Sue Nosworthy

Where do we go from here?

For some years now, Neuromarketing has been viewed as the next “big thing” in marketing research, with some of its proponents arguing that it heralds a new revolution in understanding consumer behaviour.  Research and marketing conferences seem not to be complete without individual papers and whole sessions dedicated to Neuromarketing, while practitioners vie with one another to promote the virtues of their own proprietary methodologies.

And yet the field remains controversial.  In spite of the growing number of practitioners entering this field, it seems to have remained in its infancy rather longer than was originally predicted, and has yet to enter the mainstream in the same way that, for example, Social Media research has done.   In a Predictive Markets study carried out by ESOMAR at its Annual Congress in Athens last year, it was the only technique to completely divide the audience – equal numbers felt that the field would grow in importance in the future as felt it would decline.   Omar Mahmood, in researching his paper for this seminar, interviewed a number of clients on their views about and attitudes towards Neuromarketing, and found a similarly contradictory picture – comparatively little real experience, undoubted enthusiasm and a desire to “give it a try”, coupled with a degree of uncertainty and scepticism as to whether it could deliver on its promises.

The ARF Neurostandards Collaboration was set up with the aim of evaluating the diverse approaches which exist in this field and of adding transparency.  However, the feedback from the initial stage of this project seems so far to have raised more questions than answers.  The more “popular” books which have appeared on the subject in recent years have also not helped the cause – while they have undoubtedly provided visibility for this new field, they have tended to present their conclusions in a very black and white way, thus laying themselves open to charges of overclaiming and increasing the scepticism around this area.

It was against this background that ESOMAR began the planning for this inaugural Seminar on Neuroscience – Theory and Application.  Our aim was to attempt to demystify this field and provide research buyers with an understanding of the different techniques available, their scientific basis, their pros and cons, and ultimately some guidelines for evaluating which techniques would be most useful to them.  Did we succeed in these objectives?  I think at least in part, but more work remains to be done.  And ultimately our success will be judged by the reactions of the 70+ delegates from 18 countries, and what initiatives they would like to see in this area, going forward.

The morning session of the seminar promised us a review of the discipline, from the perspectives of academia, of practitioners and suppliers and of end users, and it did not disappoint.  Professor Gemma Calvert kicked off the session by reminding us of the scientific basis for neuromarketing, and the reasons why neuroscientific methods are providing us with insights which are not possible through conventional research – particularly in the measurement of emotions and their role in decision making.  Gemma also made a plea, which was returned to in the panel discussion at the end of the day, for a more systematic and industry-wide approach to promoting neuromarketing and its benefits to end clients – to date we have failed to communicate the very real benefits of the discipline.  Nevertheless she also made the point that it is still relatively early days for this field, likening Neuromarketing to the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, noting that it too had sceptics and took time to gain support.

Next up were David Penn and Graham Page, to provide a critical review of the current techniques associated with this field.  In so doing, they took the broadest definition of Neuromarketing, to include all methods involving indirect measurement of marketing and brands and not just the methods based on neuroscience.

This review of the various methods and their pros and cons was excellent, and well received by participants.   So too was the advice to afford neuromarketing the same due diligence that we use when evaluating other new research methodologies, namely:

  • Does the method yield meaningful insights?
  • Are these insights incremental – do they tell us something we don’t already know?
  • Are the methods practical?
  • Can they be validated to provide better predictors of behaviour?

Omar Mahmoud concluded the session with a witty and enjoyable presentation on what neuroscience has taught us about how the brain works and the applications of this for human behavior and decision making.  Some very good and practical learnings that were much appreciated by the audience.

The final part of the morning was taken up by a “touch and feel” session – a kind of speed dating event in which six supplier companies were invited to display their wares.  The companies presented their methodologies and their technology to small groups of participants in a series of short sessions which gave the participants chance to examine the technology up close and ask questions in a non-commercial environment.  In spite of the potential for information overload, this session was well received and should definitely form part of future seminars.  We welcome any suggestions as to how it could be modified or improved.

In the afternoon session, we were treated to four very varied case studies illustrating the use of neuromarketing in a variety of research settings – shopper research, brand positioning, and advertising in a variety of media.  This is the area where we do need a greater body of published material in order for this new field to be properly evaluated, and more clients who are prepared to share their learnings, so kudos to both Foot Locker and T-Mobile for allowing their cases to be presented.

The seminar concluded with a very animated and informative panel discussion session.  For me, this was the highlight of the day – the contributions from the floor thoughtful, and the panelists’ responses were informative and open.  Once again, we were left to reflect that this is a very new discipline, and it faces the usual initial resistance of any new or disruptive innovation.  Up to now, those who have bought in to neuromarketing have been the early adopters.  What is now needed to move it more into the mainstream is more effective case studies, more openness about the different techniques and more real life applications to inform, educate and convince the sceptics.

The lack of peer-reviewed research has often been cited as one of the reasons for the degree of scepticism surrounding this field and the claims made for it.  However, as was pointed out by the panel, Neuromarketing is currently primarily driven by private companies, not academia. And unlike academia, where the accepted currency is knowledge sharing and peer recognition, the accepted currency in business is the commercial imperative and competitive advantage.  It is therefore not surprising that the Neuromarketing companies, who are in competition with one another, are reluctant to reveal details of their own proprietary techniques and solutions. Indeed, this situation is not unique to Neuromarketing.  Many traditional market research specialisms – notably simulated test markets, and advertising pre-testing – are dominated by companies whose solutions are proprietary and can only be described as “black box”.  Are we being naïve in expecting Neuromarketing firms to behave any differently?

And yet, Neuromarketing is different from other market research techniques in at least two important ways.  Unlike methodologies that rely on direct questioning, neuromarketing techniques cannot be easily evaluated by researchers without a background in the science.  They therefore have a greater than usual reliance on objective guidance and advice.  And since practitioners claim that their methodologies are based on scientific methods, surely they should be open about the science underlying their methods, and their strengths and weaknesses.  Both of these factors point to a need for an objective source of information and education about this new field and its practical applications.

This ESOMAR seminar on Neuromarketing was an important first step.  Conducted in a true spirit of collaboration and openness, it began the process of demystifying this field, and if the informal comments of participants are anything to go by, it did this pretty successfully.

So where do we go from here?  It is clear that the current situation is not benefitting the Neuromarketing industry as a whole.  This discipline has the potential to truly revolutionise our understanding of consumer behaviour and the role of emotions in decision making.  However, the true value of Neuromarketing is obscured by the focus on the different methodologies, and the lack of an objective and scientific evaluation of those methodologies.

Can we leave this field to the practitioners with their proprietary technologies and solutions, or should the research industry as a whole come up with a set of methodology agnostic guidelines which provide the necessary education and guidance for research buyers while still protecting IP and competitive advantage.  In the end, this approach will benefit the reputable practitioners in the field – the methodologies that actually work and that provide real value to the customer will win out.

I am reminded of the situation a few years ago, when on-line research was in its infancy.  In that field too, research buyers were faced with conflicting claims from competitive suppliers, and no easy way to evaluate them.  At that time ESOMAR developed its 26 Questions to help research buyers of on-line samples.  Is a similar initiative required for Neuromarketing?  Can or should ESOMAR and the other national and international Trade Associations play a leading role in this?  What would be the remit and scope of any such initiative?

We invite the seminar participants and the research community as a whole to provide their views.

Summary Statement from the advisory board

  • Neuroscience may not replace existing research methodologies, but will complement them.
  • Neuroscience is not only, about using sophisticated brain reading technology. It is also about applying the latest scientific discoveries on how consumers make decisions to our research design and interpretation, specifically with the advent of behavioral economics, neuroscience is moving us beyond technology-driven solutions.

Sue Nosworthy, SVP, European Research Director, EmSense, UK