The State Of Neuroscience In Market Research

Today every major market research company has neuroscience offerings, spanning biometrics, facial coding, EEG, implicit association, and eye tracking.

The reason for this rapid adoption is that they provide a new lens for understanding unconscious consumer response to stimuli -- which we know from advances in neuroscience is critically important to decision making. Neuro enables fresher, deeper, and richer insights, and can add unexpected perspective to evaluations of advertising, brand perceptions, and shopper experience.

As an insider to the early years of neuromarketing, it was easy to see how some overzealous neuroscientists felt they had discovered the ultimate tools to replace traditional market research methods. This belief was fueled by enthusiasm for neurometrics coupled with serious naiveté about market research.

And yet, neuroscience practitioners have now achieved a more mature perspective. Using the brain processing construct of Nobel Prize-winning neuro economist Daniel Kahneman, it is understood that neuro tools tell us completely different information about unconscious, emotional consumer response (System 1) and traditional research approaches address rational and cognitive response (System 2). Both are critical for understanding consumer decision making - - especially since the two systems are often fighting one another. That is why it is sometimes so difficult to make up our minds.



The reason traditional market research firms offer neuro tools is simply that most studies are better off with them. Moreover, clients have become more savvy, and now request them. As the realization sinks in, researchers cannot continue to address only the rational, conscious side of reaction or the emotional, visceral side. Both are critically important.

But which neuro tools to use?

Now that neuro tools have been categorically accepted, the key question becomes which tools are best and for which applications. The truth is that they all do slightly different things and they all have plusses and minuses. There is both art and science to knowing which tools are best for given research objectives and client priorities including scalability, cost, timing and consumer comfort. While there may be room for some debate, here are some considerations of what each tool is especially good for.

Biometrics: Stabile and sensitive measure of emotional engagement; provides great specificity and overall effect; consumer-friendly, scalable

Facial Coding: Passive measurement for type of emotional response and emotional valence; secondary indicator of emotional engagement; easy to integrate into surveys; scalable

EEG: Highly sensitive measure of engagement and emotional valence. Provides great specificity. Less consumer-friendly and scalable depending upon equipment used

Eye Tracking: Attention and interest; patterns of observation; what is seen, in what order and for how long with great specificity; consumer-friendly and scalable; now available on line, in-store, etc.

Implicit: Understanding unconscious perceptions and impact of stimuli on brands, sensitive for differentiating between brands and ads on key attributes and drivers; easy to include in surveys, scalable and consumer-friendly

fMRI: Most sensitive neuro tool relied upon in academic labs for exploratory research on emotional response, engagement and memory; most expensive, least scalable

Two camps exist within the big market research industry players with respect to developing proprietary systems and creating alliances with neuro research boutiques. Our philosophy is to be methodology-agnostic -- to fit client objectives, because we appreciate that they do not all do the same things and have created relationships with the leading neuro tool experts across the world. This enables us to offer the best methodology for each type of study.

Other companies focus on specific neuro tools to the extent that they may have developed them in-house or invested in specialty providers.

The large research company advantage

Clients benefit when sourcing neuro research through established research companies. First, established firms have a deep understanding of quality research. This relates to study design, answering client objectives, consumer comfort, fatigue prevention, projectability, analytic depth and understanding of marketing context. 

Second, large market research firms can be objective in their choice of tools and adapt to scientific breakthroughs.

Third, the large firm’s volume builds deep experience in neuro fast, adding depth of expertise for selecting methodologies, designs and analyses. Fourth, large research companies are expert at integrating neuro with traditional methodologies. Study implications can leverage insights from System 1 and System 2 for the greatest consumer understanding in one report. This leads to economies of scale, study efficiency, norms and potential modeling or Meta analyses, plus a sensitivity toward when to use what tool.

Simply put, integrating neuro tools with traditional research provides the best solutions today -- and promises even more valuable insights for tomorrow. 

4 comments about "The State Of Neuroscience In Market Research".
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  1. Glenn Kessler from HCD Research, June 14, 2013 at 12:14 p.m.

    Thanks for the article.

    As an owner of a small company that combines various traditional and neuromarketing methodologies i would like to suggest that it is not the size of the company but the knowledge of the analysts. We have 2 Ph.d's in media psychophysiology on our staff that focus on solving media questions by integrating traditional and neuro methods.

    I would maintain that in this new discipline it is not the number of people at the company but the number of people at the company that understand the science and know enough to use the appropriate methodologies that fit the problem.

  2. Elissa Moses from Ipsos, June 14, 2013 at 6:09 p.m.

    Hi Glen: You have a good point. My argument is that it is best to deal with experts who are not beholden to only one Neuro technique because they all do different things and have relative advantages and disadvantages. Research is best designed by starting with objectives and then determining which tools are best to deliver against those objectives. Also I should add that I collaborate with several small Neuro companies who are best in class but only after we determine which tools are warranted. The analogy is that if you go to a surgeon they will tell you to operate.

  3. Elmer Rich iii from Rich & Co., April 5, 2014 at 10:02 a.m.

    This is really, really wrong. So let's unpack and instruct. First, let's set aside the sales pitch parts.

    Here are the basics. The brain directly causes behavior. This is a medical and physiological fact. This is true in all animals. Our brains are, effectively, identical with other animals, mammals and primates esp. So the proven independent variable is the brain, the dependent, behavior.

    Now theories and models of something causal and influential intervening between the brain and behavior, other independent variables, is very hypothetical right now. Not surprisingly these common ideas are just cultural beliefs and myths - until proven with double-blind, replicated, experimental peer-reviewed research. These beliefs in something subjective perceptible influencing behavior include: feelings, consciousness, words, subjective experience, thinking/cognitions, social factors, environmental factors, etc. While the dominant intuitive and cultural beliefs - none of these have yet been proven. This is called "top down" theory or modeling. You take the larger cultural concepts and attempt to drive them down into brain functions. Big mistake.

    The alternative is "bottom up" theory and modeling. Here we start with the most basic facts about medical physiology and very parsimoniously build fact on fact, never presuming "higher order concepts" like free will, decision making, value, etc.

    In fact, what has been proven as medical facts is that all behavior in all animals is "caused" in 140ms completely unconsciously. This also is sensible since all animals behave just fine without consciousness, language, feelings, etc or any subjective experiences. This has been proven by over 10 years of bench/lab work.

    So, the likelihood is that all of our cultural and popular academic models of behavior are wrong. Dead wrong.

    Along comes business and marketing and the demand, by clients, to buy something/anything with the word neuro attached.

    Thus, further leaps of faith are made implicitly claiming that the cheapest and easiest tools - EEG, eye tracking, etc - are proven indicators of theoretical beliefs in independent variables which are really just cultural beliefs and folklore.

    So we have unproven assumptions and claims being built on top of naive cultural beliefs. While this meets clients demand for something with the word neuro in it - it is a set of false claims and statements. The "demand" is sure there, but the "supply" -- proven brain research findings about behavior even in simple animals, let alone consumers buying stuff - don't exist.

    So, who is going to tell the clients what they want doesn't exist?
    In addition, Kahanamen's ideas have been debunked and the "Noble Prize" in econ is a false, marketing one. Lot's of lying going on, what?

  4. Katleen Kennedy from The University of Akron, October 21, 2014 at 3:12 p.m.

    This article overstates the maturity of consumer neuroscience and the current state of knowledge about the application of neuroscience and biometric measurement in marketing research. A couple major gaps:

    1. Not every major market research company has neuroscience offerings -- although most firms use the term in some way and claim to have expertise. The only commercial marketing research firm in North America who has made a major investment in the application of neurological measures in consumer research is Nielsen Company, NeuroFocus Division and there is some question about the viability of the technological path they are on. There are some smaller specialty firms who are using low-density EEG which has limited value and can only really contribute crude measures of attention and fatigue/arousal.

    2. The label "Neuro Tools" is not accurate for the list you present. The Neuro Tools on the list are EEG and fMRI. Most of the others are Biometrics which is a very broad category of measures and includes EEG, MEG and fMRI, along with respiration, GSR, BPV, EMG, eye movement tracking, etc.

    These measures may or may not provide any insight into consumer behavior. Facial coding, for example, is subjective and has not been proven to be reliable (objective facial coding does not provide sufficient emotional discrimination to be useful in marketing research). Eye movement tracking provides some indicators of attention factors but since normal human peripheral vision is 120 degrees provides limited information in understand or predicting consumer recall and behavior.

    "Traditional" marketing research (more accurate to refer to these as social science methods vs. biological measures) can elicit reliable information about emotional response, biometrics including neuroscience measures can provide information about sensory response, attention, stress, working memory, cognitive workload and so on, but cannot provide rich information about emotional response.

    Integration of findings from social science-based marketing research methods and biometrics including neurological measures is not as simple as presented in this article.

    I am not sure why implicit association is included on the neuro tools list. The implicit-association test (IAT) detects the strength of a person's automatic association between mental representations of objects/concepts in memory based on speed of response. It is a social science measure and more aligned to "traditional" marketing research methods since the measure used (speed of response) is a behavioral response.

    Finally, unconscious is a clinical term and not actually what I believe you are referring to. Better terms are automatic or non-conscious.

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