Neuroscience in practice (summary version)

Neuroscience in practice

Thom Noble

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Through neuroscience, we can determine how people really respond, not how they think they should respond. Thom Noble of NeuroStrata examines how neuroscience can be used to improve the accuracy and quality of market research.

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To date, the new field of neuromarketing research has created excitement, optimism, scepticism and rejection in equal measure. Researchers and planners are universally intrigued at the potential that neuroscience may offer, but unsure of how it may be applied, to what benefit, and at what cost.

Here we attempt to provide some balanced thinking on the topic, and some much-needed clarity on its prevailing, practical, day-to-day application in the marketplace. From a brief overview of the underlying science, we introduce the main tools being deployed and what outputs they can and can't deliver. With the primary emphasis on implementation, we provide examples of real-world studies, a look at the specific areas of added-value insights, and for those eager to take their first steps, guidance on how to best navigate this new territory and get the most out of it.

The methods

In the full version of this paper, we have grouped the differing techniques into three main approaches: NeuroMetric (Brain or Neural response), BioMetric (Biological or Physiological response) and PsychoMetric (Psychological or Implicit response).

Each method has something to offer in its own right, and often when blended with traditional outputs, can provide fresh and highly valuable insights into what drives perception and behaviour.

The key to navigating into this area is to understand the relative pros and cons of each technique. However, equally important is to appreciate that the nascent industry is far from commoditised.

Perhaps the most popular technique is EEG. A typical, high-density EEG study takes two to four weeks from go-ahead to debrief and is often an analytical combination from two or three different sources – the EEG 'brain signal' data, eye-tracking information and sometimes self-reported surveys or follow-up qualitative blending of the EEG results with other outputs – is increasingly common.

The costs, location and participant recruitment are not dissimilar to high-end focus groups. EEG studies are wide-ranging and can be used in early stage ideation, brand proposition refinement, product and packaging design, all forms of advertising and comms creation, and activation work, including in-store and online evaluations. They can include multisensory assessments, e.g. fragrance, tactile and taste optimisation and experiential analysis.


Application, learnings and guidelines

There has long been dissatisfaction with mainstream traditional techniques. We need to dig deeper and get a firmer grip on how emotion and the sub-conscious helps shape our perceptions and motivations.

Crafting emotionally-based questioning into surveys may have helped to a degree, but, by not directly tapping into the non-conscious, there's still the age-old reliance on post-cognitive, rationalised interpretations.

When used judiciously, these new non-articulated neuro-based techniques can potentially be transformational in revealing new insights to better understand consumer response. Their application covers a rich array of multi-sensory study areas, including creative ideas and proposition refinement, NPD and innovation optimisation, packaging, advertising and comms evaluation, shopper testing, online usability assessment and experiential/touchpoint analysis.

These tools can at last measure certain key aspects of how we think and feel that have proven stubbornly elusive to marketing researchers until now. Perhaps their most powerful and exciting contribution lies in their potential to unravel insights into some of the most important, yet most exasperating areas confronting marketers. Those areas in which the biggest gulf exists between what traditional research suggests and what we, as marketers, instinctively feel. The areas in which confidence in prevailing research data are weak. Top of my list would sit assessment of creativity and ideas, evaluation of perceptual drivers and the ability to measure multi-sensory and experiential responses. And to be able to do this on a moment-by-moment basis, not simply as an average. The potential benefits from these areas alone are game-changing in terms of both competitive advantage and ROI.

The creative industry in particular has been a long-suffering victim of rationalised research findings, which inevitably will have led to the ditching or emasculation of potent, emotionally-charged and highly promising campaigns. I have a feeling that, in time, these newer, non-conscious techniques have the ability to liberate creativity and embolden clients to back ideas that would otherwise have been consigned to the studio bin.

As with any new research methods, adoption and growth are not without challenges. Not least among the hurdles for clients is the struggle to make sense of the wide range of different techniques and capabilities on offer, the differing, sometimes contradictory, opinions of scientific advisors, the lack of openly public validation studies, the variable quality of data and vendor expertise evident in its interpretation, and then the spread of bewildering, sometimes incomprehensible jargon. Understanding the landscape, benefits and limitations is critical for clients if they are to get the most out of this new territory.

One particular issue which I repeatedly hear clients bemoaning is how suppliers have left them dazed and confused; too much energy has been wasted on 'my-tool-is-better-than-yours' sniping. Spokespeople, sometimes with little scientific or practical experience on the subject, talk effusively about the promise and the Holy Grail, whilst others just as readily pour ice-cold water on almost everything with neuro in the title.

Three camps have emerged on the application of neurometric and biometric techniques; the NeuroPhiles who are upbeat, open and welcoming, NeuroPhobes who reject many of the assertions and NeuroSceptics who are intrigued but progress only with utmost caution.

There is a strong disinclination for neuro-marketers to share their findings via open academic peer-review. Instead, their learnings hypotheses and validations remain internal and proprietary and thereby help boost the IP of the company. This might explain some of the disconnects and diverging opinion about neuro-marketing.

The black-box nature of neuromarketing techniques and lack of definitive, large-scale, high profile public validation work is undoubtedly holding back the industry. Addressing this fundamental has now to be an industry priority. For various reasons, earlier attempts to orchestrate open validations have failed. The time is right to try again.

For those taking their first steps into the territory, as with any new set of tools, one is best advised to read the instruction manual carefully. Following some simple guidelines is likely to lead new entrants more quickly and rewardingly through engagement. There are minefields to steer through, myths to blow-up, obstacles to negotiate and FAQs to adsorb, in order to get the biggest bang for your buck.

The industry has yet to evolve global standards against which to evaluate these new techniques and competencies. Nonetheless, in assessing vendors in this area, it is generally accepted that there are three key criteria to be evaluated:

  • The calibre and integrity of science teams underpinning study design algorithms and metrics.
  • The sophistication of technology and processes for data collection.
  • The degree of experience in interpretation and application to marketing activity.

Esomar has published a useful starter guide on neuromarketing vendor selection to help steer clients into asking the right questions; however, to avoid pitfalls, there's rarely a substitute for having at hand an informed advisor with a good deal of neuromarketing experience under their belt.

Of course, the highest calibre scientific plus technological expertise does not guarantee informed, unique added value in the form of interpretation, insights or recommendations. So, again, experience counts for much here. This is certainly an area in which clients are demanding more guidance. Arguably, the first wave of pioneering vendors has been stronger on the science and technical front than in market research or marketing literacy.

In essence, there are two strata of outputs. Standard evaluation tools that provide spreadsheet-style and dashboard outputs from formatted stimulus, and automated guidance to clients on whether to run, eg ad A or B or C. And consultancy that goes further in gleaning insights on what drives the response and on how to optimise the strategy, creativity or execution.

Of course, there is value to be yielded from both approaches. The standardisation approach can be fast and scalable. We are already beginning to see a wider range of such tools, some at highly affordable price points. Automated in-home eye-tracking and web-based implicit testing tools are examples that offer simple, actionable outputs from automated reporting, with a 24-hour turnaround almost anywhere in the world.

Then, when it comes to neuro-insight generation and its commercial implementation, there is a great deal of potential to add further significant value in the form of neuro-driven Brand Planning and Brand Consultancy. The smarter clients are already following this pathway to intensified emotional and multi-sensory engagement; delivering more compelling propositions, enhanced creative impact and, ultimately, more effective activity and experiences. We are already seeing the emergence of so-called 'neuro-planners' and 'neuro-brand consultants' and can expect to see this accelerate as more clients experience the benefits of applied neuroscience, and agencies see the opportunity in re-orienting themselves as 'neuro-powered'.

Clients with most exposure to these new techniques claim to 'feel' more intuitive. They think differently about their consumers, think differently about their shoppers, and think differently about how they write briefs and how they critique creative solutions and activation plans. Such clients remark that they have developed a new language, a new perspective and a fresh set of reference points with which to engage in strategic and executional discussions, such as how to plant priming triggers, detect push v pull emotional response patterns and evoke the extra impact of synched-up sensory cues.

One common theme with clients migrating from ad hoc projects to dedicated facilities or ongoing (day-to-day), iterative programs is the integration of non-articulated techniques into revised research frameworks – blending newer tools with old. It may take a good number of studies across many different test areas for a client to fully figure how best to optimise and blend tools together. Of course, each client is different; so there is no common prescription.

Those with experience of multiple studies are adding to a growing body of neurological insights and best-practices: principles about how the brain perceives and encodes the world around us. There are now many such best practices promoted into the public domain, and with them, ways in which neuroscience can help enhance activity and execution, without always the need for fresh fieldwork. Familiarity with the marketplace application of these best practices is the domain of the emerging breed of neuro-brand consultants.

Longer term clients are finding more efficient ways of leveraging insights across their business. Client neurolabs, for example, can rapidly accumulate a wealth of learnings, insights and hypotheses, many of which will be applicable across portfolios, categories and markets. It is an ideal environment in which to collate these insights and create new ways of working for critical activities: eg 'blueprints' or 'golden rules' for POS design, on-shelf packaging or mobile advertising development.

Neuro-literate clients now request consultants to immerse their agencies and support teams in workshops in order to ensure that 'neuro-led' thinking becomes all-pervasive, the new language commonly understood, and best practices firmly embedded. Implemented well, this approach delivers more effective and 'right first time' solutions.

In summary, the debate has moved well on from if to how these new science-led tools can add value. A wide range of techniques provide different ways to glean insights from the non-conscious – the root of perception and motivation. None of these new approaches is perfect. But neither are traditional tools. As the techniques evolve and improve, so too will formalised standards and open validations. The need for blending results with traditional methods is now widely acknowledged; a more holistic picture helps us in our quest to better understand behaviour and better predict performance. As an indication of what's to come, the more progressive clients have already migrated from ad-hoc studies to running dedicated neuro-labs, and the largest market research groups are offering a growing range of pre-cognitive techniques through vendor partnerships.

The best advice to offer to those new to the field is: be open; take expert advice; select vendors and techniques carefully; be watchful of overstretched data interpretation; allow extra time; and keep first steps simple.

About the author

Thom Noble is the founder of NeuroStrata, he is a pioneer in consumer neuroscience with 10 years' specialisation in its application, helping clients get the best from newly available techniques.

Other contributors

Dr Michael Smith
Prof Gemma Calvert, Neurosense
Ron Wright, Sands Research
Dr Cristina de Balanzó, Walnut
Dr Pippa Bailey, MMR
Mathias Plank, EyeTrackShop
Mihkel Jaatma, Realeyes
Dr Carl Marci, Innerscope
Phil Barden, Decode
Duncan Smith, MindLab International

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