March 15, 2019

What is neuromarketing? Redefining the concept

Neuromarketing is becoming more and more popular among companies. But, although everyone understands that neuromarketing consists of applying neuroscience to the field of marketing, depending on how it’s applied, we could be talking about theoretical or applied neuromarketing. Do you know the differences between them?

Why is neuromarketing becoming more popular among companies?

Nowadays, consumers can reach thousands of products with a click and compare prices, read technical reviews, and have access to nearly an unlimited information on products and services of their interest. With the major development of online marketing, competitiveness in almost all sectors is very fierce. Besides, any person, famous or anonymous, can give their opinion on a brand or product, reaching millions of people. Therefore, any person can influence the image of a brand, and as a consequence, its sales.

In this environment, working with customer experience is not a matter of good practice, is a matter of survival. And this customer experience does not simply consist of offering a high-quality product/service that meets the functional expectations of the client. It includes being coherent and achieving that all contact points between the brand and the consumer satisfy the expectations (functional and emotional, conscious and nonconscious), building a strong and differential brand image. To this end, the real difficulty is understanding the consumer and the related decision processes: what are their real desires? what do they expect from a specific product or service? what aspects influence the most at the time of purchasing a product? how do they expect to relate to the brand? what are the values appreciated? what aspects generate rejection?

The interest in understanding the consumer and know more about the purchase behavior is not a new subject. Since the 1960s, traditional market research methods and techniques such as surveys, interviews and focus groups have become popular. Companies have leaned on research institutes to better know the target public and answer these types of questions. Back then, the vision of decision making, such as a purchase decision, was based on the Homus Economicus model, which defended that the human being behaves rationally, correctly processing all the information to evaluate the cost-benefit of the different options. Based on this theory, it made sense to ask the consumer about his intentions at the time of purchasing a product.

Nevertheless, since the 1990s the paradigm of decision making has changed. Numerous theories that demonstrate that we are not as rational as we think  have emerged. Many of our decisions are based on nonconscious processes that we can hardly understand by asking the consumers.

Following this new vision on decision making, companies such as Google, Microsoft, Disney, Hyundai, Frito Lays and Coca-Cola have started to become interested on how neuromarketing can help them better understand their consumers. Neuromarketing research is therefore converted into a science that studies the behavior of consumers and establishes itself as a fundamental discipline in market research. In this sense, we could say that there are two types of neuromarketing.

  1. The first is theoretical neuromarketing, referred to as consumer neuroscience in some contexts, which addresses the more general questions on consumer behavior. For example, this category includes questions such as “how are decisions made?”, “what role do emotions play when making decisions?”, or “how attentional processes influence?”. Also, when we focus on investigating and studying how a specific marketing stimuli affects each sense of consumer behavior, we can talk about visual neuromarketing, auditory neuromarketing, olfactory neuromarketing, etc.

  2. The second would be much more applied neuromarketing, referred to as neuroresearch in some contexts, and that aims to answer more specific questions of companies and their brands. Although it presents many applications, it is especially interesting to evaluate the emotions generated by emotional marketing strategies. For example, this category includes questions such as “would this packaging attract more attention than this other one?”, “does this advertising campaign transmit the assets I envision for my brand?”, “is my website creating impact from an emotional viewpoint?”, or “is the shopping experience in my store optimal?”.

Definition of theoretical neuromarketing

The definition of theoretical neuromarketing refers to the direct application of general neuroscience advances to marketing and advertising strategies. For example, delving into cognitive biases or emotions that affect our decision-making processes is very interesting, if applied to the context of neuromarketing.  Some of the least predictable reactions of the consumers can be explained, which, in many cases, do not agree with what was declared by consumers themselves in traditional research methodologies.

It very advantageous, therefore, to further explore theoretical neuromarketing to obtain a holistic vision of the consumer and better comprehend their behavior. Nevertheless, it must be taken into account that neuromarketing (as all disciplines) presents its limitations. More specifically, one of the biggest mistakes committed when starting to work with neuromarketing (we have detected this in our students during neuromarketing courses) is expecting to obtain a “recipe” to follow, for example, to successfully design a product, a communication campaign or webpage.

However, the assumption that human behavior is so simple that it can be reduced to the functionality of parts of the brain, or to think that there is a “buy button” that neuromarketing teaches you how to press, is underestimating the capacity of the human brain (and the mind of the consumer).

The great advances in neuroscience produced in the last years have helped us better understand our consumers, and each study has contributed with a grain of sand to the understanding of human behavior. It is especially interesting to be up-to-speed on all these advances by consulting specialized scientific journals, blogs and videos. But even when completely updated, we are still far from understanding our consumers 100%. It must be considered that each study is  carried out in a specific context, and context influences the results. For example, a popular study demonstrated that playing french music in the wine sector of a specific UK supermarket influenced the purchase of french wine (40 bottles of french wine vs. 8 bottles of german wine). And playing german music influenced the purchase of german wine (12 french wine bottles vs. 22 german wine bottles). But we cannot ensure that the type of music played will produce this effect in any supermarket, although there exists a study that demonstrates a concrete case. Therefore, it is important to refrain from making fast judgments and generalizations:

  • Firstly, it must be kept in mind that studies are carried out in a controlled experimental environment to ensure that the results demonstrate the working hypothesis.

  • Secondly, because if all supermarkets started to employ this type of strategies, probably some of our brain’s learning mechanisms would end up neutralizing the effect.

In summary, theoretical neuromarketing is a valuable aid to better comprehend consumer behavior and propose ideas and working hypothesis, but it is still far from being a guide to “manipulate” the consumer.

Definition of applied neuromarketing

Applied neuromarketing refers to the use of typical neuroscience technologies (brain image technologies, biosensors, etc.) to carry out a specific market investigation. In other words, starting from a set of sensory stimuli or concrete experiences (advertising spots, digital marketing campaigns, logotypes, experiences in a shopping center, etc.), a neuroscience study is designed to understand how a sample of consumers react non-consciously to these specific stimuli. This is carried out on based on scientific methodology and using neuromarketing techniques to measure brain activity (electroencephalography EEG or functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI), eye-tracking, galvanic skin response of heart rate (GSR or HRV), among others.

participante en un estudio de neuromarketing

For example, regarding the questions “which song should an advertiser select, from two options?” or “how to shorten a 40-second spot to only 20 seconds?”, a study can be designed to answer these questions without having to directly ask the consumer.

A neuromarketing study is actually a neuroscience study, and therefore it is necessary to design a good methodology and employ laboratories with high quality technology for the results to be reliable. There are also other key aspects:

  1. Have a clear research objective: As in any other scientific investigation, neuromarketing studies must focus on a short number of objectives. In other words, a single neuromarketing study cannot cover all the factors that could influence the decision and purchase processes of the consumer. For example, the context of where you see a product, its price, brand, music that plays at the time of purchase, who accompanies you or the time you have can affect the purchase process and what attracts your attention, and it’s impossible to simulate all these possibilities in a single study. Also, the closer the study is to a real experience (more ecological), more experimentation biases are produced and it is more difficult to obtain reliable conclusions (the result is due to the song… the price... the product?).

Recommendation: Decide which elements are crucial to the evaluation, and introduce these in the experimental protocol, considering the possible experimentation biases and assessing the effort/benefit of a more ecological study.

  1. Select a sufficiently large sample size: Sometimes the samples used in neuromarketing studies are smaller than what is recommendable. For this reason, samples with less than 40 people can provide behavior trends but not representative results that can be generalized to the remainder of consumers. A sample with 40 people usually can gather emotional and cognitive information adequately if it is produced in a relatively homogeneous manner throughout the sample.

Recommendation: Carry out studies with at least 40 people if you wish to obtain minimally representative results and carry out statistical tests to confirm the reliability of the model.

  1. Make it clear that we measure physiological responses: At the time of obtaining results, what we measure are physiological reactions (brain processes, skin perspiration, heartbeats…) that are correlated with emotions or other nonconscious reactions of interest (memory, attention, engagement...). Some physiological responses could be caused by external aspects (excessive heat in the room, a sudden noise during fieldwork, etc.).

Recommendation: Control the experimentation context to the maximum and take into account possible external factors when interpretation is

  1. Be sure to know what each metric means: Each company that applies neuromarketing usually utilize their own metrics, which means that metrics could have different names or that the same name could be used to refer to different metrics that are calculated differently.

Recommendation: Know the meaning of each metric to ensure a correct interpretation.

  1. Evaluate non-conscious and conscious responses: Human behavior presents a very important nonconscious component that can be measured with neuromarketing techniques, which complement the results obtained with traditional techniques regarding conscious aspects. In other words, neuromarketing does not intend to nor can replace traditional market research, as we need to obtain information on both conscious and nonconscious aspects that affect the purchase process.

Recommendation: Combine neuromarketing with traditional techniques to provide a 360º picture of consumer reactions.

  1. Know how to interpret results and provide value: For a study to have real value, the researcher must understand the role of emotions and other nonconscious reactions within the context of the evaluation and comprehend what could be the cause of the results.

Recommendation: Be up-to-speed on the advances of theoretical neuromarketing to better understand the results of the studies.

It is important that neuromarketing companies encompass theoretical and applied neuromarketing concepts, and therefore be capable of:

  1. Guide the client away from the temptation of trying to cover all types of problems and situations. The human being is complex and, as we have mentioned, the variables that affect our behavior are so diverse that cannot be all contemplated in only one study.

  2. Keep in mind all important aspects at the time of designing a good applied neuromarketing study, and carry out good interpretation of the results.

If these recommendations are followed, applied neuromarketing studies will help the client obtain very valuable diagnoses, suggestions, and learnings for the corresponding brands.

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