FEATURE1 April 2011

A change of mind

Neuroscience has provided a bevy of new ways to get inside consumers’ heads. Robert Bain spoke to Graham Page, head of Millward Brown’s neuroscience practice, about how researchers are coming round to neuro.

At Millward Brown, Graham Page is the man charged with making neuroscience techniques work. He already had first dibs on all the latest gadgets when he was the agency’s head of innovation, and last year he was chosen to lead its new consumer neuroscience practice, which aims to incorporate techniques based on cognitive neuroscience and psychology in to all its activities. It is, he believes, “strategically vital to what Millward Brown does”.

Market research techniques based on neuroscience range from brain-scanning using expensive laboratory equipment to fairly straightforward online surveys. At the high end of the scale, Millward Brown uses portable electroencephalography (EEG) equipment from EmSense – headbands worn by respondents while they watch a screen or browse a shop. This can be combined with eye-tracking to tie people’s physiological responses to exactly what they were looking at. At the other end of the scale there’s implicit association measurement, which uses surveys to gauge people’s gut reactions to stimuli by measuring the speed and accuracy of their responses to quickfire words and images.

“People react in one of two ways to neuroscience. They either go, ‘That’s absolutely fantastic, I want to get involved in that,’ or they run away screaming. The research industry is shifting from the latter reaction toward the former”

Value for money
“What we’ve tried to do is focus on the methods that we think we can deliver in a scalable, cost-effective way,” says Page. “So the EEG that we use through EmSense is comparable in cost to conventional research. Likewise you can add implicit association work to a piece of survey-based work or a piece of qualitative work at a similar price point to what you’d get for the same sort of samples in a regular piece of research.”

The agency has used implicit association measurement to get at the ideas and feelings that people associate with brands, but might not be able to articulate. A financial services company in the US used the technique to pick a new logo, with results showing that one particular design reinforced ideas relating to trust. A food brand discovered that, while consumers associated it with health and dieting, they also linked it with pressure and anxiety – an aspect of its image that conventional research had missed.

Neuroscience-based research services remain a huge growth area, Page believes. “There was a sea change about three years ago when clients went from scratching their heads and saying, ‘Does this really work? Is this for real?’ And now it’s much more, ‘OK, I know this is there, but what’s it good for?’ We’ve got some clients particularly in the US and Asia who are building this into what they do on a consistent basis now, so it becomes a standard part of the research.”

A few big consumer goods firms have even invested in their own labs, but Page believes that most of the neuroscience spend will go to agencies on a transactional basis, as with other research.

Millward Brown’s neuroscience practice has used all its techniques in pretty much all the major markets now, but different methods have proved more popular in different regions. EEG and eye-tracking have done well in America where there’s “a greater acceptance of technological innovations”, but also in many Asian markets, which Page believes comes down to culture.

“In Asia there is a strong bias in some of the work that we do for people to want to not say negative things. So, whereas you know there are negative responses going on sometimes, they’re not always articulated. Some of these sorts of approaches end up being very attractive in those markets because you do get to see some of the negative responses that perhaps weren’t there in conventional research.”

This was seen in tests on an ad for an Asian soft drink brand. The ad showed celebrities playing a game and losing – which in some markets would have been interpreted positively as the celebrities having a good laugh at themselves. “In Asia people didn’t want that,” said Page. “People wanted them to win. That really came out in the EEG technology because you could see them react positively to the celebrities, but negatively when they were shown losing.”

Making friends with neuro
Among Page’s colleagues on the agencyside, too, views on neuroscience have moved on in recent years. “People react in one of two ways. They either go, ‘That’s absolutely fantastic, I want to get involved in that,’ or they run away screaming. The research industry is shifting from the latter reaction toward the former. We find… that people are very receptive to it because they see that they’re getting a bit of insight that they wouldn’t have got beforehand. My team’s responsibility is to help articulate that. We’ve certainly seen that you get different information relative to what you’d get from a regular survey, in particular around things that are socially sensitive or fundamental motivations.”

Page believes the research industry has been rightly cautious in making sure neuroscience techniques really add something before adopting them, and part of his job is to protect the credibility of neuroscience by being honest and realistic about where it can and can’t be effectively deployed.

Not surprisingly he has little patience for those who seek to profit from the hype around neuroscience, or who take cheap shots at the shortcomings of traditional research methods. Visions of the “rusty spade of survey research compared to the sharp scalpel of neuroscience” are, he says, not helpful.

“There are lots of different ways of doing neuroscience-based research, some of which are more suited to some things than others. It’s a new field – inevitably people are getting massively competitive. What we’ve tried to do is cut through that. What’s the reality behind this? When are these methods helpful?”

The Advertising Research Foundation has sought to shed light on some of these questions with its NeuroStandards project (see below), which reviewed the techniques of eight neuromarketing companies.

Treading carefully
One thing Page is very clear about is that those using neuroscience in research need to adhere strictly to ethical guidelines. But as long as respondents know what’s going on, they tend to be pretty open-minded, he says. “We’ve had very few people, for instance, show up for work with the EmSense EEG technology and say ‘I don’t really fancy that now I’ve seen it’. It’s really a rarity.”

Still, Page believes that neuroscience methods stand out as being somewhat odd – whether it’s odd in the sense of putting a brain-scanning device on someone’s head, or in the sense of measuring how quickly they answer survey questions rather than what they actually say.

But it’s only a matter of time before they become a standard part of what researchers do. “As we learn more about the way people interact with brands and marketing, and about how people make decisions, we realise more that we need to be going beyond some of the existing tools. And that really isn’t to say that survey-based work or qualitative work isn’t valid, because it absolutely is… but what this gives us is an additional dimension, an additional insight about things that we perhaps hadn’t been able to see before. I genuinely think it will lead us to better understanding of how consumers make decisions and therefore better business decisions.”

Watch our video of Graham Page’s interview here

Setting the standard

In March the Advertising Research Foundation released findings from its NeuroStandards project, which reviewed the techniques of eight companies in order to demystify neuromarketing methods and the conclusions that are drawn from them.

One message came through loud and clear: that neuroscience is an addition to – not a substitute for – traditional research methods.

The ARF is planning a second phase of the study, as well as an ongoing ‘forum’ for neuromarketing, and a network of dozens of independent experts to advise users of neuroscience-based research.

The project was led by Duane Varan (pictured), chief research officer at the Disney Media and Advertising Lab. He told Research: “I think the most exciting outcome is the expert review network, because that really changes the structure of the market. Now clients have access to expertise in that area, whereas before they wouldn’t really have known where to go. It creates a different kind of dialogue compared to what’s already there, which is based on [vendors] having people on an advisory board.”

Points to bear in mind when using neuroscience to research advertising:

  • Fast-moving ads with lots of different images, sounds and text, will trigger complex reactions. This makes it hard to pinpoint viewers’ reactions to specific elements.
  • Our brains respond at different speeds to different kind of images: we might react quickly to an image of something threatening like a snake, but more slowly to an image of a pleasant landscape. Reactions can also be influenced by what was seen before, and reflect anticipation of what might come next.
  • Pinpointing intent to purchase is not as simple as measuring attention. Reactions in a particular area of the brain do not always mean there was a particular emotional response.