In September, Product of the Year (POY), an independent awards program recognizing consumer-voted goods held a panel discussion under the theme “Getting Under the Skin of Shoppers” that featured Amine Issa, PhD in biomedical engineering at non-profit medical group Mayo Clinic Everest research. In October, Omnicom Media Group (OMG)’s media and communication agency, PHD, organized the “Reboot Your Thinking” daylong conference, starring self-defined futurist and host of National Geographic’s Brain Games, Jason Silva, who spoke of technology bridging imagination and reality. In November, Mindshare MENA’s “Planning for Agility” summit saw Olivier Oullier, who has a PhD in behavioral and brain sciences, advocating the integration of neuroscience with traditional research methods. Evidently, the art of advertising – and its artists, better known as chief ‘innovation’ and ‘technology’ officers – is increasingly intertwining with science and technology to peek into consumer mindsets, wallets and social profiles.
Hide and seek
“Marketing is becoming a lot more scientific, in terms of how we measure consumer behavior and the success of our campaigns. Agencies are employing PhD experts in psychology because advertising is becoming as much a science as it is an art,” says Yousef Tuqan, chief innovation officer at Leo Burnett MENA. “Science sets the pace for innovation,” Issa says.
As regional brands and ad players keep themselves busy playing catch-up to worldwide trends, are they ready to invest time and money into scientific research? “Multinationals invest in R&D [research and development] only at the global level. There’s no access for local markets, so the majority of innovations become top down instead of bottom up, whereas inventions work the other way around,” explains Roy Armale, planning director at Geometry Global. Companies “invest in the output, not the technology”, he adds, which makes it incredibly difficult to develop the technology in the first place. “You face a chicken and egg situation.” In order for companies to invest, they will need to know that the technology works; but in order to prove that the technology does work, developers and agencies will need funding.
“Funding is a challenge that a lot of agencies face today – especially the big agencies. The challenge is always to deliver and make your numbers so quite often that there is no room for this sort of investment and innovation. A lot of the larger agencies need to act like a startup and to invest in things that might not pay off, in the hope that they might,” says Tuqan.
However, Racha Makarem, managing director of insight and research at VivaKi MENA, says that “they [clients] are very open to investing in research.” Two years back, VivaKi invested in a piece of technology called Oculus, an eye-tracking device equipped with an infrared camera that provides a glimpse – literally – of the consumer journey while measuring pupil dilation to understand “emotional and cognitive behavior,” says Makarem. Yet, this technology isn’t used as a standalone research tool, but rather as a precursor to in-depth qualitative interviews. The agency also invested in a research project called Space ID six years ago, a fundamental part of which is SEMIOMETRIE, a tool that uses words to trigger emotions. “We found that the majority of people’s decisions are driven by emotions. So, if we are able to understand those emotional triggers, [we can] create connections that inspire people and change behavior,” she explains.
This theory, however, is premised on the presumption that humans are capable of understanding their emotions. “When you look at the research conducted on consumers, most of it is based on verbalizing behavior. So we are putting words in their mouths. This is extremely biased: very informative on what people think they do, but doesn’t tell you about what they actually do,” says Oullier .
In the region, heavy reliance on tried and tested – but not always successful – methods is met with a habit of passing off things beyond comprehension as “trends” or “buzzwords”.
Armale first began exploring the use of biometrics – which include the study of GSR (galvanic skin response), heart rate and respiration tracking – in shopper marketing when he stumbled upon a Kickstarter project now known as “Narrative”: a small, cheap camera that takes pictures at preset intervals and instantly transmits them to a connected server or mobile app, giving marketers a visual representation of a shopper’s path. Despite its low cost and obvious benefits, clients shot down the idea. That’s when Armale collaborated with Issa, who suggested completely removing cameras from the equation and avoiding potential issues in sensitive regions like the KSA – and even the UAE to some extent – and relying on biometrics instead. Armale and Issa then started testing beacons to “assign emotions to the shopper path”. Although the beacons looked promising, tests revealed inaccuracies in detecting exact locations of shoppers; which is when Armale and his team of developers in the UK turned to Raspberry Pis, a low-cost, credit-card sized computer that can be used for computing and programming.
This does not make beacons completely futile. “The beacon technology that I am looking into is one where you have a tablet or mobile device that can be carried through your shopping experience. And, at various points, you have beacons tied to various products. So the device only activates that beacon when it’s within that small specific area,” explains Piero Poli, general manager of Havas Digital Middle East, who is also looking at setting up a wall of iPads preloaded with an app that connects to the beacons in-store and is then handed to certain customers.Tuqan, too, is experimenting with beacons using the same methodology as Poli’s to overcome the problem of location inaccuracy. “We did a prototype using iBeacons for General Motors to improve customer experience within the showroom. It’s just a demo so far, but it was a proof of concept for us,” he says. He’s also working on using conductive ink – which allows a poster, for example, to be turned into a circuit board – and testing the virtual reality glasses, Oculus Rift.
One of the truly innovative projects seen in recent times in the region is Dubai-based Red Tomato Pizza’s VIP Fridge Magnet in 2010; a simple button on the fridge magnet allows one to order pizza. The brand approached TBWA\RAAD’s digital agency, DAN Dubai, with the objective of acquiring new customers. “Dropping off menus at people’s doors wasn’t really doing the trick, and their budgets were pretty small,” explains Mohammad Khan, account manager at DAN. At the time, the creative director was working on “phygital” – physical plus digital – wherein he decided to explore syncing some Bluetooth hardware he had bought from China with a phone to deliver pizza.
If this sounds absurd, it is because it was. “Back then, it was a bunch of tech-savvy creative directors trying to make cool things happen. It’s a lot more methodical now. We look at the business problem, and actually have the research to back up why a creative tech solution will work for that particular scenario,” explains Khan. OMG MENA has been using neuro research for its clients over the past two to three years, but “neuro research being a part of campaign development is still at the infancy stage,” says Ziad Skaff, regional executive director – research and insights at OMG MENA.
While agencies grapple with coming up with innovative solutions for clients, JWT Dubai is working on a smart product of its own, says Gavin Payne, the agency network’s regional head of technology, who “can’t go into details as it is top secret”. However, he mentions that the agency has filed its first patent and aims to license the product to be a global brand.
While few agencies and brands are testing the waters with new technologies and market research sciences, most are not. Makarem, who is unacquainted with the beacon technology, says: “the majority of research is more traditional. The beauty of tech is that we are heading in that direction and [through social media], people have more data to share by default. But imagine that on a much bigger scale. That’s going to be an interesting time”.
The thing is that the ‘interesting times’ are already here. But is the regional industry ready for it? “I don’t think the world is ready for it, let alone the region. We know consumers’ wants, needs and likes based on their digital footprint already. Is tapping into brains necessary? At what point have we gone too far?,” questions Khan. Poli, too, shares the same sentiment: “Do I need to be able to order pizza just by thinking about it? Probably not. I think there might be a consumer backlash if they [consumers] know brands are trying to understand their neurons and synapses. At a personal level, where’s the last space of privacy that we have? What gives a marketer the right to hack into my brain? Nothing.”
However, Oullier doesn’t see this as hacking, because “hacking would mean doing it without their [consumers’] consent. Maybe they don’t realize the potential implications, but we are talking about people who put out their private lives on Facebook,” he says. And clients are not making this any easier. Skaff says that convincing clients is “pretty challenging. I don’t believe that they don’t see it as an added value. But I would understand that clients today want to see the return on the money”.
Most industry experts, including Tuqan and Poli, think of neuromarketing as a bit of a buzzword. “But what’s beneath is not a buzz and it’s not a new trend,” says Oullier, considering the fact that the first scientific literary material that had someone with electrodes looking at a TV was way back in 1979.
A good amount of hesitation about using neuroscience could come from its very name. “As long as you keep the term ‘neuromarketing’, it can harm your business, because some companies and customers can be afraid of it. It has to be mainstream, like surveys,” says Oullier.
Today, the term “innovation” is synonymous with “digital”. “The amount of data and access that we have paired with the cheap cost of technology and the fact that our lives are spent in the digital space means that the best solutions for brands and consumers are the ones that are digital,” says Tuqan. Whether it’s the Wi-Fi-enabled Samsung washing machine or the DEWA app that lets you pay your bills online, Tuqan feels that innovation is – or at least, should be – about simple ideas that solve genuine problems. He gives the example of a cooler built by Leo Burnett and Coca-Cola in Colombia that uses water and condensation to cool Coke cans without any electricity.
So why aren’t we seeing enough of that in the region? “I don’t know really. I think a big part of it is the real disconnect between where the innovators, where the entrepreneurs are and where the money is,” says Tuqan. Poli concurs: “There is a lack of pure innovation and startup thinking here. Maybe it is the arrogance of oil,” he jokes, citing the book Startup Rising, which is premised on the thesis that the UAE doesn’t need to field innovation because it’s got oil and natural wealth.
Yet, the industry is reluctant to outright admit the shortcomings of innovation in the region.
“To be fair, there are some really interesting things happening,” says Tuqan, referring to the Appy Kids educational software by Growl Media, which, according to him, is “probably the best educational software for children that is not in English”, or Lebanon-based Hind Hobeika’s swimming monitor Instabeat. “For me, the most interesting innovation I have seen – which is quite sad – is the I Am Alive app,” he adds. Created by a Lebanese entrepreneur, the app automatically sends a message to users’ social profiles every time a bomb goes off in the country and cellphone networks get jammed, reassuring their friends and families that they are, indeed, alive. One could still argue the need for data connectivity or Wi-Fi for the app to work – in which case, the very need and existence of the app is questionable. But, more importantly, the app sets the standard for what the region considers to be ‘innovative’.
“As a region, unfortunately, we haven’t been progressing when it comes to invention, but we do see breakthroughs in different sectors,” says Skaff, referring to projects like the UAE’s sustainable city, MASDAR. “You cannot ask people today to think of futuristic ideas while they’re struggling to strive on a daily basis to secure their own living,” he adds.
Seeing is believing
In 2012, Oullier designed and conducted a study for the World Economic Forum and its partner companies – including Aegis Media, Coca-Cola, Lenovo, Marks & Spencer, Unilever, OMG and WPP Group – using mobile eye-tracking devices from SensoMotoric Instruments and electroencephalography (EEG)-detecting portable gear from Emotiv. The research was conducted to understand the changing consumer attitudes and behaviors of millenials towards sustainable products. Oullier explains: “When we asked them why they picked a particular product, they would say it’s because they saw the labels. But that’s absolutely not true [judging by the data received from their brain-reading and eye-tracking devices]. For food, they have a tendency to look at the surroundings. You could put something really unhealthy in the middle of fruits and it would work”. This is information a survey wouldn’t reveal. And yet, without a survey – post the shopping experience – this information wouldn’t make sense, because researchers woulnd’t be able to identify the gap between intention and action.
The illusion of lack in scalability of fields such as neuro research is a huge deterrent to regional ad players. But even neuroscience isn’t stuck in the lab anymore. Technological equipment used in neuro research is now becoming more cost-effective and portable.
The solution to convincing reluctant clients might lie in using prototypes. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but a prototype is worth a thousand pictures. So we have been doing a lot of prototypes this year for clients so we can actually take physical products to them,” explains Tuqan. But while brands deal with overcoming their apprehensions, Armale has “started developing research methodologies that don’t require technology. [I’m showing clients] what we can do manually with people to prove that what we are looking for is useful, so that later on, we replace the human element with technology,” he explains.
The lack of faith brands place in technology and sciences such as neuromarketing might very well be stemming from a lack of awareness around the technology itself and the not-so-gargantuan costs associated with it. “We have not seen emerging leaders from academia [in the field of neuroscience] come from MENA. It’s more a matter of communication than science. No one here has bridged the gap between [science and marketing],” says Oullier.
Whether it is ignorance or complacency springing from the arrogance of oil or just the good ol’ trend of playing catch-up, the industry might soon be running out of excuses to lag behind. Simply put, when it comes to the region, “there’s no anti-innovation mindset but there’s no pro-innovation structure either,” says Armale.
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