Neuromarketing is the talk of the town and there are more and more professionals betting on its success. However, neuromarketing is still a very recent field and there are still several questions on what it is, how it is applied, what are the contributions, its limitations, etc. This post will bring answers to the main questions, along with links to other posts that will provide more information.
What is neuromarketing?
The digital transformation of our society is deeply changing the strategies of companies, and especially changing the relationships between companies and clients. The digital consumer is becoming more exigent and the internet has been the loudspeaker of their demands. Companies that do not listen to their consumers and are not capable of satisfying their needs, wishes and expectations are destined to disappear. However, understanding the behavior of consumers and the decisions of customers is not a simple task. Many of these needs, wishes and expectations are generated non-consciously, and not even the consumer is able to verbalize them. In fact, neuroscience has demonstrated that the Homos Economicus theory for decision making is incorrect, and that emotions, heuristics and other aspects have great influence on the new decision making model.
Neuromarketing is gaining protagonism as a field and technique that delves into the non-conscious reactions that underlie in the behavior of consumers.
Technically, the definition of the term neuromarketing is: “The science that studies the behavior of the consumer, by applying neuroscience knowledge and tools”. This defines neuromarketing but, depending on how these knowledge and tools are applied, there are two different types of neuromarketing: theoretical neuromarketing and applied neuromarketing.
When we apply neuroscience knowledge to the area of marketing, this is theoretical neuromarketing (in some contexts, referred to as “consumer neuroscience”).
Advantages and benefits of theoretical neuromarketing or consumer neuroscience
Theoretical neuromarketing offers us a new theoretical framework to understand the behavior of consumers and their decision processes (especially the purchase process). Thanks to theoretical neuromarketing, the simplified Homos Economicus model is left behind, and we can focus on how non-conscious reactions influence our behavior and our purchase decisions.
The new actuation models of the human being explain the phases experienced by people before acting, encompassing two non-conscious and one conscious phase:
- Processing of information: The attentional processes (non-conscious) are responsible for selecting what stimuli attract our attention or not. This depends basically on: i) whether these stimuli are different (bottom-up attention); or ii) whether our brain considers these stimuli to be important (top-down attention). During decision making, attentional processes will be responsible for the consideration of an option.
- Determination of meaning and emotional value: Our brain recognizes the information received by our senses non-consciously, and provides it with meaning and emotional value. This is why when we are making a non-conscious decision we already have a favorite option.
- Deliberation and analysis: conscious cognitive tasks are included herein, such as recovering memories, interpreting the past, anticipating the future, planning, generating intentions, evaluating and making judgments, simulating, solving a problem, calculating and reasoning. This phase can make us select an option, which not necessarily is the most attractive one from a non-conscious viewpoint.
Our experiences influence this model because we learn from the results of our actions. This affects the type of future information we process, its meaning and provided value, and also influences conscious decisions.
Theoretical neuromarketing also helps us better understand the role of emotions in our decisions. Or, for example, can help us comprehend how cognitive biases influence our behavior.
Lastly, when we want to understand how our different senses affect consumer behavior, we are talking about sensory neuromarketing, visual neuromarketing, auditory neuromarketing, olfactory neuromarketing, etc.
Difficulties and challenges of theoretical neuromarketing or consumer neuroscience
One of the reasons why many professionals from traditional marketing or adjacent areas are interested in theoretical neuromarketing is because they hope to find clues or an instruction manual on how to influence their clients. Ultimately, they wish to somehow “manipulate” clients or their “subconscious minds” to make them purchase a product or service.
Nevertheless, the reality is that the human brain is much more complicated than we can imagine. The advances in neuroscience have shown us that there is a multitude of variables that guide our behavior. In other words, this means that nowadays it is impossible to model our behavior 100% or even attempt to manipulate it. Therefore, theoretical neuromarketing is far from offering a “consumer behavior manual”.
Many neuromarketing “experts” make the mistake of generalizing the results of studies carried out in specific contexts. These results are used to “sell” the studies as behavior guides. For example:
- Fact: “A neuroscience study has demonstrated that the color blue is especially attractive”
- Advice from the “expert”: “We should use the color blue in all marketing materials”.
Obviously, this extrapolation is not valid. All studies are carried out in a specific context, for example, a technological company, with a specific product type, for a specific type of client and in a specific country. This cannot be ignored and utilized to recommend the color blue to a cosmetics company, with a service, type of client and country that have nothing in common with the original company studied. Regrettably, there are several articles in blogs, videos, and other formats that show (false) tricks to make a consumer purchase more, annoying the population and putting neuromarketing ethics at risk.
The main challenge regarding theoretical neuromarketing is therefore the ability to distinguish between reliable theories based on real science and others that are not scientifically sound. For such, the recommendation is to always search for primary sources (scientific studies) and never disregard the context of the original study.
Advantages and benefits of applied neuromarketing or neuroresearch
The main advantage of applied neuromarketing is that it provides an additional layer of information that cannot be obtained with other traditional market investigation techniques.
Considering the new decision making models, if we wish to understand human behavior (and especially consumer behavior), it is interesting to obtain information in each of the phases of this model:
Observe how they act: within market research, there are several techniques: field observation, ethnography, big data for digital behavior and even big data obtained from the internet of things (IoT).
Understand how they deliberate and analyze: as the deliberation and analysis phase is conscious, we can ask the consumer directly. The most traditional techniques to understand the decision of the consumer from a conscious viewpoint are surveys, interviews and focus groups,
Analyze non-conscious reactions: These reactions are non-conscious and non-observable and therefore cannot be analyzed with the aforementioned techniques (observation or traditional). However, these non-conscious reactions are generated in the brain and, in many cases, reflect on other body zones (for example, sweaty hands when we are nervous). Thanks to applied neuromarketing, it is possible to measure these physiological changes (with neuroscience tools such as EEG or biosensors), and obtain the emotional or cognitive reaction that caused these changes through complex decoding algorithms. In this way, if we wish to know the non-conscious reaction of a consumer to an ad campaign, for example, we can monitor the physiological changes produced while watching the spot and deduce what emotions have caused these changes.
Many neuromarketing “experts” try to transmit the idea that neuromarketing can substitute and provide more rigorousness than traditional research techniques. The truth is that neuromarketing does not have a substitutive role, but is complementary. By combining traditional research techniques with neuromarketing, it is possible to obtain a holistic vision of the consumer’s reaction.
Thanks to neuromarketing, those responsible for marketing campaigns count with more information on their target public and can be more successful in making decisions. Some of the applications of applied neuromarketing include: “which brand positioning is differential?” “which attributes mean something to the consumer within my category?” “which new packaging is best?” “does my advertising campaign transmit the desired brand attributes?” “how can I optimize my new spot?” “how is the usability of my webpage?” “how does consumption experience affect the image of my brand?” “and how about price?” “how is the shopping experience in my store?” “and in the shopping center?” “what impact is created by my online marketing strategies?” etc.
Difficulties and challenges of applied neuromarketing
Regarding applied neuromarketing research, it is usually oversimplified to “use EEGs in a sample of consumers while they watch a spot and detect whether the brain area related to positive emotions is activated”. Unfortunately, carrying out a neuromarketing study correctly is much more than just that… Some of the most important aspects of neuromarketing, which should be taken into account, are:
- High-quality technology: Without high-quality technology, physiological data recorded are not reliable and, therefore, neither are the results obtained.
- Correct experimental design: A neuromarketing study is still a neuroscience study. It is necessary to follow a scientific methodology during experimental design and avoid experimental biases.
- Correct decoding algorithms: Each human brain is different, and there is no such thing as “brain area or part of the brain related to positive emotions”. It is necessary to employ calibration techniques and computational models to individualize the decoding algorithms. Some technologies, such as Bitbrain’s laboratories, already include these algorithms.
- Experience in the interpretation of results: The applied neuromarketing results provide numerical values for specific metrics (attention, emotional impact, affective valence…), but there is no information on why these values were obtained. A good professional should be able to interpret these results and also provide diagnosis, learnings, and recommendations.
The main challenge associated with applied neuromarketing is the ability to approach all these aspects without a background in neuroscience. In these cases, it is recommended to: a) count with a neuroscience expert partner that can help you select technologies; and b) be supervised during the design and interpretation of initial results.
Which techniques are usually employed in applied neuromarketing? EEG, GSR, eye-tracking, IRT, etc.
There are numerous techniques that can be employed in neuromarketing. The following image includes all the techniques utilized.
For practical purposes, the technologies most employed in neuromarketing are EEG (brain activity), biosensors (GSR - galvanic skin response and BVP - heart rate), stationary eye-trackers and implicit response tests. This combination of technologies enables the approach of a wide range of studies and obtain a high number of metrics in a reliable and rigorous manner, at a reasonable cost. In turn, other brain imaging technologies (fMRI, MEG, SST, PET) that are useful in other contexts, are usually discarded in marketing due to their higher price, invasive character or limited applicability. The same occurs with other biosensors such as temperature, breathing, or electromyography, which are usually not considered because they do not contribute with new metrics and are more invasive. Eye-tracking glasses are habitually employed in real-context studies, but not in stationary studies when we use stationary eye-trackers. Lastly, facial coding is usually disregarded due to the criticism associated with its reliability.
How are physiological signals translated into metrics and valuable information?
Thanks to neuromarketing techniques, it is possible to measure the physiological changes produced due to any emotional and cognitive behaviour/response. However, once these changes are measured, it is not simple at all to determine what event caused the changes. How do we translate these data into valuable information?
There are numerous conferences and publications that simplify this process by referring to brain maps. The truth is that, every day, there are new neuroscientific studies being published on the detection of brain areas related to specific emotional or cognitive responses. But one thing is carrying out a study to understand what areas are activated when we see loved ones and in this way discover the neural center of love; but assuming that every time the neural center of love is activated, we are seeing something we love is completely different. This fallacy is known as reverse inference in neuroscience, and occurs because a specific area of the brain can be activated by different reasons.
Therefore, when working with neuromarketing (and in many other neurotechnology applications), brain maps are not employed. Instead, calibration stimuli are shown, which enable the generation of computational models of the brain for each participant when confronted with specific reactions (much more complex models than a simple region of the brain). Once we have learned how the brain of a person changes when experiencing a positive emotion, the model is applied to verify whether a positive emotion is experienced when a specific stimulus is presented. This technique has the advantage of avoiding external influences, as calibration is carried out with the technology in place, with adequate rest hours, a specific state of mind, and in the appropriate context of use.
How is an applied neuromarketing study carried out?
Carrying out an applied neuromarketing study is not simply placing the technology on the participant and showing the stimulus that we wish to evaluate. The steps required for correctly carrying out a study are:
- Briefing with the client: Fundamental to understand the objectives and real necessities of the client, with the purpose of designing a study that provides value.
- Define the sample to be included: The type of sample depends on the briefing with the client, no extra considerations (if computational models are employed in the decoding) are required other than those included within traditional market research. Regarding the size of the sample, ideally at least 40 people should be included.
- Technologies to include: Again this depends on the briefing with the client, and according to the objectives, it is interesting to obtain specific metrics and therefore some techniques are preferred. It is also very important to use high-quality technologies to avoid low reliability in the results.
- Design of the experimental protocol: A neuromarketing study is a neuroscience study, and therefore the design protocol should control many aspects and make many design decisions: what stimuli should I show? for how long? in what order? Should I include resting periods? Is the study being developed in a controlled context or in a real context? What type of tasks should be carried out by the participants? How can I control learning or order biases, etc? This is one of the most complex steps if you are not familiar with neuroscience.
- Organize and execute field work: Depends strongly on the objectives of the study, but usually you can execute all field work related to a 40-person sample within one week. Do not forget to prepare the informed consent forms and dedicate an extra week to recruitment, implementation of the study (it is very important to have a good laboratory), and execution of a small pilot study with 2-3 people to validate the procedure and train the personnel.
- Obtain metrics: Within the neuromarketing context, it is convenient is to count with a technology that provides the desired metrics. It is important to know how to select a laboratory with good decoding algorithms.
- Interpret the results: This is a key and difficult step, because it means being able to extract valuable insights from the metrics obtained, and answering the questions made by the client during the briefing. If more information is available (also from other sources), more value can be obtained from the study. Information should be synthesized to deliver a good result report.
What are the most common applications of applied neuromarketing?
There are multiple applications of neuromarketing that cover almost all sectors. Nevertheless, the most common applications are in intermediate/large companies, who usually outsource market and high consumption research. The most common applications are:
- Branding: emotional evaluation of a brand, brand personality, evaluation of distinctive assets, evaluation of corporate image, etc.
- Product/Pack: product design, comparison of packs, point-of-sale display visibility, asset testing, consumption experience, etc.
- Publicity: comparison of animatics, of audiovisual, digital or radio campaigns, evaluation of advertising campaigns in the place of sale (PLV), brand building, etc.
- Digital surrounding: evaluation of graphic lines, evaluation of microsites or landing pages, web page usability, brand building, etc.
- Other applications: point of sale, entertainment, politics, industrial design, architecture and working surroundings, etc.
What companies use and offer neuromarketing currently?
Neuromarketing is a technique that is becoming more and more popular and there are several companies that use or offer neuromarketing somehow. We can classify the different types of companies in the following groups:
1. Companies that use neuromarketing: these are mainly B2C companies, of a medium-large size, familiar with carrying out traditional market research and that wish to complement the results with emotional and cognitive (non-conscious) information from consumers. Occasionally, these companies acquire their own neuromarketing laboratories (especially if they are already used to carrying out their own market research). Nevertheless, it is more frequent to outsource studies to traditional research institutes or specialized companies.
2. Companies that offer neuromarketing services, which comprehend:
- Traditional market investigation or user experience (UX) companies that complement their service portfolio with these types of studies.
- Specialized neuromarketing companies that offer exclusively this type of service.
- Other types of companies, such as marketing or digital marketing consultants, publicity agencies, communication companies, design studios, etc., that use neuromarketing to improve the results of their services. +
3. Companies that sell technology and neuromarketing laboratories, which encompass:
- Companies that sell devices for clinical use that could also be used for neuromarketing (although neuroscience experts are required).
- Companies that sell specialized, user-friendly neuromarketing laboratories that can be utilized by non-experts (it is crucial to ensure that technology is reliable).
Where can I learn more about neuromarketing? Courses, blogs, lectures, etc.
If you wish to learn more about neuromarketing, we recommend you select a renowned course, and for such we advise you to read about the most common questions asked by students at the time of choosing a good neuromarketing course.
Anyhow, if you don’t have the time or budget to undertake a good course, you can search for information on your own. Our advice is that you consult primary sources, which are scientific papers.
What is the future of neuromarketing and what challenges are we facing?
Many wonder whether neuromarketing is only a fad or if it’s here to stay. Our opinion is that neuromarketing is here to stay, and here’s why:
- Adds value: the insights obtained with neuromarketing cannot be obtained otherwise. Also, the insights can be acted upon to improve the brand or the product, communication, purchase experience, etc.
- Accessible: The new laboratories that include simple, user-friendly technologies, pre-designed studies, and decoding algorithms can be employed by any professional, without a specific background in neuroscience. Regarding prices, nowadays professional high-quality laboratories are available starting at 8.000 €.
- There are no B2C or B2B companies anymore, now we talk about H2H companies: Marketing is becoming more and more human, not only focusing on connecting with the client but with the person, with his/her emotions and values. It is therefore necessary that marketing professionals have a holistic vision of the human being. This is only achieved by integrating neuromarketing techniques with other complementary research techniques.
- The technological revolution is here. To survive, we must innovate: The client wants innovation and wishes to be surprised. Neuromarketing brings innovation to market research institutes (one of the greatest challenges of the market research sector) and also to the brands while accessing new consumer information.
However, neuromarketing also faces great challenges:
- Transmit the value of neuromarketing: There is still unawareness on what neuromarketing can offer. Rigorous dissemination of the contributions of neuromarketing is necessary.
- Fight against unethical attitudes that generate “fear” of neuromarketing: As this is a new field, there is fake news on neuromarketing and not much information overall. For example, some professionals defend the existence of the buy button in the brain, which could be a priori a good sales argument, but it’s unethical, not true, and generates rejection from the society.
- Searching for standards: as a new field, there are still no standard metrics, in such a manner that each neuromarketing company employs their own metrics. Thus it becomes complex to compare results if you switch among providers.
Lastly, technological analysts mention that the wearable revolution is close - in other words, wearable technologies with biosensors. Nowadays there are examples of these types of devices: Fitbit, Xiaomi Mi band and the Apple Watch, which are mainly directed to monitoring physical activity (fitness). However, although the quality of the physiological signals recorded currently is not sufficiently accurate to be employed in the neuromarketing environment, it is only a matter of time until the precision of equipment improves. Eventually, neuromarketing will cease to be employed in controlled contexts and will start to be utilized massively, anywhere, by any person, thanks to these devices.
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