FEATURE7 July 2011

Talking heads – and hearts


When Phil Barden and David Penn clashed briefly during the Research 2011 neuroscience session we were left wanting to hear more. So we stuck them in a room together for an hour-long discussion of brains, emotions and marketing.


The question, essentially, is to what extent is our behaviour shaped by reason or raw emotion. “We didn’t have time to get into the details of this,” Barden said in response to our blog post on the session. So, a few months on, we brought the two of them together in a room for an hour-long discussion.

Here’s what they had to say.

Research: ?What has neuroscience brought to the understanding of emotion?

Barden: ?It’s not just neuroscience, it’s an amalgamation of what I would broadly term decision science – a blend of neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology and behavioural economics. Being an ex-client, being an ex-brand manager for 25 years, what’s excited me is that these disciplines are starting to shed light on some new insights on how people decide. Some of it is helped by different tools – and a lot of people think of neuroscience as all about tools – but I think it’s broader than that. You can actually learn a lot about emotion from published scientific papers – things that are in the public domain that marketers probably wouldn’t have even been aware of a few years ago.

Penn: ?The big change for me is that, when I worked for Unilever for example, we talked a lot about emotion as being a very important thing but I don’t think anybody knew what emotion actually meant. They had a vague idea of it and they knew that somehow what they were doing in Unilever with Persil, for example, was different to what Procter & Gamble were doing with Ariel. With Ariel, P&G were talking about function, about product. For Persil we were talking about care, about the family. So there was a sort of broad dichotomy between emotional and rational which, as neuroscience has grown up, we’ve come to understand a lot more about, to the point where we can start to understand that different parts of the brain are involved in different parts of reaction to a brand.

“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”

Phil Barden

Barden: David, you talked quite rightly about this distinction between rational and emotional. 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. And that type of thinking – emotional versus rational – goes back centuries. It’s a hypothesis to distinguish us from the animal kingdom. We had this sort of higher order, if you like. But it’s not helpful because what neuroscience has discovered is that this division is a complete fallacy. 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.

Penn:? But I actually think that dichotomy of emotional/rational is still a useful one, because actually emotion and reason are implemented in different bits of the brain. Decision-making is kind of a simultaneous use of emotion and reason, but the point is that you can find emotion as a separate entity within the brain. What happens is that the emotion comes first. It creates a feeling which you’re aware of consciously. You then engage with that and, in your conscious mind, you then make a decision which is an amalgam of reason and emotion. Emotion can be separately measured and identified. How we do it is less important than the basic principle that we should be trying to find it and trying to measure it.

Barden:? I completely agree with that. The stuff that we do is based on this model of there being two systems in the brain – the automatic reflexive system, the intuitive system, and then the reflective, effortful system. But a lot of people think it’s either one or the other. It’s not. The two systems work fluidly together and there’s an interplay between them. The interesting thing from our perspective is how much is actually automatically processed. Evolution has created these systems in the brain, basically for survival, because if we had to process all the information that we receive throughout our daily lives in a cognitive, reflective, effortful way we just would not survive. So the brain has built this automatic system to process massive amounts of information very, very quickly. And it operates without conscious deliberation or very often without even awareness of it going on.

Penn: ?My question is, though, when it comes to marketing and brands, what happens when you see a brand? If there are brands that you’ve got an emotional affinity with, it negates the need to actually think about what you’re doing. So basically you just choose the brand you like – Persil, Hobnobs, whatever it might be – simply because those brands have become almost like little metaphors for you. They tell you all you need to know so that you don’t have to bother thinking about it. But I think it’s a little bit unrealistic to say that that is done completely on auto-pilot. I’d argue that it’s probably done at a very low cognitive level.

“Emotion can be separately measured and identified. How we do it is less important than the basic principle that we should be trying to find it and trying to measure it”

David Penn

Barden: ?You’re absolutely right, there is a level of reflective processing that goes on in everything we do. But the neuroscience work on these two systems has suggested that a lot, if not all, the information that is presented to the System 2 brain, the reflective side, has already been pre-selected and pre-filtered by System 1 – the reflexive side – based on heuristics that have been built up over time which include personal experience. So when we’re choosing a brand in the shop, as long as we’re happy with that brand and it rewards us neuropsychologically in an optimal way, unless there’s a disruptive event of some sort that comes in and interferes with that process the brand acts as a shortcut and that’s what the brain loves because it doesn’t want to spend the time, the effort and importantly the energy in actually thinking about this choice.

I have a question for you, David, because you’ve been a career researcher: If we were able to turn back time and have the insights and learnings from neuroscience that we’ve now got how do you think market research would have evolved differently?

Penn: Everything I read and everything I study suggests to me that the best way to measure emotion is not verbally. And I think if we had that knowledge – and we had online methods at the time – our surveys would have looked completely different. I think they would have been much more visual, much less verbal. We’d have just been a lot smarter about what conventional research tells us versus what it can’t.

Research:? David, your company has developed a way of using metaphors to allow people to express their emotional responses, while Phil, yours uses implicit association tests. But is there still a place for conventional research techniques?

Penn:? I think the more the merrier. If I was a marketer, I’d want conventional research, I’d want social media analysis, I’d want some neuromarketing. I’d certainly want some non-verbal techniques, probably alongside my conventional research and my tracking, pre-testing and so on. But I’d want as much as I could get. Anything that works works for a reason. Just because we don’t necessarily understand why it works isn’t a good reason for not using it. I wouldn’t chuck things out just because theoretically it looks like there’s not a good explanation for them.

Barden: ?Interestingly, where traditional methods have been used to measure the same things as some of the new neuromarketing methods they’ve come up with highly contradictory results. Typically it’s in the area of emotion. So from a client perspective the questions are: Which is right and which is wrong? Which do I believe? Do I believe the method that I’ve always been using or do I believe this new method? And that’s why we advise clients that you really need to look at the particular measure and then decide on the best way to measure it. Because it’s clear that explicit measures, traditional measures, are absolutely valid for certain things but it’s also clear that non-verbal or implicit measures are valid for other things.

“Certain ads create a response that people can’t put into words and if you try and constrain that response or define it by asking ‘How much do you enjoy it?’ – I think it’s very difficult for people to actually respond in a meaningful way”

David Penn

Penn:? That’s a very good point. When we were validating our Metaphorix tool we tested the Cadbury’s Gorilla advert using this non-verbal approach and a conventional approach. And on a conventional approach if you used a scale like an enjoyment scale, which is a typical way of measuring engagement with advertising, Gorilla wasn’t that much better than a lot of other ads. It was at the top end, but when we looked at it non-verbally it just went off the scale and it does seem that certain ads create a response that people can’t put into words and if you try and constrain that response or define it by asking “How much do you enjoy it?” – I think it’s very difficult for people to actually respond in a meaningful way. I think a good marketer would look at an ad like that and say, “Well, that’s probably not going to be very well measured using conventional research. I need something else for that.” Other ads you might look at and say conventional research can probably do that quite well.

Barden:? We use a two-by-two matrix which is looking at System 1 and System 2 but also cognitive and emotional. That gives us four quadrants and it is possible to put different variables in each quadrant. So something like comprehension, for example, is a cognitive, explicit measure because it’s reflective effort, reporting post-rationalising comprehension and explaining it. That’s absolutely valid to measure conventionally. But if you wanted to look at pure, implicit emotional response you wouldn’t use an explicit technique. It’s as simple as that.

?Penn: I think it’s important to say, though, that just looking in the brain is never going to tell you everything you need to know. There’s a brilliant book I read recently called Splendours and Miseries of the Brain by Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist. He says that if you look at romantic love, sensual or sexual love and religious love – love for a deity or a prophet or whatever – they’re all pretty much in the same bit of the brain, but those three things are clearly not the same. Zeki argues that what you’ve really got to do is look at the manifestation of those feelings. Look into art, culture, paintings, music, opera and what you’ll find is that those different interpretations of that basic emotion will be expressed in lots of different ways but there will be commonalities between them.

?So it’s never going to be enough to just take an EEG trace or get someone’s skin response or get an FMRI scan. It’s never going to tell you enough to make an ad. That’s not going to write your creative brief for you. It’s going to tell you something important that you couldn’t find any other way. I’m a huge supporter of doing it because I think it is very valuable to look at it but it’s not the total answer. It’s just part of an answer.