FEATURE1 February 2012

A lot to learn


Neuroscience is bigger and more influential than most people in business realise, says Gemma Calvert, founder of Neurosense.


Gemma Calvert holds a PhD in brain imaging from the University of Oxford and has had her work published in the scientific journals Science and Nature. But none of that has been as hard, she says, as bridging the gap that separates the academic world of neuroscience from business. It was with that aim that Calvert founded Neurosense in 1999. In the last five years she has seen an “explosion of interest” in neuroscience, with consumer goods manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms, car makers and media companies all showing an interest. Research agencies including TNS have also “twigged this is something that punters want” in the past few years, she says.

“Academics, until really recently, didn’t really know how to engage with, or want to engage with, industry. ‘Forget it, we’re busy,’ they’d say”

Bridging the gap
But the challenge remains of convincing business leaders that neuroscience-based research can help them. The world of neuroscience, Calvert says, is “vast” – much more influential, more important and better established than most people in business realise. “Neuroscience is revolutionising the medical world, revolutionising the pharmaceutical industry, it’s revolutionising economics – neuroeconomics is a huge literature, too vast for me to follow. And it’s not going away.”

For someone like Calvert, who has been applying neuroscience to commercial challenges for more than a decade, it’s “bread and butter”. But it still tends to be put into the category of ‘new’ techniques in consumer research. Why has it been slow to trickle through into the marketing and research worlds? “The evidence is massive. There are masses of peer-reviewed publications but they’re all in academic-speak,” says Calvert. “They’re in journals which, frankly, unless you’ve got a PhD in neuroscience are a pretty dense read.”

And the communication challenges don’t end there. “Academics, until really recently, didn’t really know how to engage with, or want to engage with, industry. ‘Why should we tell you marketing people? Forget it, we’re busy,’ they’d say. And they don’t have the language to translate it.

“I’m always trying to say to these guys, just because we’re interested in how people buy, why should that be excluded from academic study? It’s what we do. We don’t just sit there looking at flashing checkerboards.

“I’ve always sat in between academe and industry, and it’s one of the most challenging things I’ve had to face – trying to bridge the gap in terms of language and concepts, and putting ourselves in the position of somebody trying to sell something: what do I need to know and how do I need to know it, such that I can then apply it?”

Persuading people of the value of neuroscience, and overcoming the sceptical image of “snake oil salesmen” has been a huge hurdle for the field, she says. “I hope that our company now is starting to get this. Lots of companies now coming on to the market are going to find the same challenge – they need to find a way of communicating in a more effective fashion.

Things are improving, though. “In the last three to five years there’s been a big shift of funding in to this area we call social cognitive neuroscience, which is understanding how people behave in a real environment, a social environment, day-to-day kinds of things.”

Tools of the trade
Neuromarketing encompasses a wide range of methods including fMRI brain scanning (the “gold standard”), the more accessible but more limited EEG, and eye-tracking. There are also implicit reaction tests, which don’t involve any special wires or gadgets and can be included in online surveys (see box below). Most of Neurosense’s work is now done online, using techniques rooted in neuroscience and designed to get beyond what people can articulate.

Many companies who were early adopters of fMRI ended up being put off by the cost, says Calvert, and EEG technology became popular. Now, though, fMRI “has come back in full force, because some of these people who tried EEG felt it’s a bit sketchy in terms of the quality of the data,” she says.

It’s an observation that could help explain the demise of EmSense, which ceased trading last autumn. Some observers attributed the company’s problems to burning through its cash too quickly in setting up a 2,000-strong panel of homes with EEG headbands, which failed to find the level of demand needed. Whether this is a reflection on the technology, the firm’s business model or both is up for debate.

Calvert says syndicate studies using fMRI are becoming popular. “People are beginning to understand the return on investment of technology like that, and the ways in which we can analyse the data, the kinds of questions we can ask, has also advanced.”

For instance, fMRI systems can be trained to recognise patterns in brain activity that identify different groups of people, so that smaller samples can be used. “You invest in the initial training for whatever it is you want to discriminate between, and after that you’ve got a very low-cost way of assessing it,” she says.

Sharing knowledge
Attitudes to neuroscience in the world of market research are driven, Calvert feels, by “a little bit of information and a lot of chit-chat and misinformation on the internet”.

She does what she can to improve things, but for the most part that means getting on with the job. “We don’t go around making a noise. And we sign NDAs – people aren’t going to pay us to do a lot of product development work just for us to go and tell the press about it. I do as much ‘public understanding of science’ work in this area that I can – there’s a huge education programme that we need to implement. I’m looking at writing a handbook for neuromarketing with a colleague of mine, written for clients in an easy-to-understand way. How many people do you need, what kinds of questions, that kind of stuff. And I’ve been talking to several organisations about the possibility of running neuromarketing training for people in ad agencies or in the market research world.”

One high-profile application of Neurosense’s work was in Martin Lindstrom’s bestselling book Buyology. But not everyone was entirely convinced by the conclusions Lindstrom drew from the company’s data and how he presented them. Calvert says: “Buyology was a great success in terms of putting neuromarketing on the map globally and while some of the conclusions arrived at might have sounded rather sensationalist, it is a hard task indeed to put across complex scientific findings in a way that’s easy to understand and entertaining for a lay audience.” Lindstrom certainly succeeded in capturing an audience – the book earned him a place on Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people.

Generally speaking, however, Calvert finds the hype and bluster around neuroscience to be a distraction. “It’s very irksome if people are overselling or misrepresenting what can be achieved or what a particular technology can and can’t do. But what can I do but keep ploughing my field and try to shout louder? My route is through education and using the advantages we have of being a bunch of academics who’ve got credibility behind us.”

Untapped potential
The potential of neuroscience in business has clearly not yet been fulfilled, and the discipline could play a vital role in revealing how our stone-age brains are coping with rapid technological change, which is transforming the way we receive and process information.

Calvert says: “Technology has run apace but the brain can only evolve by sexual selection from one generation to the next. We can’t catch up because we’re constrained in our biological bodies. In that scenario we’re pushed into this kind of limbic brain decision-making: if there’s a threat, you either run or you get ‘learned helplessness’ – you either make impulse purchases which you’re going to regret and hate the brand afterwards, or you just don’t do anything at all.

“Neuroscience is finding out more and more just how hard-wired we are socially and the kinds of things that are influencing our behaviour, which is going to change a great deal in the next fifty years or so. We are evolving, but slowly. That’s the sort of information which I don’t think the market research community has taken on board.”

The neurosceptics need to do their homework, she says. “I can give you a list of peer-reviewed articles showing that when you stick implicit next to explicit measures, the implicit is a better predictor of behaviour. That does it for me. It’s proven. You can carry on like lemmings listening to focus groups if you want. Something like 80% of products fail, so that’s great if you want to throw millions away.

“Neuroscience is a fundamental shift in knowledge about how we as consumers or as human beings behave. We’re really only just at the tip of the iceberg of exploiting it.”

Delving deeper

“I started realising we could be using these techniques to get around focus groups. Looking back, it would have saved us a lot of grief”

Gemma Calvert left behind a career in direct marketing to study for a PhD using functional MRI (fMRI) technology – which was new to the UK at the time. “I started realising we could be using these techniques to get around focus groups,” she says. “Looking back in time, if we’d had access to those technologies it would have saved us a lot of grief.”

In 1999, two years after finishing her studies, she set up Neurosense. In 2010 she left her role as chair of applied neuroscience at the University of Warwick to focus on expanding the business. Neurosense now has an office in Singapore and has just opened another in Brazil.

The company has expertise in FMRI, EEG and eye-tracking but Calvert says that these days “most of our research is online, looking at people’s implicit responses to brands, products and brochures. We have a range of different psychological tools that tap into the implicit reactions.”

One example is to evaluate two versions of an ad by asking people to complete a task while one of the ads is displayed in the background. Participants do better at the task when the version they prefer is displayed. Other tests ask participants for quickfire responses to images or words – measuring not only the choices people make but how quickly they respond. “The clever thing is in the design of the task,” says Calvert. “Once you’ve got that running it’s a very flexible, scalable method.”


11 years ago

First, it should be noted that Sands Research (www.sandsresearch.com) is a competitor to Dr. Calvert's Neurosense and we applaud her work in the new field of applying neuroscience in market research. However, I believe your article left the wrong impression regarding combined EEG and Eye-tracking methodologies in neuromarketing. The failure of Emsense was due to two factors. One as you identified was burning through VC funds trying to establish an unproven, in-home approach. However, their second challenge, was their un-orthodox, black box methodology to supposedly obtain EEG recordings. Their "EEG" methodology was not accepted by 99.9% of all academic or clinical EEG labs around the world and was often challenged in head-to-head pitches. Emsense decided not to participate in the ARF Neurostandards Study due to the challenges that would have been presented by ARF's expert panel. Using Emsense as an example of all EEG neuromarketing companies is incorrect and not acceptable. There are advantages and disadvantages of both fMRI and EEG methodologies as outlined in the Advertising Research Foundation's Neurostandards Study. The number of suppliers and studies being performed by EEG / ET companies substantially surpass the number of fMRI vendors and studies in the market. Nielsen recently acquired the largest EEG neuromarketing firm and we believe this is the first of several acquisitions in this space. In addition, it should be noted that Martin Lindstrom's book Buyology also included substantial work from EEG service firm, Neuro-Insight, as the basis of his findings. We agree with Dr. Calvert that more education of the market research community on the application of neuroscience will benefit all. Let's just hope that a balanced understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the various methods will be clearly spelled out. Every new industry has its charlatons and I would be happy to show you some "sketchy" fMRI studies if you like. Let's not broad brush certain methods but invest the time and effort to fully understand each approach to neuromarketing. Thank you. Ron Wright President / CEO Sands Research Inc.

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11 years ago

Thank you for this article. We do have a lot to learn and completely agree with the problems that "overselling and misrepresenting" is an issue that is holding the industry back. And in that vein, I find the comments and guesses about the closure of Emsense to not be particularly useful. They were a privately held company and the only thing we know for sure is what they released publicly. Speculation beyond that serves little true purpose.

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11 years ago

Great article! As a sceptic, I recently used neuroscience as part of a focus group and found excellent insight FGUK Research provided this and I must say was not disappointed. This is definitely the way forward in market research.

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11 years ago

well, i totally agree with Dr.Calvert's views on neuroscience, and i would put it this way," market research future depends on neuroscience". easy said than done, but there is no easy way as present-day consumers, on daily basis are bombarded with ads, which most people think are boring and thus our old AIDA model fails. so do the efforts of our brands managers goes down the drain. i think before we can air any ad campaign we must take help from "Neuroscience" and understands our target market better.

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