Gleaning Marketing Insights from Brain Data

Companies are keenly interested in applying tools from neuroscience to improve their marketing efforts. The question is, can measures of brain activity provide new insights that go beyond the findings of other methods of consumer research?

Consumers are generally pretty good at expressing their needs and preferences, but they aren’t very good at articulating how they may have been influenced by a particular marketing action like a store promotion or brand ad. Neuroscience techniques can help marketers understand those distinct elements of consumer decision making,” says Uma Karmarkar, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School.

Karmarkar will discuss new findings about neural techniques and their potential to improve marketing practice at MSI’s April Trustees Meeting, “The Marketing Research and Analytics Revolution.”

Neuromarketing encompasses a group of techniques including eye tracking, biometrics, and facial expression coding, but only two of the approaches commonly used—electroencephalography (EEG)-based recording and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—collect information directly from the brain.

EEG allows researchers to track the intensity of responses to a stimuli.  A headset or set of contacts sitting on a person’s head measures fluctuations in the electrical activity directly below the scalp, which occurs as a result of neural activity. This method might be used to determine which of two ads evoked a stronger positive response, for example.

FMRI requires a more complicated configuration—the person being scanned lies down inside a machine that uses magnetic fields to track changes in blood flow across the brain, which is correlated with changes in neural activity. Though there are several tradeoffs between using EEG-based methods and fMRI, one benefit of fMRI is that it shows activity over whole brain, including structures deep inside. 

Recent research indicates that insights gleaned from fMRI may predict consumer preferences and even future purchasing behavior. FMRI data has been used to predict individuals’ future food and financial choices at delays of up to weeks after the original scanning date. In a few select studies, scan data from one set of individuals has shown significant correlations with national sales or population data. “In other words, there is growing evidence for situations in which neural techniques can improve, or perhaps even out-perform the survey research techniques,” notes Karmarkar.

Current uses of neuromarketing generally focus on specific questions about product and brand design or the predicted success of an ad campaign. Karmarkar suggests that neural techniques hold significant promise in other domains. One might be for illuminating how different societies and cultures relate to companies, ads, and brands. That points to neuromarketing’s potential to help companies better understand their global consumers and could “yield a tremendous ability for companies to tailor the way they manage their global brand.”

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