What are some of the recent trends we see in the merging of neuroscience and marketing, also referred to as neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience? During the last decade, we have seen a large growth in both the companies that offer and those that use this new science and technology. But there are still lingering doubts, which takes attention away from some of the real progress that goes on in this area. Here, we list some of the status and the developments seen in this industry.
A recap of neuromarketing
Neuromarketing is the use of neuroscience tools and insights to measure, understand and affect consumer choice. For many years, we have seen both academic and popular articles that demonstrate the added value of neuroscience methods in understanding consumer responses and choices. However, at the same time, we have seen rather odd treatments of neuromarketing, which fall into a few categories:
- It's coming -- Many popular accounts are talking about neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience as something that "will happen." As active practitioners and scholars in this field, such statements have seen pretty anachronistic and out of touch with what is actually happening these days. For the better part of a decade, neuromarketing has been published in world-class journals and run as commercial projects globally.
- It's never going to work -- For some reason, this seems to be a prevalent view, even among people who love neuroscience! While a decent chunk of these issues have been due to parts of the industry making unsupported claims and low-validity approaches (some of the really bad examples including claims that Google Glass can be used to measure deep brain activity and dopamine release).
- It's unethical -- This is an absolutely legitimate concern. There are indeed ethical aspects to consider -- more recently, we have seen the same issues emerging in methods that track behavior with no or little personal consent. Neuromarketing methods, due to the need for in-person interviews, need to use ethical standards for informed consent -- for example, at Neurons, we follow the strict standards of EU's GDPR regulations, as well as the Declaration of Helsinki, which puts us on par with the best clinical research standards. Furthermore, ethical standards by organizations such as ESOMAR and NMSBA help boost this within the research industry. In addition to this, neuromarketing methods are not about "luring the subconscious" but rather to ensure that an ad or product is seen, is emotionally engaging, and does not stress the consumer. This is all about creating a good experience for the consumer, not triggering some unwanted subconscious response that make consumers into mindless zombies.
- It doesn't predict my KPI -- This is a more recent claim we have encountered. Companies regularly use a long-held Key Performance Indicator as their golden standard to hold neuromarketing methods up to. However, if your KPI is based on self-reports, chances are that you are painting yourself into a corner. Neuromarketing measures are originally intended to assess subconscious, non-stated responses such as visual attention, emotional responses, working memory demand, and memory encoding. These responses are both diagnostic in their own right (e.g., do people see your ad?) but also predictive of choice behaviors themselves. So, using neuromarketing methods to predict self-report KPIs is the wrong approach to take. Sure, neuro-measures can be made to assess conscious experience and report, but for most purposes it's easier just to ask people. They supply each other, instead of replacing each other.
Recent developments in neuromarketing
Now, there are more recent trends on the horizon that strengthen the added value even more. Some of these include:
- Combining with traditional measures to boost effects -- Both in academic and research, we see that the marriage of traditional research methods (surveys, interviews, focus groups) brings added value. For example, neuromarketing metrics allow you to diagnose responses as they unfold over time, while self-report measures allow you to understand what sticks in conscious memory. These data provide complementary sources for insight into what works and does not work for your consumers.
- Population coding -- There is a whole trend in cognitive neuroscience work now that looks at how responses in a small sample predicts market responses. There is something fundamental to how we respond as a group that is representative of a whole society. The prime example of this is how we all jump in our chair when we see a horror movie -- this is highly predictive of how the market responds. Neuromarketing measures in a small sample have been shown to predict market responses for box-office movie sales, Twitter behavior, and financial decisions.
- Validity and reliability push -- Recent collaborations between vendors, clients and academia are working hard on the next level of standards for the industry. These standards are expected to match and maybe even go beyond the standards being set in academia (who are seeing a replication crisis). As a part of this, in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Advertising Research (preprint), I lay out some of the foundations that these steps should include (a forthcoming news item about this is forthcoming here on this site)
- Academia and companies combine forces -- This may not be wholly new, but recently, we have seen a strengthening of academic and commercial collaborations. For example, in a work together with Stanford University and Bonnier News, Neurons has built a neuromarketing-based 4-power model of ad and branding success. As this project is currently rounding off, the next step is to publish these findings and the model in a scientific journal. Similarly, in our recent study for the Mobile Marketing Association and all major social media companies, we are in the process of publishing the findings together with the Advertising Research Foundation (and making the data publicly available).
- Going beyond marketing -- Neuroscience-based measures are good for understanding human responses in a broad swath of behaviors. Responses to ads are just one example. As I wrote about in my recent book, Leading Transformation, we have shown that consumer responses can be measured in a broader context, including concepts, prototypes, and especially to a host of different emerging technologies, where we do not have any "golden standard" for measuring consumer responses and market effects.
These are only a few of the coming trends in neuromarketing. What we see is that neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience is extremely well-positioned between the fading use of traditional self-reports and the over-hyped big data analyses. Through the coming years, we expect to see neuromarketing methods being even more used in the research industry, both in traditional research industries as well as in any type of situation where we need to understand human responses as they unfold over time.