What is just hype and what is the real potential of neuroscience to improve marketing practice? MSI asked two marketing thought leaders for their perspectives.
|Bob Woodard is Vice President of Global Consumer and Customer Insights at Campbell Soup Company. At Campbell he has led several efforts using neuroscience techniques to understand more deeply the consumer’s response to key marketing initiatives.
Baba Shiv is Sanwa Bank, Limited, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. His research focuses on neuroeconomics, specifically the role of the brain’s “liking” and “wanting” systems in shaping decisions and consumption experiences and memories.
Below is an edited version of several conversations.
MSI: Why is neuroscience receiving so much attention now?
Bob Woodard: Companies are competing for every consumer’s purchases. We are all trying to drive purchase behaviors in a way that disrupts routine or habitual patterns in a very competitive, cluttered world of products and services. The engine for habitual responses is emotion, so understanding the emotional response to stimuli becomes particularly important.
Practitioners can use neuroscience methods to understand and measure, without interference from the rational mind, the underlying consumer responses to marketing stimuli. Combining eye tracking with one of the neuroscience technologies—we frequently use biometrics and pupil measurement in our work—marketers can uncover great insights about visual and audio-visual stimuli, like TV and print ads, as well as in-store shelving and merchandising. Also, it is often very desirable to complement these methods with marketing research tools that, while not neuroscience methods in the strict sense, are grounded in learning from neuroscience. These tools include the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), as well as those that capture implicit consumer knowledge, such as response latency.
Baba Shiv: I get calls from the media all the time, usually about a research study involving fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging], a specialized type of MRI scan that measures change in blood flow related to neural activity in the brain. There’s a fascination about these images of the human brain with certain areas lighting up. There’s a feeling out there: “It is scary to know that you guys know so much about the working of the human brain.” But in fact, the amount you can learn from fMRI studies is pretty small—given the limitations of fMRI (several repetitions of stimuli for each subject, resulting in the loss of novelty, the constraints imposed on test-subjects to avoid motion artifacts, etc.)
MSI: What does neuroscience reveal about the brain that can help us better understand consumer behavior and improve marketing?
Baba Shiv: Decision neuroscience, which some people call neuroeconomics, is the study of how the brain computes value related to a brand’s customer value proposition. The most important components that evaluate value are the medial orbitofrontal cortex and the ventral striatum.
The medial orbitofrontal cortex is like a steering wheel that helps us navigate across various options in the decision phase of the decision-maker’s journey and arrive at confident decisions. Should I buy X or Y? Should I go to the party or stay at home? Should I study or watch TV? Stroke patients or others who have damage to this area are unable to arrive at confident decisions and behave as the proverbial Buridan’s ass (presented with two bales of hay of equal size, an ass starved itself to death because it just could not decide which way to go). The steering wheel and, thus, decision confidence is absent, resulting in a constant state of ambivalence translating to reduced loyalty, increased tendency to switch, etc.
The second area is the ventral striatum, which is rich in dopamine receptors. People have called this the pleasure center of the brain, but it is actually the anticipated pleasure center of the brain. I think of this brain area as the gas pedal of a car, because this is what engages the consumer after he or she has made a decision.
As an example, if I tell you the price of a bottle of wine that you’re going to consume, that will trigger expectations. If the wine is high-priced, it will taste better, right? Indeed! When you consume the wine, it tastes better because that “liking” area of the brain, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, has been sensitized by the “wanting” system, the ventral striatum. The wine that is higher priced is going to be coded, at a neural level, as more pleasurable than the lower priced wine.
To me, one of the biggest advantages of neuroscience is to generate such novel hypotheses and provide support to such hypotheses. We could never have made such conceptual arguments if we didn’t understand the working of the brain.
MSI: How has Campbell Soup Company applied neuroscience-related techniques to improve marketing?
Bob Woodard: Campbell’s first bona fide neuroscience project was conducted for our Pepperidge Farm brand. While the adult consumers recruited for our research viewed the test creative (print executions and animatics for TV), we had a neuroscience firm capture biometric responses, including heart rate, breathing, motion, and skin conductance, and also track eye movement and measure pupil dilation. In addition, we had an interviewer administer a Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique interview (ZMET) to understand more deeply the “why behind the what.” Even though this sounds like a lot of monitoring at one time, it worked exceptionally well for us and produced very useful insights.
In one campaign, a print ad for Milano showed chocolate pouring onto a cookie wafer. We found that at the top of the ad—the starting point of the chocolate pour—there was a strong emotional response. When consumers moved down to where the chocolate touches the wafer and starts to “fold,” there was a strong cognitive response. This in turn led to a strong, combined emotional and cognitive response (a very desirable outcome) further down the ad where the brand name and Pepperidge Farm trademark were. Consumers’ remarks when they saw the close-up of the cookie included things like “It pulled me in” and “I want to eat it now, looks fantastic.”
In contrast, another campaign provided a very different result. This time the top of the print ad showed a small picture of a Pepperidge Farm baker, then a very brief quotation from the baker, and then a larger body of text where the baker elaborated further. After the research, that body of text became known as the “wall of text”; just a few lines into it, consumers’ attention and emotional responses virtually disappeared.
The choice between campaign directions was clear and so were the reasons why and “lessons learned.” We went to market with the first campaign, and our econometric models showed a great ROI on the dollars spent to run this particular creative. This was our first major success story with neuroscience.
We have also used neuroscience methods to understand the effect of package labels and merchandising at the point of sale. Importantly, one of these studies included deep psychological interviews, again to understand better “the why behind the what.” Together the insights from these studies have been exceptionally helpful in developing the latest version of our soup-section merchandising, just introduced into the market this past summer.
MSI: What are some of the limitations of using neuroscience techniques for market research?
Baba Shiv: The use of fMRIs for market research is very constrained. While most consumption experiences are multi-modal, fMRI can be used primarily to study visual and olfactory stimuli. One could investigate gustation, but the limitations are huge (inability to use stimuli that would involve mastication—even carbonated beverages are a no-no, because of the motion artifacts such stimuli will give rise to).
In addition, one cannot really study novel stimuli (new products, new advertising campaigns, etc.) with fMRI. Let’s say, I show you the new iPad in an fMRI. The first time you see it, the brain is going to light up all over the place because it’s exciting and new. The second time, the novelty factor will wear off and by the time you get into the fifth and sixth exposures, you’re not seeing anything happening in the brain because the stimulus is not novel anymore.
For advertising, marketers have moved onto EEG (electroen-
cephalography) as a measurement technique. EEG is good for measuring brain activity at the cortical level; EEG is not good at capturing activation that is taking place in “deep brain” structures such as the ventral striatum. It must be added that EEG is often reasonably good for measuring how engaged a person is when he or she first looks at a novel object.
Some companies have combined EEG with eye tracking. You know exactly what that person is looking at through eye tracking, and simultaneously the EEG is being monitored. Firms are combining EEG, eye tracking, and physiological responses, drawing reasonably solid conclusions.
Bob Woodard: Neuroscience techniques frequently need to be used in combination with other approaches, and I do think that, under any circumstance, having a deep interview at the same time adds great value.
But this kind of work is expensive and typically, for the time being, has to be done with smaller samples. We are not yet at the point where one could easily field a neuroscience “bolt on” (especially with a depth interview) to a traditional study among, say, a thousand respondents. What you can do, however, is use these deeper approaches with a sub-sample of respondents from the traditional study and then either apply the findings diagnostically to the larger study or use them to go beyond the findings of the basic work. While you always want to be careful with small samples, logic suggests that the sources of variation among subjects should become less numerous with deeper, less biased measurements of human response, and that the findings from these studies should be more representative than those from a more traditional study with the same sample size.
Another opportunity for neuroscience-based advertising research is to help marketers understand not only how consumers respond to the advertising as they experience it, but also what “net” emotional reaction they ultimately store in long-term memory about the brand or product. Presumably whatever is stored in the consumer’s long-term memory about the brand is what is most likely to influence a future purchase or usage choice. This is one area where “neuroscience-grounded” techniques like response-latency might be really helpful.
Bottom line, there are a lot of choices and a lot of credible experts who are associated with these tools. Frankly, making the choice among them can be difficult. There is a real need for an objective arbiter who can help practicing researchers and marketers understand the trade-offs among the approaches and select those that are best suited to specific projects. In 2010, The Advertising Research Foundation launched an initiative, of which Campbell is a sponsor, that helps address this need. Their “NeuroStandards Collaboration” project is an objective, expert review of the various approaches (e.g., EEG, biometrics, fMRI, etc.) in a context that will be highly relevant to advertisers (i.e., the performance of sponsors’ own advertising under these approaches). This ARF project will, I believe, help companies make more informed choices in the area of neuroscience-based marketing research and help develop best practices for these new marketing research methods.
MSI: What is the greatest promise of neuroscience for marketing?
Baba Shiv: The biggest learning that comes from understanding the workings of the human brain is to change our mental model of consumers’ behaviors.
In recent years, we have begun to see researchers developing conceptual frameworks that are derived directly from the workings of the brain. The challenge is to provide empirical support to such frameworks. The way I have approached this challenge is to triangulate with different methods. I often test my conceptual frameworks starting off with behavioral studies. If the data turn out to be promising, I will follow up with physiological approaches and only if the data are promising will I finally adopt an fMRI approach.
There is great potential for marketers in leveraging existing techniques, like EEG and facial feature tracking. For example, Google has licensed a facial recognition technology called Neven Vision. From what I understand, Google uses it to test landing pages, capturing about five seconds of video when a stimulus material is flashed on the screen. The technology looks for 22 different points on the face where emotion is manifested.
In the future, you’re going to see the application of neuroscience techniques with a deeper understanding of the workings of the brain, but it’s going to come from diverse technologies, not solely from fMRI. In fact, I would expect to see mobile (phone)-based approaches that gather physiological data in real-time when consumers are evaluating and consuming products and services, data that are going to be richer than current approaches will allow.