When self-proclaimed “brand futurist”, acclaimed author and Time magazine’s 2009 Influential 100 list honoree, Martin Lindstrom, set out to unravel the subconscious motives of addictive smokers in a neuromarketing study (neuromarketing explores cognitive, emotional and sensorimotor responses to marketing stimuli) of unprecedented scale and size in 2004, his drives were, quite oppositely, very conscious. Lindstrom’s mother was a smoker and a heavy one at that. “I realized how addicted she was to smoking. I wanted to understand that addiction, but, also, how to make [smokers] them quit,” he tells Communicate. “Unfortunately, my mom passed away last year because of cancer.”
Compiling the findings of his $7 million, three-year study using $4 million 32-ton fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machinery – which uses MRI technology to measure brain activity through the flow of oxygenated blood that runs through the brain – on 2,081 volunteers worldwide (America, England, Germany, Japan and China), Lindstrom’s book, Buyology, released in 2008, “has had an enormous effect across the world to push through new regulations [on tobacco branding],” he asserts; possibly due to a very serious assertion the “futurist” makes in the book: flashed images of branded cigarette packs with health warning labels seem to activate “craving spots” for smokers, rather than emotions of fear or disgust. And, ever since Lindstrom made this claim very public, Australia has passed a legislation for plain cigarette packaging that standardizes logos, fonts and colors to “reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco product to consumers,” according to the Australian government’s Department of Health – with Canada, Europe, the US and certain parts of Asia expected to follow suit. Six years since the release of Buyology, Lindstrom’s learned that “you cannot use neuromarketing for everything”, but the field’s proven a track record in studying symbolic storytelling to the subconscious part of the brain; even more so today, when “we all belong to the instant gratification generation and constantly need to be stimulated. The brain never really gets time to reflect on things, re-configurate or defragment information. We have half recordings of everything”. This has paved the way, he adds, for a more visual approach to communication that plays on symbolics – nowhere more evident than in the success of photo-sharing networks such as Instagram and Pinterest.
Somewhere in the early 1990s, both clients and research agencies realized that “there is more to consumer decision making than what people say,” says Martin De Munnik, founding partner and CEO of Amsterdam-based neuromarketing research and consultancy agency, Neurensics. Douglas Van Praet, founder of marketing consultancy, Unconscious Branding, and author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing, adds: “There is a widening recognition that market research has its flaws and a lot of it is rooted in the fact that people don’t know why they do what they do.” When the neuromarketing hype reached its climax in the early 2000s, “it was disrupting an industry that was afraid of challenging its own methods,” explains Christophe Morin, CEO and chief pain officer at SalesBrain, a neuromarketing agency he created in 2002 out of San Francisco. And so, “over the past ten years, marketing researchers and ad agencies were very much against it”.
Funnily enough, neuromarketing science’s early days involved few scientists, and a whole lot of “ideas, perceptions and expert opinion and consultancy services,” explains De Munnik. Those who had more to offer were not particularly welcome, because “market research is [an industry worth] more than $30 billion annually and that’s only in the Western world. There is a huge market to be defended when somebody says: ‘We are studying the wrong part of the brain’,” he says, adding that: “Suddenly, there were three parties: newcomers with no scientific-based evidence, traditional marketers who did not want to get involved, and clients who were curious about how it could help them make decisions – because more than 60 percent of all marketing efforts are not successful,” bearing in mind that marketing budgets have dwindled over the past 20 years, “because of the lack in proof of ROI”. Morin concurs that self-reporting behavior serves as a flawed premise for marketing research. Van Praet does not particularly trust current copy and product development concept testing systems, with 80 percent of new products in the US, which usually flop, passing with flying colors, while Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing, and founder of marketing consultancy Dooley Direct, asserts that brands and companies “don’t realize how bad and meaningless the results [of focus groups] are. A recent poll by [international think tank] Gallup proclaimed that 62 percent of people said that social media had no impact on what they purchased. That result is total rubbish”.
In theory, a marketing research discipline that promises to effectively look into consumers’ minds should have quickly garnered critical mass and traction – much like digital media did when it first promised the quantification of ROI, reach and awareness for advertisers. Alas, neuromarketing has not. Lindstrom claims his study’s been verified by seven independent ones across the world, but, he admits: “I did receive a lot of negative feedback”; like a rather sly comment from the Advertising Research Foundation, which, when Buyology first came out in 2008, said it did not review “pop” books, and another from Matt Myers, then president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which found Lindstrom’s findings to be misleading. In an insulated blog post in 2011, Psychology Today ripped to pieces the branding evangelist’s New York Times op-ed, You Love Your iPhone. Literally, that “was so bad it borders on fraud”. Said op-ed claimed that people’s insula part of the brain lit up when they saw pictures of ringing iPhones, the same way it would for a loved one. “Lindstrom’s conclusions are basically the opposite of the truth. Neuroimaging studies show that the insula is activated by disgusting smells and disgusting tastes,” said the post, noting the fallacy behind reverse inference, the assumption that “because a brain region is activated by emotion X, then activation there always means that emotion is being felt. Going from activation to emotion is the wrong direction”. Today, Lindstrom admits that “there was not one region which was absolutely indicating people are affected by cigarette-related signals. The outcome of Buyology was accurate, but we now know it’s a much more complex situation that is spread across the whole brain.”
Where Lindstrom’s managed to save face, neuromarketing experts’ overpromises and under-delivery, twinned with then unreliable and unsophisticated EEG (electroencephalography, a technology that records electrical activity along the scalp) and facial coding measurement technologies, made for untrustworthy outcomes that only “become significant once you’ll have conducted so many studies that will allow you to compare data sets with previous ones,” explains De Munnik. As such, they’ve only highlighted the shortcomings of the field and fed skepticism around its credibility.
In the public – even industry – eye, the field has been reduced to a separatist group of mad scientists in white coats and big labs experimenting on unsuspecting consumers, but Lindstrom safely bets that least 72 percent of Fortune 1,000 brands in the world are “using neuromarketing, and that 90 percent are using subconscious research in one way or another. Companies have the tendency not to tell about it because they’re afraid of backlash in the press and media”. Van Praet adds: “What’s mired the whole industry is that people are seeing these tools as weapons of influence, rather than ones that would serve for product and concept development.” In this regard, the industry’s shot itself in the foot by inflating its mind-reading abilities. But, it has somewhat readjusted its posture with the setup of a regulatory body, the Neuromarketing Science and Business Association, which has put in place a code of ethics for member companies and experts – including none other than Morin and De Munnik.
More alarming concerns are raised by marketers around neuromarketing’s characteristically small “quality” samples – typically a dozen of brain scans per experiment – vis-à-vis the large quantity samples of traditional surveys and focus groups. Lindstrom likes to compare a sample of 50 “right people” to a “drop of blood” in a blood test that is indicative of the entirety of the body, while the “quality of what you can get from 10,000 [participants] is, quite often, useless”. Digging further into the psyche of the clients themselves, De Munnik attributes their distrust to “them being consumers”, and finding it hard to swallow that “we all have the same brain. We have the idea that we are unique. ‘How can you measure 24 people and understand a whole population?’, [they think].”
But, while traditional research companies and marketers had steered clear from the disruptive science guys, and the latter had kept coy to make room for trial, error and cautious growth, De Munnik says, in the past five years, Millward Brown has been using facial coding, Nielsen has been experimenting with EEG and, Dooley claims, “two years ago, Coca-cola said it would incorporate a neuromarketing element in all new campaigns it launched”. Some big brands such as Microsoft and Siemens are already testing the waters, says Morin, while De Munnik’s early adopters were “banks, insurance companies and service providers, for the simple reason that their product is not tangible”.
Morin initially faced reluctance – and even some animosity – from ad agencies advocating big ideas and intuitive concepts, but, the latter “is being asked questions by their own clients” on the validity of their ideas. As is the case with anything, “if you bring good news, everybody’s happy,” says De Munnik. Ever since it started back-testing and assessing the effectiveness of Effie Awards’ campaigns – and, by default, predicting their winning chances – by identifying common patterns of brain activation among the winning ones, Neurensics has gained favor with agencies, joining pitches for “expert opinions”, and even testing for concepts before they are pitched. It now benchmarks ads and concepts against the “neural signature” of Effie hits to predict either their likeability or sales effectiveness. This confluence of science and commercial viability should also be validated by academia research, whereby “various university labs are now coining the industry with ‘neuroeconomics’,” says Dooley. In theory, it should also help in honing the understanding of the neuromarketing field, which has been wrongly defined “as a testing system for persuasion tactics, rather than as an insights tool [into human behavior and psyche],” explains Van Praet, clarifying that: “You don’t have to do brain scans to do neuromarketing. You can just apply the principles of how the human mind works.”
Still, neuromarketing skeptics would argue that the field’s after-the-fact role – whereby it only assesses already paid-for and developed concepts – has played against its adoption, especially by budget-tight clients. But, Morin and peers are keen on disputing this reverse-engineering function. “Neuromarketing has split itself into two directions: one is a functional type of format, where it’s used to create product design, the other one is a breakdown of tools which we’ll use to obtain information we could not before,” explains Lindstrom. Referring to a study SalesBrain recently conducted for money transfer provider Wafacash in Morocco, where it used technologies in facial imaging – which interprets facial expressions for emotional analysis – and voice analysis, Morin claims his company’s been able to instruct other agencies in Morocco on how future campaigns should be.
Clients don’t want to incur sunk costs, adds De Munnik, “and they are right. They’d rather spend $10 million on airing a commercial that doesn’t work, than throw away the commercial”. At Neurensics, De Munnik has identified TVCs that “are damaging the brand. As a previous adman, I thought it was about likeability and engagement. Sales is none of those two. Sales is about desire, expectation and trust”. And, in this regard, studies such as Neurensics’ could at least help agencies and clients re-edit TVCs, take out scenes and reshuffle stills – if not scrap them altogether.
“EEG, fMRI and biometrics [which study the physiological responses of humans to stimuli] are expensive [and complex] to set up. We won’t [get near] a neuromarketing project using biometrics if clients don’t have at least $50,000 to spare,” assures Morin, because such a project eats up not only time, but a lot of computing power – nearly four terabytes of data per subject – for an hour of biometric research. SalesBrain’s charges per project range somewhere between $35,000 and $225,000 for biometrics, $10,000 and $20,000 for facial imaging, $55,000 and $180,000 for EEG combined with ET (eye-tracking), and $15,000 and $35,000 for voice analysis. Morin is rather surprised that De Munnik would charge as low as EUR5,000 for pre- and post-testing a campaign via fMRI. The latter explains: “We buy time, not scanners.”
As cutting edge as it may be, fMRI has not proven particularly friendly toward both researchers and subjects.“You have to wonder if the protocol itself is going to generate a lot of anxiety and stress for people undergoing it,” Morin explains. It also leaves great room for misinterpretation, much like in Lindstrom’s insula incident. “If you notice that the amygdala part of the brain is lighting up to a certain stimuli, the conditions around this activity could be many. It could be a threat, it could be happiness.” It could be very complicated.
While fMRI’s proven useful for the likes of Google – enabling the engine’s capabilities in identifying and mining similar images to those that are dropped in its search box – says Lindstrom, has reduced “technical noise,” adds De Munnik, and has neared “mind-reading” in the works of academic researchers at Carnegie-Mellon and Stanford, according to Dooley, EEG is gaining favor as a more user-friendly, timely measurement technology. As it looks at the cortical activity at the scalp level, “particularly in the frontal lobe, where we use the part of the brain to pay attention, formulate and calculate, you can have a good correlation between the activity you pick up and how much people are thinking and predicting. Those questions in advertising such as: ‘to which extent are people imagining their future using the product?’ can be answered at speeds of 10,000 times per second,” explains Morin.
As 3D-imaging and sharpened time and spatial resolutions for brain scans are zeroing in on neurons, so are neuromarketing companies. Neurensics’ 3D Brain Rating tool measures the “judgement” of the brain across 13 different emotional dimensions divided into four categories: the personal appeal, the overall impact, and the positive and negative emotions that a stimulus evokes. The agency is working on 3D Mind Mapping, through which, it claims, it can create mood boards as associations with a certain stimuli.
However, efforts to make neuromarketing technology more scalable have been lukewarm at best. EEG helmets with as few as six electrodes that have been introduced as alternatives to clinical helmets – which can have as many as 256 electrodes – might be more convenient, but not nearly as accurate, assures Morin. In 2011, Mynd, dubbed the world’s first portable wireless EEG scanner, claimed it could capture, amplify and instantaneously dispatch “a subject’s brain waves in real time via Bluetooth to another device – a remote laptop, say, an iPhone, or that much-beloved iPad,” reported Fast Company at the time. “[A.K] Pradeep, [founder and CEO of NeuroFocus, the company behind Mynd], eventually sold to Nielsen and has disappeared. His vision was to sell neuromarketing labs to clients. I think he did manage to do that to Kodak, and maybe Coca-Cola, the idea being that these companies should have their own EEG systems. It was not a successful business model,” says Morin. He mentions another company that wanted to create a panel of 30,000 people “who would agree to wear goofy helmets all day. Of course, that vision was flawed”.
While great leaps in technology make the backbone of sciences such as neuromarketing, the combination of tools – both physical and analytical – to interpret the data it generates will dictate its future direction. Neurensics, for instance, have been cross-checking fMRI with online implicit association test – in social psychology, the test identifies automatic associations of objects and people in subjects’ mental memory – for some campaigns. “One of the criticisms of EEG has been: ‘we know the ad is creating an emotional peak, but we don’t know what the emotion is’,” Dooley simply puts it.
On combining neuromarketing research technologies, Morin refers to the Wafacash study, which relied on online voice analysis and facial imaging studies to capture data. He’s currently partnering with Dr Paul Zak, TED speaker and neuroeconomist, to better hone SalesBrain’s biometric offering, which involves GSR (galvanic skin response), heart rate and respiration tracking. He says: “The most important signal in process we need to examine is at a very primal instinctual level. What interests me in biometrics in this regard is that we measure activity that corresponds to emotional directions, as in, people either like something and they want to approach it, or don’t like it and want to avoid it.”
On the push toward biometrics, Van Praet mentions Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and facial imaging expert whose work inspired hit crime drama show Lie To Me – where Doctor Cal Lightman serves as a human lie detector by decoding criminals’ facial expressions. Lindstrom’s heard of biometric experiments to study “how people are lining up in the Disney world theme parks’ queues”, while Dooley says that Texas-based neuroresearch company and equipment supplier Sands Research is simultaneously using EEG, biometrics and eye-tracking tools in its projects.
The coming together of technology and human sciences has trickled down to even mass consumer products, bringing forth new theories on cognitive and emotional theories – and naturally, new insights. Take, for example, Moodies, an app that was launched in January 2014 by Beyond Verbal (a company that specializes in voice analysis), and that is available for download for iOS users. Its response analysis draws upon “18 years of research by physicists and neuropsychologists, who studied more than 70,000 test subjects in more than 30 languages”, reports The Next Web (not nearly enough subjects, it seems, as when Communicate tested the app, it came out “happy” and “in love”. We can assure that is not the case). Moodies is no more than a modern interpretation of a theory in 2012 by Erik du Plessis – then chairman of Millward Brown South Africa – that claimed that the creative industry should focus on understanding people’s moods, rather than on EEG and GSR results.
Theories in neuromarketing have, indeed, come to focus on the volatile nature of human beings. De Munnik explains: “Being in love is a feeling. It’s very difficult to describe. But, specific and isolated emotions that are evoking the feeling – desire, lust, fear, danger – can be measured by fMRI.” And while he insists that small sample sizes are enough to predict the behavior of groups of people, he admits that there is a notable difference between genders, age groups – seven years plus or minus the target category – culture and, naturally, users, non-users and buyers in responding to marketing stimuli. In the age of seeming consumer alertness to advertising and growing anti-consumerist sentiment, Morin does not “believe for a minute” that people are more aware of advertising around them. Contrarily, “our own attention has been fragmented by the addictive use of devices, which further reduces our ability to dedicate conscious attention”.
Not all technology is bad, of course. Wearables remain largely untapped by neuromarketers, but, one can only draw a logical connection between devices that are constantly, not to mention willingly, connected to consumers’ brains and bodies, and a science that wants to do just that. “That’s another crossover. With wearables, you have access to consumer behavior. That’s big data. In the future, it will be a combo of brain data and big data. That will be the holy grail,” says De Munnik. Neurensics is building up brain data at the moment, for which it needs approximately 50,000 to 100,000 scans, while it currently conducts 1,000 a year. Ekman, Morin claims, is developing software that will be available on Google Glass, “the idea being that it could be used by people to immediately decode emotion”. What’s more, Morin says that eye-tracking devices, “which were very difficult to calibrate, and now can be worn just like the Google Glass”, as well as biometric devices that can now be set up wirelessly, will only take the crossover between wearables and neuromarketing further.
However, an industry that’s long been misperceived to engage in mind control might want to steer clear from some alarmingly invasive wearable technologies; think Thync, which, worn similarly to an EEG helmet, uses ultrasound waves and electricity to temporarily alter a person’s mood – and has raised $13 million, reports Tech Crunch – or even Argodesign’s Oujiband, an electronic wristband that refines fine motor movements. De Munnik insists that most of these technologies work – if at all – only on the muscles and that they are unlikely to pick up traction in the near term, when even Google Glass hasn’t. “We’re entering a territory that is very complex. It [this technology] appears to me highly unethical. But, the clinical aspect of these devices makes a lot of sense to me,” adds Morin.
Lindstrom is not sold on wearables at large, let alone on their integration in neuromarketing. “It’s nice, it’s neat, but it’s not necessary. I actually see it as a fad. Now, when it comes to merging big data with neuroscience, yes, you can do that. But, there’s a limit to how far you can go and should go.” He predicts a future where “consumers will be asked to be researchers for or with the brand, and will get something out of it”, such as discounts and freebies, while Morin adds: “As technology becomes more portable, it is conceivable that neuromarketing will be able to create networks of participants who will agree to report that they are watching an ad, while carrying a wearable device.”
Van Praet envisions neuromarketing to bring together technology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to give people “actionable tools for management and consulting in the face of business challenges”. Because anything else would be creepy, really.