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Neuromarketing and qualitative research

April 23, 2014 0 Comments

Earlier this year Thom Noble and I published an article in QRCA Views magazine called “Leveraging the Qualitative Side of Neuromarketing.” The article is available in a “virtual magazine” here, but I thought I would include it as a blog post here as well. Thom has also written an excellent guide to neuromarketing vendors and methodologies in AdMap magazine. You can get access to the story and article on Thom’s Neurostrata website.

qual-side-article.Leveraging The Qualitative Side Of Neuromarketing

Stephen Genco, Intuitive Consumer Insights
Thom Noble, NeuroStrata

Neuromarketing shares with qualitative research an intense interest in understanding the mental processes that underlie consumer behavior. It shares a deep skepticism about consumers’ selfreporting skills. It shares the belief that human beings often do not say what they mean, nor mean what they say.

What Lurks Beneath the Surface?

Motivational research in the 1950s was built upon a psychoanalytical view of the human subconscious, emphasizing hidden motivations and desires as drivers of human behavior.

The basic idea, taken from the Freudian tradition, was that the subconscious is a realm of barely checked impulses that could be activated with the right cues in advertising and marketing. Nothing is what it seems to be. A convertible is a mistress, and a sedan is a wife. Baking is giving birth. And lipstick is… well… just what you would think it might be.

Vance Packard’s journalistic attack on motivational research in The Hidden Persuaders accepted this view that “our subconscious can be pretty wild and unruly” and popularized the belief that Motivational research brought us into “the chilling world of George Orwell and his Big Brother.” Not surprisingly, Packard’s exposé had just the opposite effect than he intended on advertisers, who flocked to motivational researchers to get in on the action.

Notably, the terms “subconscious,” “unconscious” and “nonconscious” are from different schools of thought. The terms are not directly interchangeable, but all do generally reflect the idea that the mind can hold perceptions, beliefs and motivations and can make decisions on a level that the conscious mind is not aware of (these terms are used correctly throughout this article to match the context).

Motivational research began to lose its luster in the 1960s, not because of critics’ warnings about mind control but because its pronouncements, like those of Freudianism more generally, proved impossible to validate or refute scientifically.

But while the object of fear faded, the fear itself —the idea that our subconscious minds were susceptible to manipulation and even control by unscrupulous marketers —remained.

Today, that fear has found a new villain, neuromarketing. But does the science justify the worry?

Not Freud’s Unconscious

The modern view of the human mind, based on brain research that reached critical mass in the 1990s, is far advanced beyond the simple “hidden motivations and desires” picture of the 1950s. Much more has been learned about motivations and desires; also, scientific investigations have produced a much richer view of the role of the Nonconscious across a wide variety of mental functions, from perception, evaluation and interpretation to choice and behavior.

Below are some things we know today that we did not know in the 1950s.

Neuroscience does not “read minds.”

Measuring brainwaves and physiological signals with various kinds of sensors is not the same as reading thoughts. Neuroscience technologies can tell with some precision that a person is exhibiting certain physical states (like blood flow in the brain or facial muscle movement) that may be related to certain mental states (like being attentive, experiencing approach motivation or feeling confused), but none of these states are “thoughts” in the usual sense of that voice we hear in our conscious minds.

There is no “buy button” in the brain.

The brain is a massively interconnected network, not a collection of “centers” that perform specific functions. The “buy button,” beloved by journalists, is a metaphor that mistakes a complex cognitive process for a physiological reflex. Making someone buy something is completely different from tapping them on the knee to make their leg bounce.

Marketing cannot make us do things that we do not want to do.

Behavior can be activated in two ways. The first is conscious persuasion, the traditional method of marketing and advertising. The second is nonconscious triggering, or “priming,” through which our sensory environment can trigger thoughts that lead to behavior without conscious awareness. Priming is usually Seen as the culprit that can make us do things that we do not want to do, but research shows that priming works only when we already feel positive about the behavior being primed and also feel a discrepancy between our current state and the primed end state. Essentially, marketing cannot prime smoking in someone who does not feel positive about smoking, and it cannot prime drinking in someone who is not thirsty.

One thing we know for sure: nonconscious processes play a much greater role in consumer behavior than previously realized. Consumers respond to products and brands in ways that are invisible to them. Some of these nonconscious responses are devoted to resisting persuasive messaging, not embracing it. Consumers use decision-making shortcuts and heuristics that they are unaware of using. And they have a sense of certainty about their motivations that is completely unjustified. All of this makes marketers’ jobs much harder, not easier.

A New Perspective on Nonconscious Processes

We now know that the nonconscious drivers of judgment, choice and behavior are not the “wild and unruly” forces of the Freudian unconscious; instead, they are perceptual, emotional, evaluative and motivational mechanisms that make up what social psychologists call our “behavioral guidance systems.” Here are three examples:

Processing fluency is the extent to which an object or situation is easy to understand or interpret. Our brains are “cognitive misers” that try to minimize mental effort, so we tend to be biased toward things we can process easily. Scientists have found processing fluency To have a major impact on judgments and decisions, increasing the likelihood that statements are seen as true, objects are seen as beautiful, situations are seen as familiar, and actions are seen as safe. Many consumer preferences and actions can be ascribed to processing fluency, even though consumers are not aware of this effect.

Priming is the process by which sensory inputs nonconsciously influence our thinking and behavior. It occurs because our brains automatically activate associated ideas whenever a new idea comes to mind. Priming increases the accessibility of ideas related to the prime and plays a major role in determining what we think and do next. It is one of the main mechanisms by which marketing operates. It has been shown to significantly impact consumer attitudes, preferences, decisions and behavior, all without any conscious awareness by the person being influenced.

Nonconscious goal pursuit is one of the most counter-intuitive discoveries to come out of social psychology in recent years. It would seem impossible to have a goal you are not aware of having, but that is exactly what nonconscious goals are. Extensive research has revealed them to be an important mechanism for connecting primes to consumer behavior. Consumers primed with a “thriftiness” goal, for example, can exhibit very different shopping behaviors than consumers primed with a “prestige” goal. These goals can be activated, pursued and achieved (or not) completely outside of conscious awareness, with very observable effects on people’s choices, behaviors and moods.

These examples illustrate a more general point: nonconscious effects previously attributed to hidden motivations and desires are often simply functions of how the brain generates and accesses Sequences of thoughts. What our imaginations used to conjure up as wild and unruly impulses are revealed to be more like machine operating routines.

Don’t Blind Me with Science: The Emergence of Qualitative Neuromarketing Consulting

In the past ten years, hundreds of commercial clients have conducted neuromarketing studies using a wide range of technologies — fMRI, EEG, eye tracking, facial coding, biometrics, implicit response studies, etc. —across a wide range of subject areas in almost every major business category.

Those who have become experienced users of neuromarketing are progressing beyond single, ad hoc studies in two ways:

  • They are looking for patterns and actionable insights from their neuromarketing research.
  • They are creating ongoing research programs to integrate their neuromarketing findings with traditional quantitative and qualitative research results.

Both processes are being facilitated by a new kind of neuromarketer, the neuromarketing consultant. These consultants often have worked for one or more neuromarketing vendors and have backgrounds in marketing or academic research. They assist client companies on a project or full-time basis, helping them navigate the scientific waters of different methodologies, evaluate vendors, interpret and integrate findings and develop actionable marketing insights from their research data.

Clients get many of the same benefits from neuromarketing consultants that they get from their best qualitative researchers. Exposure to brain-science findings and insights helps marketers develop a more intuitive view of their Consumers. They begin to think differently about how they write creative briefs and critique creative solutions and plans. Greater familiarity with nonconscious processes leads to new marketing lexicons, new perspectives and fresh reference points for strategic and executional discussions, such as how to leverage priming and processing fluency, how to modulate approach-avoidance emotional responses and how to orchestrate multi-sensory cues.

While most neuromarketing vendors continue to emphasize quantitative studies and results, neuro-savvy planners and brand consultants are partnering with neuromarketing consultants to leverage research outputs more qualitatively. As Peter Laybourne, chairman of the U.K.’s Fathom International and co-founder of NeuroCo, described in a personal communication,

“There are those whose everyday marketing lives are constrained and regimented by norms and benchmarks. Then there are others, less reliant on statistical minutiae, who seek greater inspiration and penetrative insights, by exploring, altogether more directionally, the shapes, swings and triggers in neurological response.”

This perspective is achieving traction among planners like Laybourne in the creative, R&D, innovation and experiential research industries, where qual has often played a greater role due to the inability of traditional quant methodologies to deliver predictive results.

Leveraging the qualitative side of neuromarketing and the latest findings about the nonconscious can be a liberator of ideas, creativity and designs, providing creatives with a scientific rationale and language for more innovative, emotionally driven campaigns that may well have been assigned to the trash bin if measured by traditional quant methods alone.

About the Author:

AvatarSteve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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