How analysing the consumer brain provides key marketing insights

Understanding how the brain processes information can provide marketers with valuable insights into what sells

Spot the difference. It’s easy, right? Now put yourself in the shoes of a marketer at Betty Crocker. Which do you choose to promote your new pie?

Reproduced by permission of Ryan Elder, Brigham Young University, from his paper The “Visual Depiction Effect” in Advertising
Reproduced by permission of Ryan Elder, Brigham Young University, from his paper The “Visual Depiction Effect” in Advertising

Delving into consumers’ brains can help. Research with these adverts show that 20 per cent more people would buy the one on the right than the one on the left. Yet if you ask them why, they cannot tell you. The pie looks equally appealing, as it should given that the image has just been flipped.

A growing number of companies selling consumer goods are employing neuroscientists to find out why this should be. Phil Barden of specialist neuromarketing consultancy Decode, which works with a number of big brands, explains that consumer behaviour is guided by both functional and neuropsychological goals.

For a watch, the functional goal is to know what the time is; for a car, it might be getting from A to B. “If functional goals were all we based our decisions on, we would all buy the same brand of car or watch because they would all do the same job,” says Mr Barden. “Of course we don’t.”

This is where neuropsychological goals come in and adverts for washing powder are a good place to see this in action. Consider the parental dilemma involved in allowing your children to go out to play and get dirty, and the knowledge that this will create more work for you.

“Persil relieves that tension with their ‘dirt is good’ adverts,” says Mr Barden. “The parent is getting psychological relief that they are doing their job properly by letting their children get filthy and the brand comes to the rescue.”

Consumer bias

The problem for marketers is that consumers typically cannot explain why they make such decisions or, if they can, are unwilling to say because it might portray them badly.

Harder still to understand are consumers with biases of which they may not even be aware.

Neuromarketing companies get around this by using implicit association tests. In these, you might be shown a product image and a word, such as freedom or success. You are asked to press a key quickly to indicate whether the two are a good fit. The reaction time is used to decide whether the decision was a conscious one.

Neuroscientists have known for years that our brains work in ways that subtly influence our behaviour as consumers. Professor Franz-Rudolf Esch of the Institute for Brand and Communication Research in Germany carried out a groundbreaking study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, the sort you might undergo to detect cancer, to show how the brain reacts to brands.

His research showed that strong brands light up the part of the brain associated with information retrieval. “Strong brands have a clear identity and focus: their positioning is consistent across touchpoints over many years and [is] communicated effectively,” says Professor Esch. “[They] simplify the customer decision-making process by reducing cognitive load… Customers know exactly what the brand stands for and how the brand can add value to their lives.”

Applying neuroscience to adverts

Advertisers have not stopped at using fMRI to gain insights into consumer behaviour. A company called Neuro-Insight is using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure people’s brain waves in real time as they watch adverts.

The company worked with Birds Eye to try to understand why one of its adverts was not working as intended. “They had created a TV ad which had done well in traditional focus groups, but the brand linkage was very low,” says Neuro-Insight’s Heather Andrew. “People would say they knew the ad, but couldn’t remember what is was for or got the wrong brand.”

Using EEG, Neuro-Insight showed that the part of the brain responsible for encoding long-term memories – anything longer than a few minutes – was not being activated when the Birds Eye brand was shown.

After studying the brain waves of a focus group, the Neuro-Insight team realised there was a build-up of tension where the visual action froze as the camera panned around, rather like in the actions scenes in The Matrix, while the Birds Eye branding was presented. Yet at the same time as this was happening, the voiceover and soundtrack continued.

Neuro-Insight recommended recutting the ad, stopping the soundtrack at the frozen moment before transitioning to images of a fish moving in the ocean while the voiceover said, “Birds Eye fish”.

Ms Andrew says just 8 per cent of viewers were able to identify the brand in the first version of the ad, but after recutting that increased to 44 per cent. Brand share increased by seven percentage points on only half the ad spend.

Neuromarketing studies human cognitive responses to stimuli in an attempt to create effective commercial campaigns

Neuromarketing techniques

Neuroscience can be used to look beyond the obvious. In 1990, a diet margarine brand in Germany ran an advert featuring a woman in a red dress and carrying a Filofax. She catches a glimpse of herself in a reflection and smiles. “Even though you had no explicit information, everyone recognised her as a successful, professional person,” says Decode’s Mr Barden.

The product became the market leader on the back of the ad, but in the years that followed competitors came into the market and its share declined. In a bid to regain its market leadership, the company tried to update the original ad. A new version aired in 2007 showing another woman in a red dress in a lift at work, again catching sight of her reflection. It failed to repeat the earlier ad’s success.

For right-handed people, having the fork on the right-hand side makes the image easier to process because the brain imagines reaching for the fork

The manufacturer wanted to understand why and asked Decode to find out why. “Although both dresses were red, the first was more formal. The model in the follow-up looked younger and had a ponytail.

Implicitly, this indicated that this was someone who was not as senior in the hierarchy,” says Mr Barden.

The second woman was shown carrying a shoulder bag. Viewers took this to mean she was off for lunch with friends rather than a business meeting. They also thought that the look she gave herself was one of self-examination rather than one of looking and feeling good.

Now back to the Betty Crocker pie. It turns out that for right-handed people, having the fork on the right-hand side makes the image easier to process because the brain imagines reaching for the fork. As a result, the relative scarcity of left-handed consumers translates directly into fewer sales.

The brain works in mysterious ways, but neuromarketing techniques are beginning to give brands powerful insights.