Brains Don’t Lie
Neuromarketing is getting serious, with four new Canadian entrants to the market in the past six months alone. These companies say they can tell what consumers really like – even when participants don’t know themselves.
Standing in a store aisle, my eyes keep landing back on the Dunkaroos right in front of me. I can’t remember anything else on the shelves, although I think I saw chips and possibly jam. I’m a bit distracted because my ear is being pinched, making me hyper-aware of the spider-like contraption clamped to my head.
Diana Lucaci fixes this, shifting the EEG sensor slightly so it’s not as noticeable. She’s balancing a laptop in her hand – I can’t move too far from her or the wireless signal will cut out – and telling me to look around. Don’t move too much, just look, she says. Body movement creates electrical impulses that get picked up by the EEG, she explains, making it more difficult to decipher results later. Had I been wearing eye-tracking goggles (the company’s pair were in use), she could have told me exactly what I was feeling as I gazed at specific products.
It feels awkward. I would never shop standing still. But Lucaci assures me the scan is effective at finding out what I do or don’t like, when I’m engaged or when I’m tuned out.
“This is the most honest [information] you’ll get out of a person because the brain never lies,” she says.
Lucaci is the founder and CEO of True Impact Marketing, part of a small contingent of Canadian neuroscientists hoping to change the way marketers study consumers.
This year, neuromarketing firms have popped up at a rapid pace, with at least six companies now offering these research techniques compared to two the year before – including big name players like NeuroFocus (a well-established global research firm based in the U.S.) opening in Canada, and partnerships like AOL and Realeyes (facial emotional tracking) rolling out their platforms globally.
Though they all say they’re unable to reveal their client lists, citing confidentiality agreements, Lucaci says she’s working with a number of brands and agencies, while two-month-old Brainsights has two clients and is in talks with 10 others.
So, what is neuromarketing exactly? At its base level, it is the study of your brain. There are two types of technology that most often capture this information: Electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). That being said, it is a fluid field with unclear boundaries.
EEGs measure electrical activity along the scalp, often requiring portable head gear that traditionally looks like swimming caps with embedded small sensors, or more recently, headbands using fewer sensors with a less clinical look. The prices have also fallen, with new research-grade equipment available at a much lower rate, making it easier for new competitors to jump into the fray. The hardware ranges from $300 to $30,000, and a full neuromarketing study can run upward of $20,000 to $45,000, usually involving a couple dozen people.
EEGs measure instinctual emotions such as lust, anger and excitement, explains Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media and telecommunications research at Deloitte (which predicted fMRI would be the next big trend in market research in 2012).
But EEGs limit what researchers are able to measure, since they’re only able to scan the surface of the brain and can’t penetrate the regions found beneath the top layer of electrical activity, which are thought to control different emotions, such as pleasure.
(Watch our writer try out an EEG device.)
FMRIs, on the other hand, are magnetic tubes in which subjects lay that scan the brain every two seconds, measuring blood flow and creating a 3D rendering of the organ. They’re better at deciphering emotions and able to penetrate deeper than an EEG. Few companies own full fMRI machines, so to run a study they rent them from hospitals and research laboratories at a cost of anywhere from $90,000 to $150,000 a pop (and some estimate it can run even higher). These prices have remained relatively steady over the past decade, though they may begin to fall as more people use the equipment.
Moving toward the fringes, neuromarketing includes eye tracking (goggles that determine where exactly your irises are looking) and facial coding, which measures minute changes to your facial features. Facial coding, currently offered by global consultancy Millward Brown and AOL/Realeyes, takes a second-by-second snapshot of your face, which is then run through software to interpret emotions based on nearly imperceptible facial movements (such as a slight frown or furrowed brow). Facial coding has recently taken off due to better cameras and more precise software. There’s other biometric software, including pulse readers and skin testers, that measure your bodily responses to stimuli (such as if something makes your heart race or your hair stand on end).
All combined, this technology gives marketers a chance to peer into the brain and analyze responses to their content – be it a video or an item on a shelf at retail – to see how it resonates with consumers before they can even vocalize their thoughts.
Proponents of neuromarketing say the field is more effective than traditional focus groups, which often need hundreds of volunteers, or surveys, which need thousands. In a Warc presentation on the subject, Thom Noble, managing director, NeuroFocus Europe, said people are often swayed by other focus group participants or will answer in a way they want to be perceived (i.e. a man may say he’d prefer a sports car over a minivan to save face in a room full of other men, when in reality he finds the minivan more practical).
Further, asking someone about a campaign or commercial after the fact gives people time to reflect on their emotions, which isn’t a true indicator of how he or she felt during the moment of exposure. Neuromarketing, on the other hand, measures how a person feels in the very moment of consumption – the unconscious thought before our brains turn it into processed information, which can influence our purchase impulses greatly.
For example, in one recent study at UCLA, researchers showed participants three anti-smoking ads in an fMRI. Afterwards, when participants were asked to rank the effectiveness of the ads, en masse they chose Campaign B, which featured a woman jumping out of a window to grab her cigarette, as the most effective. But their brains disagreed and were most engaged by Campaign C, which used finger puppets and featured a woman berating her smoking husband. When the ads were broadcast in different states, the C market experienced a 30% boost in calls to an anti-smoking hotline, which was greater than the other two.
Does this mean Canadian marketers can expect to find that mythical “buy button,” figuring out what people want before they know it? Of course not, admits Lucaci. But now they have the option for a deeper dive into the subconscious and a purer read on emotional triggers.
The EEG Lucaci outfits me with has 16 sensors. It’s on the cheaper end of the hardware spectrum, costing $1,000 per headset.
Her computer screen shows my brain divided into quadrants, with colours streaking across the screen at random. Grey is a meditative brain, Lucaci tells me, and there’s no grey to be seen on my reading. I have a very active mind.
She begins talking about stimuli: puppies, vacation, lottery. My brain lights up, awash in a sea of red.
This means very little without proper interpretation, which entails an algorithm and a trained neuroscientist. Anyone can buy the equipment, Lucaci says, but the real benefit is having a team like hers interpret what it all means.
Until recently, Canadian marketers looking to delve into the neuromarketing space had to fly to the U.S. or the U.K. to use partner firms’ equipment, adding to the cost of an already higher-than-average market research industry.
But prices are falling, lowering the barrier for entry, and interested parties are starting to emerge.
DDB’s Shopper DDB division is “in the process” of signing a couple of big deals with clients to use the hardware, says VP managing director Jason Dubroy. He remained mum on the type of research (fMRI vs EEG) and the clients, but says it is something they’ve explored deeply, even looking to potential internal uses (such as strengthening pitches).
It’s not just brands and agencies getting in on the action: TV producers and media companies are also eyeing the hardware. Kevin Keane, co-founder of Brainsights, which hard-launched in June, has talked with a half-dozen agencies and media companies about integrating his EEG hardware, which costs less than $1,000 per unit, to learn how to create better content. He’s already got two clients signed on, though he won’t reveal their names.
It’s the ease of the product that most appeals to potential clients, he says. As a demonstration, he arrives at the strategy office with two technicians, who set up in less than 30 minutes, and five headsets, which we easily put on ourselves. Without the giant labs or bulky equipment, he predicts that neuromarketing will get even more pick-up in the next six months.
None of this is new technology. EEGs have been used sporadically since the ’70s, while fMRIs (and chatter around neuromarketing) has ebbed and flowed into vogue since the mid-2000s. The biometrics side of neuromarketing (eye tracking, skin sensations, etc.) has been around even longer and many major organizations, like Molson Coors, Campbell’s, Coca-Cola and Unilever, have used eye tracking for a few years now.
The term neuromarketing began to be used en masse in 2004, Lucaci says, when neuroscientist Read Montague ran an fMRI study on the “Pepsi Challenge.” He was perplexed that despite 30-plus years of the Pepsi taste challenge, where people would generally choose Pepsi over Coca-Cola, Coke sales still surpassed Pepsi.
When his subjects lay in the fMRI for a blind taste test, their brain activity confirmed people preferred the taste of Pepsi over Coke, but once people became aware of which drink they were consuming, the medial prefrontal cortex, which controls higher thinking, “lit up.” Montague linked his published findings to the idea that marketing could influence your thoughts.
Since then, neuromarketing has evolved: In 2009, in the U.S., Pepsi brand Frito-Lay (working with Toronto-based Juniper Park) used neuromaketing research to determine that the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain associated with guilt) lit up in female subjects when they saw its bright yellow potato chip bag. The brand toned down the bag’s colour, adorned the packaging with healthier images and released an animated campaign featuring four webisodes exploring the way women relate to food and snacks, all of which led to a 10% sales increase (and a 2009 CASSIES award).
In 2010, Campbell’s also publicly declared the use of neuromarketing tactics in the redesign of its iconic soup cans. After two years of looking at biometric responses, neurometric tests and more traditional focus groups across 1,500 subjects, the new design was unveiled, flipping the brand name to the bottom of some images, softening the fonts and updating the imagery (which included the addition of “steam” to convey the fact that the soup was piping hot).
Despite the hoopla over the use of neurometrics, Campbell’s wouldn’t reveal results of the redesign, saying only at the time that it was “pleased” with the results. Critics argued that similar results could have been achieved by bringing in someone who was well-versed in design theory.
The practice is still considered controversial. Though Frito-Lay experienced growth and Campbell’s was “pleased,” were the costs worth it?
“When a company does it, it may work, it may not work,” says Deloitte’s Stewart. “There are those who say fMRI [and neuromarketing] is a soft science.”
One of the biggest challenges, he says, is that it isn’t mind reading. Neuromarketing doesn’t tell marketers what consumers want. It can detect a person’s feelings and where the brain is active (such as areas associated with guilt, pleasure and love), but it can’t discern what that specific emotion is, though neuromarketing firms swear by their scientists and algorithms.
Which is the second biggest problem facing the field: because it’s such a closely guarded secret, findings are rarely publicized. In the scientific world, methodologies and “breakthroughs” need peer review, which allows scrutiny over the process and legitimizes the accuracy of the information.
As an example of the issue with neuromarketing, Stewart points to a car company that studied a commercial featuring a bikini-clad woman next to the car. The tests scored well, with participants looking where they were meant to and having the positive stimulation that the creative was aiming for, says Stewart. But asked later what the name of the car was, few remembered.
Globally, Millward Brown – which set up its neuromarketing division in 2004 – has stepped away from pure neuromarketing efforts, says Graham Page, EVP neuroscience practice, who found that EEGs and fMRIs weren’t scalable for the cost. Instead, the company is focusing on facial coding, which requires a computer with a video camera and software that’s already built.
In Canada, brands are questioning whether the ROI value is high enough to justify the cost associated with neuromarketing. Molson, for example, has looked into neuromarketing research, but hasn’t found the right opportunity to deploy it. Sarah Major, director of Sklar Wilton & Associates, who works exclusively with Molson on its product innovation and new launches, says she absolutely wouldn’t recommend her client pay for the research unless there is definitive proof that using these techniques would move the dial. “We want to make sure we would make a different call than if we were just having the consumer experience the ad online or come in and talk about it in a more traditional research methodology,” she says.
There is also a question of comfort level regarding the intimate and invasive nature of the research methodology, which can explain clients’ desire for covert usage.
DDB’s Dubroy says many clients he’s discussed neuromarketing research with have been hesitant. “When you walk into a client’s [office] and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to help you understand the brain,’ there’s either a true passion for it or a real [uncomfortable feeling] around it,” he says. The idea of probing the subconscious can feel “icky,” he adds.
Finally, it may not even be necessary. With more firms taking on these studies, neuromarketing “best practices” have emerged, allowing brands to tap the insights without the associated cost of original research.
Dubroy points to the recent campaign Shopper DDB did for the Strategic Milk Alliance, which did not use original neuromarketing research, but gleaned insights from neuromarketing best practices, guiding development of in-store elements (such as using a shade of black for a background to create an “ideal contrast” against the whites of a retailer’s floor and shelf, and doing away with square corners, which aren’t appealing to the eye).
They also learned that seeing an image six times in a grocery store makes you more likely to buy the product. As a result, they “primed” the shopper throughout the store with 24 different sets of milk images paired with various foods.
Launched in June, it’s still too early to tell how the massive campaign, which is supported by TV, print, digital and OOH, will fare, though Dubroy says eye tracking tests done with the neuromarketing-enhanced in-store creative significantly out-performed that of creative that didn’t use the treatment.
Although they didn’t pay for original research, it’s something the agency is actively exploring because Dubroy believes understanding how a person’s brain reacts will give companies an advantage. But it is a tool in the kit, he says, and won’t replace focus groups, surveys or other methods of studies. He adds that pairing it with anthropological, cultural and psychological information will give the fullest possible picture of consumers.
“Not using neuromarketing practices is what everybody is doing now,” he says. “Using it will give an edge.”
Food for thought: Using a basket in the grocery store may make you fatter. According to Jason Dubroy from Shopper DDB, neuromarketing studies found that when you carry a basket rather than push a cart, your brain thinks “I’ve done work,” which makes you more susceptible to snacks piled high at the checkout (something candy marketers clearly figured out without needing brain wave tech).
More food for thought: People are most attracted to information that confirms their existing beliefs, Dubroy says. So ditch the revolutionary lingo on packages and stick with information that reinforces what a consumer expects the product to do.
Meet the neuro players
Looking to use neuromarketing techniques? There’s a few options in Canada, all based out of the GTA, from which to choose, each offering something a little different.
The cost for EEG studies typically range from $20,000 to $45,000 while fMRI ballparks in the $100,000 range. Because the hardware isn’t as expensive (only a camera is required), facial coding is markedly cheaper, often embedded into the cost of other research.
True Impact Marketing: Opened in 2008, it began offering neuromarketing research in 2012. It offers access to fMRI scans as well as EEG (with both 18- and 32-sensor models) and eye tracking.
EEG studies can be done in a shopping lab (in partnership with Mississauga, ON.-based The Central Group), on location or in an office. Costs range considerably depending on the study group’s size, hardware model and whether it’s paired with eye tracking. FMRIs usually start at $90,000, says Diana Lucaci, CEO, True Impact Marketing.
She won’t divulge her client list, but says she’s got a dozen or so companies signed on, including a major CPG brand, a retailer and a bank, and is in talks with an ad agency.
Brainsights: Brand new to the market, Brainsights is less than four months old. Established by Kevin Keane, who was frustrated over the lack of metrics in the branded content space, Brainsights uses a two-sensor EEG that works over Bluetooth and can be brought into any environment for testing.
For an average study of 75-plus people, he estimates the price starts at $10,000.
He also won’t divulge his client roster, but says he’s got two clients signed on, and has had a lot of interest from agencies and media companies.
Explorer Group: Mark Inkol, president of the Explorer Group, says they’ve offered EEG studies for roughly two years, and have had eye tracking for four, but only out of the U.S. However, it recently picked up its own EEG hardware, bringing down the costs of a study, which runs between $900 and $1,800 per respondent (usually requiring 20 to 30 subjects). The research consultancy has a shopper lab for people looking to test their product in a retail environment or can do on-site testing.
Though he won’t reveal which clients use neuromarketing research techniques, Explorer Group works with Coca-Cola, Molson Coors, Sleeman, Wrigley and Loblaw.
Millward Brown: Globally, Millward Brown has offered EEG and fMRI studies since 2004 but recently stepped back to offer facial coding almost exclusively. The platform rol led out to the Canadian office at the beginning of 2013, and is baked into the price of its services for clients, which include the likes of Coca-Cola and Unilever.
New clients will automatically get access to the software, while more than half of existing clients have added it to their research mix. The software, which connects to a web camera, allows brands to test commercials to determine people’s emotional reactions based on minuscule second-by-second facial changes.
Realeyes, AOL: In June, London, U.K.-based Realeyes announced a global branded content partnership on AOL’s Be On video platform, which will see clients’ video content tested with facial coding. According to Laura Pearce, director of marketing, AOL Canada, the cost for advertisers varies, beginning in the low thousands, but can fluctuate based on the size of the media buy.
This service will be offered in addition to AOL’s eye tracking software.
Neurofocus: Neurofocus opened shop in Canada in November 2012. The Nielsen division offers EEG and eye tracking in Canada, though it remained mum on prices.