Neuromarketing – ten years later

Dalibor Šumiga Behavioral marketing/Neuromarketing, Marketing

After a two and a half year break, the Neuromarketing World Forum (NMWF) returns. In my subjective opinion, with Shopper Brain, NMWF is the only relevant conference in the world on neuromarketing.

Ahead of the conference, it is good to check where neuromarketing currently stands as an industry after a two and a half turbulent pandemic years.
It’s no secret that a large number of neuromarketing companies have closed their doors, both due to the high cost of maintaining expensive hardware and software or due to the fact that live research during the lockdown has almost completely stopped.

In the Adriatics, the situation was no different. Promosapiens remained practically the only serious provider of neuromarketing research services.
With the exception of those few months of heavy lockdown, the rest of the time we worked normally; the only additions were masks, increased disinfection of the spaces and stricter screening of respondents.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to see serious neuromarketing research at least once, knows how rigorous the protocols were before the pandemic regarding disinfection of equipment and preparation of respondents, so pandemic measures were not new to us.

So, when we draw the line on the last 10 years or so, since the stronger media hype about neuromarketing started, where do we stand today?

01) We did not find a “buy button” in the brains of customers

There has never been a “buy button”, but the sensationalist promotion of certain brands has led to the lie almost becoming true.
The consequence of sensationalist headlines in the media that we can read minds or  that we can activate the “buy button” in the customer’s brain, led to the fact that many brand managers were disappointed when they finally got ordinary graphs in the report showing the results of individual ads, packaging, logos .
They were expecting fireworks, amazing images from the darkest corners of the human brain, and all they go was this:

Somehow, both neuromarketers and brand managers missed the fact that the main goal of the research is to answer crucial business questions, and only secondarily to have cool visuals for PR purposes.
We have forgotten that one graph showing aggregated human brain measurement data can be worth millions of dollars when a decision is made to launch an ad, a new packaging design, or a new slogan.
We have forgotten that neuromarketing is not a game but a serious research.

02) Eye tracking and facial coding have become the most popular methods

Due to simple interpretation, time savings and performance costs, eye tracking and facial coding have become extremely popular methods, although research has given the greatest predictive value to the EEG from the very beginning.

Eye tracking, as you can see in this example, is (seemingly) very easy to interpret.
I say seemingly because the interpretation of visual attention is not that simple as it is presented.

The reason for the popularity of facial coding, in addition to being also very easy to interpret, lies in the fact that there is a large amount of open source code that anyone can implement. That means we also have a large number of companies boasting to read emotions through facial micro expressions.

The problem lies in the fact that each software has its own level of sensitivity to these microexpressions and it is obvious that some data is read incorrectly.
At Promosapiens, we use one of the most advanced facial coding software and here’s what facial emotion coding looks like compared to EEG (brain measurement) while a person is watching an ad.

This straight line is facial expression, and the graph above is the reaction of the brain. The difference is more than obvious, but a large number of neuromarketing companies want to impress customers with a large number of sensors. The problem arises when it is necessary to interpret data, and you have sensors that have low or no predictive value in research.

03) In the desire to scale, we sacrificed accuracy….

The problem of facial coding has not only stopped at predictive value. In the last few years, software that offers both online eye tracking and online facial coding has become popular.Therefore, it is not necessary to bring the respondents to one location, but their reactions are recorded via webcam.
Even the manufacturer of this software distance themselves from accuracy, some are even so fair as to state that practically a large percentage of recordings are unusable (the number is around 70%), but there are also a large number of companies that sell eye tracking + facial coding as an ideal solution for predicting advertising results, packaging perceptions, etc.
We have completely rejected the accuracy and scientific rigor that we have been so proud of.


04) We continue to mix explicit and implicit…

It is logical that  large research agencies which have embraced neuromarketing cannot publicly say that neuromarketing is a substitute for traditional research. And so we come to the point where everyone is communicating that neuromarketing is just an addition to traditional research.
This thesis has no basis in practice and I will show you this with a very specific example:

  • Imagine doing research that uses both neuro and traditional survey.
  • The aim of the research is to test whether the new product design provokes a stronger positive reaction than the old design; the decision about a change of the packaging worth $20 million will be made based on the results of the research
  • Neuro research shows that new design provokes a negative reaction from customers, but survey shows that customers like the new design

How would you make a $20 million decision from the case above to change the packaging? Would you trust neuro research? You chose it because you heard it was more accurate.
Or would you believe the survey because you personally believed the new design was good?

This is a rhetorical question, but you can find the answer in countless examples in which brands pulled a product off the shelves because they trusted focus groups and classic surveys.

05) We still don’t have universal metrics….

If you show a graph like this to a client, which shows positive subconscious motivation for the ads shown, how will the client determine which of these values ​​is excellent and which is reliable?
Which number on the scale represents an extremely high positive result?

In the last few years, I have seen maybe 2-3 neuromarketing companies that, like us, have decided to create a benchmark scale that can define what is extremely good and what is an extremely bad result.
And we are not talking here about a benchmark scale that you create by testing hundreds or thousands of ads telling each new client: “your ad is among the top 10 ads we tested.”
I’m talking about a real benchmark scale created based on a universal measure of human motivation and market response modeling.
So, there are only a few of us in the world who have spent both time and resources to make a proper benchmark scale.
It would be ideal for our industry if there was a universal scale, but there is still no will or financial resources for this solution.

06) We still don’t practice what we preach…

At the last NMWF in Rome, on my way back to the hotel from a gala dinner, I heard a conversation behind my back in which a lady unknown to me said something like this: “This is my second time listening to these speakers and I really want to give them a chance because I think neuromarketing is the future, but when I see their slides, I just get lost. They do not speak the language of their potential customers… ”

Imagine experts, scientists and marketers giving a lecture on cognitive load, System 1 and fast information processing, all accompanied by 10 bullet slides.
How will customers trust us if we do not know how to apply knowledge from neuroscience?

07) Hypotheses are made after research…

In most cases, the interpretation of the results is still subject to the search for “peaks” in the results and their subjective interpretation.
Hypotheses are not set in advance, instead only after the results are seen, conclusions are drawn that could be interesting to the client.

08) There are no concrete answers to business questions…

Imagine a scenario in which you get the following conclusion from the research results: “Research has shown that your ad provokes a positive brain reaction in the first 5 seconds, but somewhat weaker in the last 5 seconds. The ad is generally positive…..
Eye tracking shows us that the respondents pay special attention when a bear, a bird and the sun appear in the frame, which tells us that your customers love nature. When it comes to facial coding, ad evokes feelings of happiness for 15 seconds and excitement for 30 seconds, which tells us that they like the message you communicated in the 15th and 30th seconds.”

Although I exaggerated this interpretation a bit, it is actually very close to the typical reports that say a lot, but don’t really say anything.
Based on a report like this, how would you make a business decision on whether to invest a million dollars in a new ATL campaign that includes a tested ad?

09) Sample size is still adjusted to the budget…

A significant number of clients who had experience in neuromarketing research before working with us told us that neuroscientists they had previously worked with told them that 10 respondents was enough to get valid results.
Anyone who is serious about research knows that this is absolute nonsense.
Why did researchers, and even neuroscientists, lie to clients?
Because of the budget… The client set the budget and the neuroscientists calculated what they could offer while maintaining their profit margin.
This is a direct violation of every professional and ethical code of industry and is still very common….

10) Clients want confirmation of their beliefs….

This is one of the biggest problems of the research industry – a large number of brand managers pay for research just to confirm their beliefs. In psychology, we call this a confirmation bias.

I myself have had the opportunity to see clients thrilled with our research, but mostly in situations where the results match what they expected.
It is a completely wrong view of both business and research.
Many times I was disappointed with the results, but I accepted them as they are, grateful to have received an insight that helps me fix what is wrong or prepare for the consequences of poor advertising or poor product positioning.

The sensationalism and media hype surrounding neuromarketing, as well as the need for all parties involved to get only the results they like do not diminish the importance of neuromarketing in the future of the research and marketing industry.
To paraphrase the statement of the famous comedian Ricky Gervais: “if we took all the scientific papers today and destroyed them, we would get the same papers again in a hundred years.”
Why? Because science follows facts, not subjective opinions.

Business, just like science, does not look at one’s subjective opinion but at numbers.
If you think you can hide behind beautiful figures forever, remember the words of John Maynard Keynes: 

“The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”