Neuromarketing: Problems And Possibilities

First and foremost, before I get any further into this subject -- with apologies to Lorenz Hart, I need to paraphrase his lyrics and come clean. With respect to neuromarketing  I am confused, baffled and bewildered. But after attending the third annual World Forum of Neuromarketing earlier this month and absorbing millions of facts, I am immensely more knowledgeable. Of course, “immensely” is relative; when you start from zero, any progress is immense.

As I have pointed out in a previous article on this subject, the study of the brain is not new. There is a history here going back more than a hundred years. However, the study of the brain as it applies to marketing research is a young field, having taken hold in the current century. Neuromarketing, as it is called, encompasses a variety of techniques -- all designed to understand the non-conscious contribution to decision making as it relates to marketing and marketing communications.

These techniques include EEG, fMRI, fEMG, Facial (expressions) tracking, Eye-tracking, Bio measures (such at heart rate, skin-response, respiration and all the nifty variations thereof) and (cleverly constructed) psychological tests.

Current traditional market research relies on respondents' recall, which is often faulty; truthfulness, which is often questionable; and the ability to understand why they do what they do, or feel what they feel, which is not always possible. Neuromarketing, on the other hand, relies on the these objective measurement techniques listed above to understand implicit human actions, reactions and feelings.

Given the importance of truly understanding the consumer implicitly as opposed to explicitly, it is no surprise that there is a good deal of energy evident in this new field of neuromarketing. The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) has issued a seminal white paper on the subject last year, titled “Uncovering Emotion: Using Neuromarketing to Increase Ad Effectiveness.”

The publication sheds light on the various techniques used by practitioners of the craft and draws important conclusions. The most important one is the call for continuing the work in neuromarketing because even though it may not be the perfect answer for marketers, it is a most promising expansion of market research and appears to offer major benefits to its users. Taking its own advice, the ARF has continued its work in the field with Neuro 2.0 -- a further investigation of the impact of neuromarketing-derived knowledge on actual in-market consumer reactions.

So what have we learned in the World Forum, in presentations and talks by the most knowledgeable academic and marketing practitioners of neuromarketing?

First: Clearly the subject of neuromarketing is complex -- and many of the presentations took great pains to admit or even assert it. There was more than one voice calling for more transparency in collecting and interpreting the objectively collected data.

Second: With very few but strongly expressed exceptions, there is a consensus that neuromarketing is not a replacement for traditional market research. Rather, it is the best way to augment market research and provide invaluable -- additional -- insights.

Third: It is no longer debated whether one technique -- i.e., fMRI -- is better than others, such as biometric measures or eye-movement tracking. It is acknowledged -- even stressed, that integration of various techniques is beneficial in the quest for understanding human behavior. The only parts of this issue of integration that remain contested are which measures are appropriate to integrate with which, and what is the best way to accomplish a useable integration. It is obvious that some black-box algorithms need a good deal more transparency -- which understandably is a problem for practitioners.

Fourth: A painful subject has not been widely debated. For example, the issue of validity, as it applies to the various technologies employed. Validity becomes even more troublesome when trying to validate conclusions based on integrated data from more than one technique. And on this issue, I must admit ambivalence. I am not quite sure what and how to validate. In my opinion, this subject needs more discussion and more input from the users and providers of the data.

Fifth: While there were a good number of case studies, they were anecdotal and interesting, but did not provide proof of the reliability or efficacy of the solutions proposed by the providers.  Again, the case studies presented did not constitute validation

Finally, sitting for three great days of intensive learning, a thought occurred to me which is not just a philosophical question -- it has serious business and financial implications: Would it be useful and practical to disengage the data provision part from the consultative role that most providers seem to take? In other words: why not provide data (like Nielsen ratings) and let the marketers interpret it -- either in-house or via an independent consultant?

As the practice of neuromarketing stands now, every provider is both a data collector and an analyst.  This is not a conflict of interest per se, but it may bring into question either the validity of the data, or the soundness of the interpretation and the resulting conclusions and recommendations.

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