Understanding the Potential of Neuromarketing

NEUROMARKETING EXTENDS TRADITIONAL marketing techniques through the application of neuroscience, leveraging advances in greater understanding of brain function and developments in brain scanning techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). The ability to “measure the brain while it is operating” and interpret emotional response and “engagement” provides new opportunity in measuring the effectiveness of many aspects of product design and advertising.

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Neuromarketing and Deep Brain Function

Eye tracking, pupillometers, Galvanic skin response (as used in polygraph devices) and other peripheral nervous system measures have sought to provide insight into ‘deep brain’ activity and emotional response to stimuli (in advertising and other contexts) for some years. The ability to monitor (be that by fMRI or other means) deep brain function, comprehend (with “reasonable certainty”) the cause and effect of positive and negative emotional response would provide an unprecedented insight into the subconscious and provide a revolutionary path to product design and market testing.

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Neuromarketing cannot however dismiss standardisation requirements, regulation and ethical application. It suffers from “over claiming”, has significant cost implications, scalability challenges and interpretation ‘difficulties’ based on gaps in our current understanding of neural function (in part I refer to the limbic system). Cost and scalability of using fMRI are clearly issues as it requires expensive and highly specialised equipment and facilitates analysis of one “subject” at a time. Conducting sample testing on significant volume of participants is therefore impractical. Some have suggested that this simply requires highly focused subject choice (such as key market influencers); although “plausible” this accepts a fundamental limitation and loses a great deal of “statistical potential”. EEG is significantly cheaper and portable and benefits from higher temporal resolution, but (with scalp EEG) brain structures such as the amygdala or hippocampus may not be clearly visible. Peripheral nervous system measurements have at times meandered into pseudo-science although there are some promising advances.

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Neuromarketing and Dystopia

Neuromarketing has its detractors, fearing exploitation and even “idea implantation”, although I equate this with the hocus pocus of mind control and subliminal manipulation. Marketers also want something which is simple to understand “will this campaign work”, “is this a winning product” and elements of neuroscience research and marketing exuberance seem immiscible.

The key to unlocking neuromarketing’s potential is the development of our understanding of how the brain works. Our functional understanding continuously improves, but should be understood to be the ultimate limiting factor. The proprietary nature of initial developments may also stifle progress, and a healthy focus on existing techniques should be maintained (such as covert observation, psychophysiology etc.).

If neuroscience developments and neuromarketing really delivered, some of the potential benefits would include:

  • A radical new approach to focus groups and product testing. Insights into deep brain function with “no requirement for surveys” and their many associated pitfalls (translation, misinterpretation etc.). This also removes any ‘localisation’ or cultural aspects of traditional product testing
  • The ability to create “emotional heatmaps” – in other words not only see (through eye tracking) connections with visual content, but also understand emotional engagement with content. This would drive optimisation of media effectiveness
  • An exceptional opportunity to augment traditional sentiment analysis techniques
  • Improved product design and surety of that design through improved analytical technique, process optimisation, reduced cost and reduced risk
  • An opportunity to rethink and restructure web content and its presentation

Naturally (and I share the cynicism) altruistic or pro-social uses of neuromarketing may not top the agenda. There is however real potential in this regard, for example:

  • The potential to analyse compulsive disorders (such as the underlying behavioural patterns in compulsive and impulsive purchasing)
  • Designing safety advertising that conveys simple, engaging and memorable information
  • Designing health campaigns and public information campaigns that are again emotionally connecting and memorable

One of my “really out there” visions of the potential of neuromarketing is the creation (years hence) of “Adaptive HCI’s”. In other words an intelligent Human Computer Interface with the ability to personalise ‘user experience’ driven by ‘self-detected, subconscious emotional responses’.

Introduction to Neuromarketing & Consumer Neuroscience

First published on the Atos CIO Blog July 2010

Further Reading on Neuromarketing and Consumer Neuroscience