A few years ago, Frito-Lay spot-tested an ad featuring two women in a laundromat. One woman callously steals the only available washing machine. Frustrated, the other exacts her revenge: she dumps Cheetos into the thief’s dryer full of white clothes.
Focus groups hated the ad and criticized it as mean-spirited. Judging from their emotional reactions, marketers thought the spot might yield negative brand associations if aired. But in a different kind of test group — one in which participants had electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors strapped to their heads — it evoked an extremely positive response. According to the group’s brain activity, women found the ad particularly hilarious, even if they weren’t saying so.
Frito-Lay decided to place its faith in brain scans and air the ad. The “Orange Underground” campaign went on to help NeuroFocus, the company that conducted the EEG research, earn a Grand Ogilvy award. (Since then, NeuroFocus has become a Nielsen subsidiary.)
Frito-Lay isn’t the only multinational to invest in neuromarketing research. Intel, PepsiCo, and Google have all paid millions for a peek into their customers’ brains. And as the technology becomes more portable and powerful, more than 100 neuromarketing companies have sprung up worldwide.
Offering unprecedented access to a futuristic kind of consumer data, the neuromarketing revolution is in full swing. Amidst all the sci-fi excitement, however, much of the marketing world is forgetting to ask a key question: How can we effectively use this data?
Discovering the Truth
The divide between what consumers say and how they actually behave has confounded marketers for decades.
The claim that electroencephalograms (EEG) and functional MRIs provide access into the “truth” — that is, the real motivation behind a consumer’s behavior — is a tantalizing prospect. It could also be unsubstantiated and misleading if generalized. Inexpensive brain scanning technology has unleashed a flood of new data, but few marketers are equipped with the tools and expertise to analyze it.
When there’s hype, it often pays to be skeptical. However, it would be shortsighted to dismiss neuromarketing’s potential power. Brain scans can be a source of useful information, provided that you know how to analyze and apply the data.
Understanding the Limitations
Neuromarketing research does not yield quantitative data. Because you can’t strap an EEG apparatus to thousands of subjects at the same time, the sample sizes are too small. Without larger and more diverse testing groups, these studies should be viewed as qualitative. And while qualitative feedback is important, it could be misleading if it’s your only source of information.
Here are four limitations to consider when evaluating neuromarketing research:
1. The Hawthorne effect
Research subjects know they’re being observed, and this awareness can alter their experience. For example, a participant may have a meta-observation about being enclosed in a functional MRI (fMRI) machine. The resulting positive or negative emotion researchers observe would be unrelated to the marketing and misleading. Even with a high-tech brain-scanning apparatus, the Hawthorne effect can mask a subject’s true feelings and motivations.
2. The observer-expectancy effect
Despite their best attempts to be neutral, researchers will always provide subtle verbal and nonverbal cues to subjects. Like the Hawthorne effect, this can influence a subject’s thoughts and behaviors. All good researchers are conscious of how difficult it is to avoid influencing test subjects.
3. Limited sample sizes
The neural patterns you observe in a study are only valid for the small number of people you’re testing. Every brain is different. What’s true for one person won’t hold true for the rest of the population. We still know so little about how the brain really works, and much of the research being done is still exploratory.
4. Sampling and self-selection biases
The people who sign up for your research may not represent an accurate cross-section of your customer base. And if your target audience won’t participate, you’ll never get the data you really need.
Don’t get me wrong; neuromarketing can be very useful. But it only reaches its potential if you acknowledge and accept these limitations. Otherwise, you’ll be forcing the data to do something it can’t, which can derail your marketing strategy.
Maximizing Value Through Hypothesis Testing
How can you effectively integrate neuroscience data into your campaigns? The information you receive may be fascinating, but is it actionable? Consider your goals to determine your data’s value.
As evidence-based marketers, formulating hypotheses about the end user is a central component of the ongoing testing process. Qualitative feedback and research studies can help us form better hypotheses. And it is here that neurological research can provide a unique, valuable glimpse into the consumer mindset.
When combined with traditional data collection methods, EEG and fMRI scans can be powerful tools for creating hypotheses. These hypotheses can then be thoroughly tested, which is key to understanding customer prospects and reaching conversion. In this way, neuro research can help in developing hypotheses at an early stage of a campaign’s development.
For instance, researchers at Princeton recently studied how telling stories affected the brain patterns between a storyteller and listener. They found that when the listener was paying attention to the story, the brainwaves of the two participants became synchronized. In evaluating data like this, you should:
- Evaluate the data’s practicality. It may indicate the power of storytelling in marketing messages, but will telling a story communicate the necessary information to your audience?
- Create a potential strategy. This data could inspire a hypothesis that communicating your value proposition using a story-based copywriting approach or testimonials may work better than a straight listing of features and benefits. Can your hypothesis become an actual strategy?
- Collect reliable data. Your best hypotheses aren’t actionable until you test them. Storytelling might not be the best approach for a specific campaign. Your data will reflect the success or failure of your proposed explanation.
If you act too early based on limited or misinterpreted data, neuromarketing studies are not only ineffective — they’re damaging. Implementing a reliable conversion optimization testing system based on solid hypotheses and reliable testing mechanisms will hedge against the risks of chasing bad data.
Before dismissing your great idea for the next campaign, ad, or website landing page, make sure you don’t rely solely on qualitative data. By incorporating current neuroscience studies and other qualitative data to form hypotheses, you can begin testing these hypotheses thoroughly and interpreting the results to maximize your conversion optimization and create your next breakthrough campaign.