Get inside their heads

Is the advent of neuromarketing rendering traditional focus groups obsolete? Not quite. But, the latest high-tech tool in market research, fMRI brain scanning, can definitely reveal key insights - like gut reactions - that

Is the advent of neuromarketing rendering traditional focus groups obsolete? Not quite. But, the latest high-tech tool in market research, fMRI brain scanning, can definitely reveal key insights – like gut reactions – that

old-fashioned testing just can’t compete with. And the technique, which

is on its way to Canada, allows researchers to literally get inside the consumer’s head, sidestepping persistent focus group flaws like groupthink.

Neuromarketing takes focus groups to the next level by giving consumers stimuli – like products and package designs – and monitoring neural activity, to see what they really think. The process was sparked by the now-famous study by neuroscientist Read Montague, published in a 2004 issue of the journal Neuron. Montague took the classic Pepsi Challenge a step further by using brain scans to see whether subjects preferred Coke or Pepsi. Neural activity indicated that subjects were split half and half when they were given unidentified drinks. But, when told which was which, three quarters suddenly preferred Coke, prompting Montague to hypothesize that Coke’s branding over-rode product quality in terms of perceived product enjoyment.

‘We’re effectively peeking into the black box,’ says McGill marketing prof Karl Moore, who’s working with Oxford University-based company Neurosense to bring the app to Canada. Right now, all the neuromarketing action is happening in the U.K. and the U.S. But, it’s close to coming here. Moore thinks the first Canadian clients will be subsidiaries of British and American firms already working with Neurosense. While potential apps for neuromarketing are broad, the two categories that will likely jump on board first here are CPG, which can benefit from getting subconscious reactions to new products and package designs; and media planning agencies, which will be able to decipher how various media affect different parts of the brain.

PHD Media’s London office has already done a study with Neurosense to determine how different channels of communication affect the brain. ‘It’s ‘How can we influence people better?’ versus ‘How can we reach the most people?” explains Fred Auchterlonie, SVP/director of client services at PHD’s Toronto office. ‘It’s really revolutionary.’

Auchterlonie plans to take advantage of insights gleaned from the U.K. study and apply them to Canadian campaigns. ‘It’s really in the early stages – we’re experimenting with it right now,’ he says, adding that the data will be most beneficial for campaigns with specific mandates. ‘If we want to disrupt the way consumers think about the brand, knowing which channels fire up different areas of the brain will be really helpful.’

Moore estimates that neuromarketing studies will cost roughly three times as much as traditional focus groups, and will likely include about 20-30 subjects. While he acknowledges that focus groups are still valuable, he points to common problems that fMRI scans can get around. ‘Groupthink is one of the dangers of focus groups,’ he says. ‘[Brain scans] provide much more profound insight…scientists estimate that 80% of what goes on in the brain occurs at a subconscious level.’