The Disconnect Between Intention and Reality

An article by Naomi Troni, global CMO, Euro RSCG Worldwide discusses her company’s Prosumer Report, “Aging: Moving Beyond Youth Culture” in Forbes notes a disconnect between consumer intention and action:

I was struck that around three-quarters of respondents to our 19-country survey say they intend to age gracefully rather than fight it every step of the way. Yet…pharmacies are stocked full of youth restorers, ranging from anti-wrinkle serums and hair colorants to teeth whiteners…A new report from BCC Research…estimates  that the global anti-aging market will reach $274.5 billion in 2013, up 11% from 2008. Of that, $105.4 billion will be devoted to the “appearance” segment.

Obviously, understanding what makes for this gap between intention and action so that marketing can bridge it is a key area of concern for marketers and researchers.

Perhaps the most famous such researcher is psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics. In his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he examines the ways in which people make choices. He notes that most often they do so  automatically and not necessarily in line with their best intentions.

In The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Lifeevolutionary biologist Robert Trivers examines people’s tendencies to consider themselves better looking, smarter, more competent, and more honest than they really are.  He finds that this leads people to say and even believe they are doing something when observable evidence says otherwise – for instance, cutting back on the doughnuts.

Neuromarketing Investigates The Disconnect

These researchers and pioneers in neuromarketing are also exposing making the intent-action gap, and  looking at how different parts of the brain are brought into play by cues like branding or a spend-or-save choice in which they need to choose between splurging for pleasure now or delaying gratification for a later time.

The Birth of Neuromarketing: Medical Device Companies Target Marketing Applications

Overview:  Neuromarketing first originated in the works of Gerry Zaltman of Harvard University in the early 1990s. The neuromarketing industry began in 1991 when companies like Coca Cola hired academic labs in the US to study the effectiveness of advertisements with their sophisticated neuroscience equipment. The acquisition of  market research firm NeuroFocus, by the $5 billion (revenue) market research firm Nielsen in May, 2011 marked a significant milestone in the growth of the relatively new industry of neuromarketing, which uses neuroscience devices for market research. Over the past two decades the industry has grown to comprise eleven neuromarketing companies, which are competing for a portion of the $4 billion spent worldwide on qualitative market research each year.

The effectiveness of this still-nascent field of marketing has already been spotted by some dominant brand building companies. The first company, Neurostrategies, was started by professors at the neuroscience wing at the Emory University- Dr Clint Kilts and Dr Justine Meaux. Presently there are more than 90 NeuroMarketing consultancies serving various big advertisers like Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble, Daimler Chrysler, Nestle providing clients insights into the way they should tinker their products, advertisements to boost sales.

How it Works: Neuromarketers use technologies such as EEG (electroencephalography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which have been traditionally used by doctors and researchers to study neuropsychological disorders. Other technologies like MEG (magnetoencephalography) and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) may also enter the market in the near future. While EEG and fMRI devices differ greatly in cost, appearance, and mode of operation, they both read brain activity in near-real time. They are said to provide a deeper understanding of consumers’ emotions and preferences than traditional market research modalities—surveys and focus groups. Although generally expensive, it is pregnant with the promise to fully understand consumers’ decision making process while shopping.

fMRI – an acronym of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a technology which uses basic Physics and Biology. It uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to create high resolution image of the living brain.  It draws on the fact that the Red Blood Cells(RBC) in the blood contain iron in the oxygen- carrying- part of the hemoglobin and these atoms create distortions in the magnetic field around them. While any part of the brain becomes active, the blood vessels in the specific region dilate causing more blood to flow in that region to supply the additional oxygen and glucose required by the more active brain cells to do their work. This large amount of freshly oxygenated blood in to the region causes a small change in the magnetic field.

The result is displayed as a patchy area of colour, amidst the high resolution grey background of the brain. The coloured area represents the active region as opposed to the grey background which represents the inactive region of the brain. Armed with such high-resolution 3D  images of the brain on a real time basis, one can pinpoint exactly which part of the brain is active.

This area-specific knowledge plays a significant role in the utility of fMRI. Several parts of our brain work together. Even as you read this article, the connectomes related to your visual sense along with the ones responsible for reading and understanding the material are working.  Each region with a rich intermesh of neurons is responsible for a certain activity. The more you stress on any activity, the more the work done by that part of the brain and more the blood flow in that region. The interesting part is, the region responsible for each activity is well demarcated in the human brain. While the whole brain is yet to be mapped by scientists, yet various centres of the brain are already known for various though processes such as reward centre, face-recognition centre, self-referencing centre, liking centre, anticipation centre etc.

The Awesome Power of Branding

What Scans Show: The above graphic illustrates the use of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to monitor brain responses to tasting Coke or Pepsi. When tasting, only the sensory part of the brain lit up. However, when they were told what they were drinking, the area associated with emotional response also became active, tilting the scales tilted towards Coke. The response is common to various other similar brands.

The contribution of neuromarketing as to why people are willing to choose one brand over the other given no significantly difference in product functionality, is that it provides insights into the consumers’ decision making process that traditional methods of marketing research are ill-equipped to decode.

Limitations of Traditional Marketing Research: These methods have attempted to look at the human brain as the Black Box. The responses to the questionnaires and focussed group discussions are used to understand what actually goes inside the human brain. However all these have significant limitations, not least the inability of many to articulate their complex and often involuntary feelings towards something. Participants tell the marketers what they think they are thinking, yet are themselves not aware as to what exact processes are going on in the brain.

Neuroscientists say that close to 80% of the human emotions related to the approximately 3×1011 neurons in the brain are rooted in the unconscious which are inaccessible to our direct, conscious introspection. Participants filling a questionnaire, despite his best intentions, is himself not aware of the rationale behind preferring a particular product. Advanced technologies like fMRI, magneto-encephalography, and more conventional electroencephalograms (EEG) can do exactly what the conscious mind of the participant misses out.

Applications and Insights

This technology has path breaking applications in the field of marketing and advertising.

Testing Impact: NeuroMarketing researchers can use fMRI to observe which areas of the brain activate when test subjects view, hear or even smell products, or when they view various advertisements.

If participants undergoing fMRI are shown a series of advertisements and the medial prefrontal cortex lights up, indicating increased neural activity, one can conclude that the participant is thinking about the product. This provides a sure way to test which advertisements have an impact on the viewers mind and which does not.

Honing Advertising: The real time imagery gives the indication which elements of the advertisement are effective and which is not, enabling Marketers to focus more on the ones which elicits the right response from the viewer and cull out the ones which fail to do so.

Product Positioning: This kind of data can be used to learn which elements of the advertisement are responsible for ‘neuroengagement’- things that appeal to us, and which ones for ‘counterforce’- our brains calculated way of trying  to avoid such appealing forces, enabling marketers to adjust product positioning.

For instance, in an advertisement for Rolls Royce, the product’s visual appeal may elicit ‘neuroengagement’ while the exorbitant price tag can result in ‘counterforce’. Such specific knowledge can save the advertisements millions of rupees which are unknowingly spent on elements having no desired impact on the viewer. Having known the consumers’ response to various stimuli it equips the marketers to position their brands to elicit the desired response.

Product Development: Daimler Chrysler has used fMRI to improve its car designs. In a study Daimler Chrysler showed test-subjects images of cars through a fMRI scanner while images of their brains were taken by fMRI scans. The study showed that sports cars stimulate the reward centre of the brain, which is also stimulated by alcohol, drugs and sex. Interestingly enough, when images of the front-view of the cars were shown to the test subjects the area of the brain, which is responsible for face recognition, in our brains, ‘lit up.’

The New Marketing Frontier?

The field of NeuroMarketing is still in its embryonic stage, but is developing with more and more new studies being conducted each year.

The utility of NeuroMarketing is of course dependent on the development of Neuroscience. Our present day knowledge of the functioning of the ‘neuronal geography’ in the brain is very similar to the late eighteenth century map of the world, hand-drawn by cartographers.  However with more and more studies and the development of sophisticated technologies like Brainbow, which can map individual neurons with 90 odd fluorescent colours, we might soon have the ‘Google Earth’ of our brain. The analogy shows that the implications are tremendous. If a better knowledge of the world geography was instrumental in colonizing half the planet, imagine the immense possibility that NeuroMarketing has for the marketers in influencing the consumers’ psyche.

Related Resources

There are many new neuromarketing companies offering important clues for content marketers. Here are some:

  • This company sells a device that consumers can wear on their heads while in stores or shopping online so that marketers can monitor responses.
  • Dan Hill, author of About Faces and Emotionomics, runs the site, specializing in reading faces and non-verbal responses of consumers to access marketing responses.

Snap! principle of neuromarketing and traditional consumer research:

Research customers’ habits, attitudes and brains to close the gap between inaction and action.

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