigns and messaging. Here are three key methods and how marketers can use them to sharpen their campaigns, communications, and customer relationships.

  1. Biometric
    • Eye tracking. Researchers measure, moment to moment, the location of viewers' focus, the order of where they look, and the amount of time spent gazing at each point. This enables marketers to determine which areas of messaging attract the most interest. It can be used for testing anything from ad concepts to package design. "You learn within a fraction of a centimeter where people are looking at a screen," says Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience.
    • Skin conduction. This method evaluates consumer response by studying galvanic skin response (electrical activity in the skin) and heart rate. It's useful for determining a subject's unconscious attention and emotional arousal. However, it's not particularly effective for assessing a more-nuanced understanding of emotional states — for example, whether an individual is feeling, say, excitement or stress.
  2. Measuring Brain Activity
    • EEG. With electroencephalography (EEG), researchers are able to study changes in electrical impulses coming from neurons embedded in the brain. By examining the depth of emotional motivation, attention processing, and long-term memory activation, the test can reveal information about a subject's level of engagement, Marci says. "It helps answer the questions: Do you like it? Would you buy it? Do you remember it?" he notes.
  3. Facial Coding
    • Software measures smiling and other changes — positive, negative, surprise, and neutral reactions — in facial micro-expressions, providing marketers with insights into changes in emotional states, from happiness to surprise. According to Marci, it's most useful for measuring whether subjects like what they see.

— A.F.




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