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Confessions of a neurosceptic

Opinion, 29 November 2010

Over the last few months I've done a couple of sessions telling people about the wonders of neuroscience – one at the ESOMAR Congress in Athens in September and last week I went to Paris to address an international confectionery company's insight managers.

Flatteringly, I seem to have been dubbed an 'expert' on these matters; in fact, my session at ESOMAR was called 'Ask the Expert'. While this is an accolade I'm happy to accept, there are some small points I feel I need to make whenever I open my mouth on the subject of neuroscience: I don't run a neuromarketing company, and I don't have an fMRI scanner, EEG equipment, or even an eye-tracker. So, why then do I feel qualified to speak on the subject?

Because neuromarketing is not, in my view, synonymous with neuroscience - neuroscience gives us plenty of clues about how to do market research better, without ever having to connect an electrode to someone's scalp, put them through an fMRI scanner, or ask them to don a nifty electronic vest that records their bodily responses. In fact, I detected some healthy scepticism in both Athens and Paris about the benefits of using such invasive techniques and an equally healthy interest in the alternatives (of which, more later).

The fact is there's still a dearth of really convincing case studies about the efficacy of neuromarketing. In his recent book The Buying Brain, Neurofocus boss AK Pradeep provides some convincing rationales for the use of EEG (and other neuromarketing techniques), but surprisingly few killer examples. Meanwhile, Martin Lindstrom's Buy.Ology has some nice case studies (many generated by his own experimental programme) but is often maddeningly vague on the details. In fact, if his work is as groundbreaking as he says, it surely merits a proper scientific write-up in a learned journal.

Lindstrom suggests (among other things) that his experiments prove that warnings on cigarette packs actually encourage smoking (by activating reward centres in the brain) and, even more controversially, that the same parts of the brain light up when religious zealots (such as nuns) view sacred images as when brand loyalists view their favourite brand.

There have been some great advances made in the practical applications of neuromarketing techniques to MR (particularly EEG) since I first started writing about it 6 years ago, yet practitioners seem, if anything, more cautious now than they were in 2004. The prevailing wisdom can be roughly summarised as:

  1. This is really, really interesting
  2. Use with caution
  3. And… always use in conjunction with conventional MR

It's the last of these that puzzles me. I've yet to hear a neuromarketer confidently advocate the use of his methods as a stand-alone. Which is kind of ironic given that the whole point of neuromarketing - initially, at least - was that it offered an alternative to conventional MR.

Wasn't it supposed to be to blow away all that silly post-rationalised nonsense (both quant and qual) that masquerades as consumer insight?

About the author

David Penn is MD of award winning agency Conquest, based in London's Kensington. The company is one of the UK's leading independent researchers, boasting ongoing clients such as Heinz, Pizza Hut, L'Oreal, Pernod-Ricard, KFC and eBay. Conquest carries out both quantitative and qualitative research and, most importantly, is a pioneer of innovative online research methodology, welding neuroscience and behavioural economics with traditional communications theory.

Before starting Conquest out of sheer frustration with what many research agencies had to offer, Penn amassed a wealth of experience in marketing and research spanning both client and agency sides of the business, honing his skills at Lever Bros and UB.

Penn has published and presented widely on marketing and brand research recently, at MRS, ESOMAR, WARC and ARF conferences as well as running a regular blog on WARC website. In the last 6 years, he and his team have been shortlisted, commended or won outright a total of 18 industry awards, garnering the prestigious innovation in Research Methodology award for 2014. Industry leader David Smith identified Penn as one of the key contributors to helping us understand "how developments in neuroscience mean we should be laying down a new theory of market research." Veteran industry blogger 'Left Field' and other peers admire the trail-blazing proprietary methodologies developed by Penn and his team to measure brand emotional engagement and viral potential. Penn's "fantastic (work shows) that nowhere is emotional engagement more important than for campaigns hoping to enjoy viral success and word-of-mouth."