Magazine article Marketing

Market Research: Mind Reading

Magazine article Marketing

Market Research: Mind Reading

Article excerpt

The use of neuroscience in marketing offers advertisers unique access to consumers' brains. David Tiltman reports.

'They don't just want your money. They want your brain.' This headline from The Independent on Sunday summed up the controversy surrounding the fledgling research discipline of neuromarketing. The fact that it appeared in a national newspaper at all demonstrates the technique's rising profile.

The newspaper's story detailed a study by Viacom Brand Solutions, one of a growing number of companies adopting brain-scanning technology as a consumer insight tool. As the headline shows, the technique lends itself to images of Big Brother-style mind control - US organisation Commercial Alert, co-founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, has even demanded a Senate inquiry into the practice.

Given the current state of neuroscience, there is little to justify these fears. The discipline is much more advanced than a decade ago, but nobody claims to have found a specific 'buy button' in the brain, let alone a way for marketers to push it.

That said, the findings of neuroscientists are important for the research industry. The discovery that emotion plays a far stronger role in decision-making than previously thought has made researchers eager to find techniques that can get beyond the rational responses of consumers to investigate the emotional impulses that underpin them.

Inside the mind

Brain scanning is at the vanguard of this trend. In recent years it has left the confines of the hospital or laboratory and become a commercial research tool. There are now a number of companies on both sides of the Atlantic claiming to offer clients the ultimate in research: to get inside their customers' minds.

There has been no shortage of clients experimenting with the techniques in their search for an advantage over competitors. Several major FMCG firms have used it for advertising and concept testing - for example, Kimberly-Clark is planning a study in the US and Europe early next year. Motor firms have used it to research car designs, and food manufacturers to test smells and flavours.

In the past year, the technique has generated plenty of discussion within the research community, but little agreement. For its advocates, it offers the chance to get a 'clean read' of a consumer's response to a stimulus, untainted by hidden agendas or interviewer bias.

For its detractors, neuromarketing is little more than a way to extract money from gullible clients by blinding them with science.

Two types of scanning are currently on offer as market research tools. One is fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which involves a large, immobile scanner. The other is a variant of EEG (electroencephalography), which has evolved into a highly portable mechanism, small enough to fit inside a hat, that measures electrical activity in the brain. Both have their pros and cons: fMRI offers a far more detailed scan than EEG, but subjects must stay in the lab. EEG can be taken to a consumer's natural habitat, such as a home or shopping centre. It also provides many more readings per second, making it easier to see exactly when changes in brain activity occur.

Cost vs benefit

Neither comes cheap. Although EEG costs less than fMRI, a basic study using either runs into tens of thousands of pounds. Both require a skilled neuroscientists to interpret the data. A scan can only show that the brain is active, not why it is active, so standard research is also needed, which adds to the cost.

The question is whether brain scanning can generate insight beyond the reach of traditional studies, and whether that extra insight is worth the considerable expense.

Sarah Langan, Kimberly-Clark's insight director for Europe, hopes the company's trial of EEG, to be conducted by UK firm Neuroco, will complement its existing consumer insight research. …

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