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Neuromarketing for the Rest of Us: Darren Bridger’s Decoding the Irrational Consumer

October 7, 2015 0 Comments

decoding-irrat-consumer-coverWhen Peter Steidl, Andrew Pohlmann, and I wrote Neuromarketing for Dummies back in 2013, we took to heart the “for Dummies” axiom that we were writing for people who might have no previous experience with our topic. So we presented a bottom-up overview that was both broad and shallow. We tried to communicate the wide range of possible applications, the interdisciplinary scope of the underlying science, and spent more than a little time preaching to vendors about adhering to transparent, ethical, science-based practices. Looking back, I think we succeeded in writing the first conceptual introduction to the field, which was our goal.

The next big advance in neuromarketing books came in 2014 with Thomas Ramsøy’s An Introduction to Neuromarketing and Consumer Neuroscience, which I reviewed in the GreenBook Blog (and reprinted here). Thomas wrote for a different, more mature audience. His book was more an educational guide, aimed at an emerging breed of students, researchers, and practitioners who were serious about the scientific as well as commercial aspects of the field. As such, it was the first neuromarketing book to combine an extensive overview of academic studies (many conducted by Thomas and his collaborators) and an in-depth presentation of commercial neuromarketing studies (many conducted by Thomas’s own company, Neurons, Inc.). INCN provided another kind of breakthrough, the first scientific and methodological introduction the field.

Now, in 2015, Darren Bridger has given us the next logical step in neuromarketing books. His Decoding the Irrational Consumer (Kogan Page, 2015), subtitled How to Commission, Run, and Generate Insights from Neuromarketing Research, is the first book-length practical, how-to guide to the field. Moving beyond conceptual introductions and scientific rationales, Darren’s book explains the nuts and bolts of doing neuromarketing studies. His going-in assumption is that neuromarketing is here, it’s happening, and it can now be conducted with an array of tools and techniques that are accessible not only to academically-trained scientists, but – with some important caveats! – to a wider audience of market researchers and marketers.

Decoding the Irrational Consumer weighs in at an easy-to-digest 200 pages and is divided into three sections: “Theoretical insights,” “The new research tools,” and “Putting it all together.” Let’s take a quick look at each section in turn.

Theoretical insights

In December 2013 I wrote a couple of blog posts (here and here) asking the rhetorical question, “Can Neuromarketing Get Its Groove Back?” I argued that neuromarketing had made significant inroads into the small and affluent early adopters research-buying market, but had not yet provided the kind of value proposition that attracted the much larger but more cautious mainstream research-buyers market (a nod here to Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm model). I identified four requirements for moving into the mainstream, the last of which was “the requirement of contributing to consumer insights.” I wrote:

Finally, neuromarketing measures and metrics have failed to make a strong connection to consumer insights. Neuromarketers have not articulated how the nonconscious processes and mechanisms they measure impact consumers in ways that insights professionals can translate into actionable business recommendations.

In his “Theoretical insights” section, Darren provides an excellent answer to this challenge, summarizing key insights from neuromarketing and its underlying academic sciences that can be incorporated in the language and thinking of consumer insights professionals. In four compact chapters, he covers a wide range of findings and accompanying insights:

  • Attention, memory, and emotion: How these basic cognitive processes operate in the human mind, and how they impact our reactions to advertising and marketing materials.
  • Neuro-aesthetics: How we judge things as attractive or not, including the vital roles of processing fluency, familiarity, novelty, priming, nonconscious goals, approach-avoidance motivation, memory networks, and other psychological sources of liking and preferences.
  • Behavioral economics: How we choose, including how we determine value and how we use heuristics to make product selections and purchasing decisions.
  • Guidelines for experimentation: How neuro testing relies on the experimental model than traditional market research, and how researchers can design experiments that provide valid and reliable findings.

Darren makes a key point here, that these insights are available not only for understanding study results, but also for interpreting any piece of marketing material. He notes:

When conducting neuro-research with consumers the actual data you get back is only half the story. You need to have ways of explaining why consumers responded as they did. Just asking them … is not enough. However, the range of what we might call ‘neuro-principles’ that can help craft communications that engage and fascinate consumers can also help us explain the results we get from neuro-research. When applied to research these ideas can have a virtuous-cycle effect: they can help create more effective communications, then help inform and explain more insightful research, which can then help create even better communications, and so on. (p. 36)

This is precisely how neuromarketing will finally make its way into the toolbox of mainstream market research. The challenge that remains is one of education: marketers and insights professionals need to learn how to recognize and adopt these principles in their creative work. Decoding the Irrational Consumer provides an accessible and intelligent starting point.

The new research tools

Darren’s approach to the neuromarketing toolkit is that of a seasoned practitioner. As one of the true pioneers in this field, he knows his stuff. In this section, he provides a crisp and clear overview of seven techniques that neuromarketing research employs today. Devoting a chapter to each, he outlines how the method works, why it works, and where it works best. This section covers:

  • Eye tracking
  • Implicit response measures
  • Automated facial coding
  • Biometric methods (heart activity, skin conductance, pupillometry, etc.)
  • Neuro measures (EEG, SST and fMRI)
  • Computational neuroscience
  • Smarter survey design

Decoding the Irrational Consumer is perhaps at its best in its objective evaluation of the pros and cons of these different methods. Some have been around for decades. Others, like computational neuroscience, automated facial coding, and some new approaches to surveys and self-reporting, are relatively new on the scene. Darren has no “dog in this fight,” so he provides an expert and neutral commentary that I found fair, balanced, and trustworthy. As he makes clear throughout this section, each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, many of which can be complemented by the strengths and weakness of other approaches. Which leads us to the final section of the book.

Putting it all together

One of the most valuable contributions in Decoding the Irrational Consumer is Chapter 13, Combining Techniques, in which Darren presents a realistic picture of the practical considerations that go into combining multiple methods in a single study or parallel studies. He makes it very clear that lab-based methods are facing a cost-benefit challenge, maybe even a crisis, as online neuromarketing studies become more mainstream:

Due to the fact that online metrics are increasingly automated to set-up, run and analyse, with a corresponding downward pressure on costs, adding multiple metrics into one online test often means only marginal extra expense; particularly if the same vendor offers the different metrics. In contrast, sometimes adding new metrics (e.g. biometrics or neuro-methods) can turn a test from being exclusively online, to needing a lab-based component, with the corresponding extra costs. So the rule of thumb is that adding more online methods together, or lab-based methods together usually has minimal extra cost, but adding a lab-based method onto an online study will usually substantially increase costs. (p. 182)

The chapter then provides a convenient overview of some of the most commonly used combinations, such as:

  • Eye tracking combinations (eye tracking plus EEG, facial coding, or computational neuroscience)
  • Biometric combinations (heart activity and skin conductance)
  • Moment to moment plus memory and self-reporting combinations (eye tracking, EEG, facial coding, etc. plus implicit response measures or questionnaires)
  • Combinations of neuro measures and behavioral outcome data (such as marketplace sales data)

There are also several useful guidelines offered for how to evaluate different neuromarketing vendors as part of a mix-and-match research strategy.

In its final chapter, Decoding the Irrational Consumer provides a convenient table summarizing the methods covered, along with some interesting speculations on the future of neuromarketing, which Darren sees as being propelled by three major forces: more compelling validations, more and better insights, and newer measures and methods.

Finally, the book closes with a discussion of two significant limitations that impact neuromarketing research as it is practiced today. These are important caveats that both buyers and providers of neuromarketing need to keep in mind. The first is that “narrow explanations could become locked in.” This is simply a reminder that there is more to human choice and action than brain and body responses to stimuli. Other sources of insights and understanding have much to add, including observational, ethnographic, and phenomenological approaches. Don’t let neuromarketers tell you otherwise.

The second limitation is that neuromarketing as it is practiced today “doesn’t measure longer term reactions.” The key point here is that human beings are constantly learning and changing. What triggers a positive unconscious or conscious response today may no longer do so tomorrow. No finding can remain valid forever. Which means, as every good researcher knows, there’s always a need for more research.

My takeaways

If you are serious about neuromarketing research, either as a buyer or a provider, you should have this book on your (physical or virtual) bookshelf. Decoding the Irrational Consumer is the best example I have seen (I’m sure there will be more to follow) of treating neuromarketing as a grown-up discipline. It offers no apologies, it makes no assumptions that its readers might be ignorant or offended by its content. It is aimed at a precisely defined audience and it provides that audience with exactly what it needs to produce and consume scientifically-grounded, business-relevant neuromarketing studies.

I believe Darren Bridger’s Decoding the Irrational Consumer represents a new and positive phase in the evolution of neuromarketing theory and practice. It’s been a long time coming.

About the Author:

Steve is a pioneer in the field of neuromarketing. He founded one of the first neuromarketing research firms in 2006 and published the first comprehensive overview of the field, Neuromarketing for Dummies, in 2013. He established Intuitive Consumer Insights in 2012 to help clients, vendors, and industry associations navigate the opportunities and challenges neuromarketing presents to the marketing and market research communities.

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