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FEATURE1 June 2011

Counting the beats

Behavioural economics

The understanding of emotions and how they influence behaviour is advancing. Brian Tarran looks at how this is changing research.

Kevin Roberts, the worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, once referred to researchers as ‘vampires’. “They sucked the life out of creativity, in both the people and the work they were researching,” he says. “I don’t believe in focus groups or copy-testing as they are question-based methods that don’t get anywhere near the truth… you get what people think they think, not what they feel.”

His interest in emotional truths informed a keynote speech he made at the Esomar Congress in 2002, when he called on the research industry to count “the beats of your heart, not the fingers on your hand”.

Nearly a decade on, we asked Roberts for his verdict on how the industry has risen to that challenge. He was largely positive.

“Emotion has been given a lot more credit in research since then,” he says. “The Nobel Prize in Economics has been awarded to Daniel Kahneman for proving that emotions are important determinants of economic behaviour, more so than rationality. Countries like Great Britain and cities like Somerville in Massachusetts are formally measuring happiness as part of their economic assessments.

“And,” he says, “I believe there are researchers and research companies out there who truly get it and have created meaningful methods for understanding feelings and emotional drivers.”

“Emotion is something that is hard to quantify. It doesn’t live in spreadsheets or end-of-year projections”

Kevin Roberts

The wrong path
It’s been a long time getting to this point. Much of the work that informs today’s cutting-edge research, the academic and scientific studies that helped bring about a better understanding of the way the human brain works, goes back 40 years, says Phil Barden, a brand and marketing manager who has worked for the likes of Unilever, Diageo, First Choice Holidays and T-Mobile.

“When I was growing up I was taught to build a brand based on functional attributes, rational attributes and emotional attributes. And the emotional bit was always difficult to grasp. It was intangible; it was a sort of magic fairy dust that was sprinkled on top. But you could really, really touch and feel the functional and the rational bits. So that’s what people tended to focus on.”

Tangible things are easier to measure so it’s little surprise that researchers were happy to accompany marketers down this particular path. But there are good, solid historical reasons – not just laziness – for rejecting the idea that emotions are worth measuring, or indeed have much bearing on the decisions consumers make.

Humans are the rational animal after all, distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by their reliance on reason not brute instinct. This view fed through to the advertising model we still largely rely on, “where we overtly state a proposition that contains within it an argument that then persuades (or not) rational consumers to make the decisions they actually make,” says Ogilvy UK vice chairman Rory Sutherland.

“That model is very comfortable for advertisers because it absolutely defends you against charges of manipulation,” he says. “You are dealing purely at a conscious rational level of awareness and preference. The only problem is it’s not really true.”

The idea that emotions don’t factor into our decision-making process is “a complete fallacy”, says Barden, who now runs the neuromarketing consultancy Decode. “There are no decisions that are taken that are purely rational and there are no decisions that are purely emotional. Emotions play a fundamental role in everything we do, every decision we take.”

Sutherland uses a handy White House analogy to describe the interplay between the emotional and rational brain. “The conscious, rational brain isn’t the Oval Office,” he says. “It isn’t there making executive decisions in our minds. It is actually the press office, issuing explanations for actions we’ve already taken.” And so researchers have more often than not found themselves conversing with the press office, rather than the real decision-makers within our minds, and the answers they get, Sutherland says, are in many cases “post-rationalisations of decisions that were anything but conscious and sequential and highly logical in the way they were made”.

“There are no decisions that are purely rational. Emotions play a role in everything we do, every decision we take”

Phil Barden

The heart of the matter
The task for research, then, has been to find ways of circumnavigating the press office. One way of doing so is to avoid direct questions or at least avoid those that require a verbal or written response.

David Penn of Conquest uses visual metaphors to explore the emotions consumers feel towards brands. “There’s no words, there’s no numbers,” he says. “People have to choose an avatar to represent themselves and then that avatar appears in different animated scenarios. Each of these scenarios represents a metaphor and people move their avatar to show us how they feel.”

It could be that the respondent is asked to position two avatars on a sofa, says Penn. “What I’m doing is using the metaphor of closeness really to represent affection. Or I could use a thermometer, for example, to illustrate warmth and coldness.

“People can use that,” Penn says, “because they implicitly understand that and the primary metaphors that we are interested in are basically the metaphors for emotions that are universal and go right across cultures.”

It was psychologist Paul Ekman who developed the idea that emotions are universal through his study of facial expressions in different cultures, and his system of facial action coding – born out of this work – is increasingly being employed today to understand consumer reactions to adverts and product concepts and packaging, either by observing people’s expressions or by using images of faces as a way for survey respondents to indicate how they feel.

The tools of neuroscience are also being applied for market research purposes – FMRI and EEG scans– and other biometric measures like eye-tracking, heart rate monitors and skin conductivity measures.

Saatchi’s Roberts welcomes them as “tools to help marketers understand how and why people make choices” and, in the case of neuroscience, to give insight into “the mysterious part of human behaviour – what’s going on in the brain”.

But these measures of physiological response are limited in what they can tell us, Penn says. “Just taking an EEG trace or an FMRI scan is never going to tell you enough to make an ad. It’s not going to write your creative brief for you. It’s going to tell you something important that you couldn’t find out any other way – and I’m a huge supporter of doing it because I think it’s very valuable – but it’s not the total answer at all. It’s just part of an answer.”

A brain scan can’t tell you what someone is feeling and what that emotion means to them. At some point, Penn says, “you’ve got to ask them a question”.

“The rational brain isn’t the Oval Office. It isn’t making executive decisions. It’s the press office”

Rory Sutherland

Emotional connection
So a true understanding of human emotional response to brands requires, in Penn’s view, a mix of both conventional and more novel research techniques. Barden agrees that “explicit measures – traditional measures – are absolutely valid for certain things”.

Measures of brand awareness, for instance, have their use. Or at least they would be more useful with some slight tweaking. Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland references the work of marketing professor Byron Sharp and his assertion that “distinctiveness is more important a quality in advertising than persuasiveness and differentiation”.

“The most important thing,” Sutherland says, “is that a person remembers your brand as having done a lot of advertising because in making purchase decisions we have an availability bias which massively biases us towards buying things we’ve heard of before.”

Unprompted awareness, then, provides a decent guide to whether a brand might profit from this availability bias, though Sutherland suggests it would be improved by also understanding how ubiquitous the brand is perceived to be.

“Quite a lot of the assumptions on which research is based are perfectly sensible in many ways and in many cases are a pretty good proxy for what is needed,” he says. It’s right, he thinks, that research is being reappraised in the light of what neuroscience has taught us. But his deep interest in behavioural economics leads him to advocate control-based tests and continual experimentation. It’s an approach direct marketers often employ (and one discussed in more depth on page 28 ): try different offers, see which succeeds.

Sutherland’s hope is that this sort of research eventually leads to the development of “databases of susceptibility” – allowing certain consumer groups to be targeted according to the heuristics (the mental and emotional shortcuts and rules of thumb) that they are most likely to resort to.

“The most important revolution in marketing is really just like the most important revolution in science 150 years ago,” he says. “It’s the scientific principle of experimentation – hypothesis and verification.”

“Just taking an EEG trace or an FMRI scan is never going to tell you enough to make an ad. It’s just part of the answer”

David Penn

Complicated creatures
David Ogilvy once said: “The trouble with research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” It sums up the challenges marketers face in trying to understand consumers through conventional means.

But at the intersection of neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology and behavioural economics – a field that Decode’s Barden calls ‘decision science’ – researchers are trying to untangle the messy interplay of emotion and reason and how it influences our actions.

There should be no illusions about the difficulty of the task, however. Kevin Roberts, the ad man who challenged the industry nearly a decade ago, knows that human beings are “complicated creatures” and that “emotion is something that is hard to quantify”.

“It doesn’t live in spreadsheets and end-of-year projections,” he says. “You can encourage it, but ultimately the market can’t control it.”

1 Comment

7 years ago

excellent article and sincerely hope that in future we are successful with "decision science", it would help in understanding the consumer behavior better. on the other hand researchers should be able to intertwined the techniques of "Neuroscience" and "decision science", so as to come up with practical methods in future.

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