Unearth the power of declared data
Insights That Work

Can Neuromarketing Get Its Groove Back? Part 2

What is required of neuromarketing at this point in its young history is to look unflinching at its strengths and weaknesses, its opportunities and threats, and honestly internalize the lessons it can learn from its experiences to date.



By Steve Genco

In Part 1 of this post, I outlined four requirements for growth that neuromarketing has so far failed to meet. Here are four strategies neuromarketing needs to pursue to meet those requirements and win over the huge market of mainstream research buyers who have so far sat on the sidelines as investors in neuromarketing solutions.

How neuromarketing can grow from here:


Create hybrid solutions that are scalable


Neuromarketing needs to accept that it does not stand alone. One-off, lab-based solutions are never going to be scalable, but they can be critical parts of more scalable hybrid solutions. There are two ways in which neuromarketing should think about integrating with other approaches to improve scalability.


First, lab-based neuromarketing should recognize and embrace its own disrupters: online services providing webcam-based eye-tracking and facial expression analysis featuring large sample sizes, rapid turnaround times, and extremely low costs. Many serious neuromarketers and academic scientists dismiss these approaches as “toys,” and it is true that their signal detection capabilities are still inferior to what can be achieved in a lab or by expert analysts. But for many buyers, the scalability and convenience of these approaches trumps such concerns. As computing power continues to increase exponentially, the performance gap between lab and online data collection will continue to shrink. Neuromarketers need to determine how lab and online techniques complement each other, and develop hybrid solutions that leverage and integrate the best of both approaches.


Second, neuromarketing should integrate more fully with traditional research companies, especially the “panel-scanner” providers who collect mountains of data matching up the advertising and marketing that people see with the products and brands they buy. One of the most consistent findings from these mountains of data is that advertising’s short-run effects are on average small, but highly variable. This would seem to present a perfect opportunity for neuromarketing to play a key role: what accounts for this variability? Why does some advertising achieve huge behavioral effects, while most disappears quietly into the static of background noise? Whatever the reasons, they are happening in people’s heads.


Combining panel-scanner data and neuromarketing testing holds the potential to vastly improve the predictive power of both methods. Knowledge of correlations between media exposure and consumer behavior can be used to train and tune neuromarketing metrics for better predictability, and those metrics can in turn be integrated into marketing mix models to improve their predictability, as well as their explanatory value.


Build trust by embracing methodological transparency


Slowly but surely, neuromarketing has learned that exaggerated and irresponsible claims don’t sell. Many of the worst offenders from the early days have either moved on to other interests or are no longer active spokespersons for the industry. Some firms that were most strongly associated with irresponsible claims (the ones that prompted neuroscientists to send protest letters to the New York Times, for example) are no longer in business. These are all positive signs of a maturing industry.


But the most important thing neuromarketers need to do to address the trustworthiness issue among mainstream research buyers is to open up their “black box” methodologies and explain to buyers and potential buyers exactly how their metrics are constructed and operationalized. They need to cite the established science that underlies their methods and show compelling evidence of validity, reliability, and generalizability.


How can vendors expect buyers to believe them about a secret new formula for measuring attention with EEG, for example, when a Google Scholar search of “EEG and attention” yields about 540,000 papers on the subject? Neuromarketers need to learn that it isn’t what they do, but how they do it, that will form the real basis for competitive advantage in the mainstream research marketplace. Firms with more experience, higher quality processes, global reach, faster turnaround times, and a better understanding of their clients’ business needs will always be preferred vendors over those who claim to have proprietary methods and secret formulas. It’s time to educate the research marketplace about the real science behind neuromarketing, not hide it inside methodological “black boxes.”


Include choice and behavior in neuromarketing metrics and demonstrate business value with normative data


The ability to measure reactions occurring in the mind, especially those that happen outside of conscious awareness, is the “killer app” of neuromarketing. But neuromarketers need to understand that this ability is not in itself a compelling reason for mainstream research buyers to shift budgets from traditional research to neuromarketing solutions. What is needed in addition is a clear demonstration that these reactions can provide better predictions of consumer choices and behaviors, the outcomes that mainstream buyers really care about. This means that neuromarketing needs to connect its neurometrics to explicit decisions and actions, both at the individual level, by comparing metrics results to individual choices and intentions, and at the aggregate level, by comparing results to marketplace performance – sales, profits, share, volume, etc.


Once neuromarketing begins to take choice seriously, it must also begin to take shopping context seriously, by absorbing into its explanatory models the fundamental insights of behavioral economics – that choices are made using judgment and decision heuristics that are extremely sensitive to the physical, social, and personal contexts within which choices are made. Mainstream marketing organizations know that many variables intervene between a brain response to an ad or marketing message and a sale. To gain greater acceptance, neuromarketing must show it understands this reality, and present its metrics in a broader explanatory context that makes sense to mainstream buyers and allows them to connect neuromarketing results to other data, especially behavioral data, that they collect every day.


In addition, neuromarketing needs to get serious about normative data. One of the biggest liabilities impeding its adoption by mainstream buyers is the fact that, although many neuromarketing firms have been collecting data and generating results for years, none have yet to publish a meaningful sample of normative results showing a positive statistical relationship between their metrics and some aspect of marketplace performance.


This is not to deny that some compelling individual studies have been publicized. But mainstream buyers are “show me” buyers. A simple scatterplot of dozens or hundreds of results compared to marketplace performance, showing a significant r-squared and meaningful effect size, has yet to appear. In the absence of such a demonstration, which is commonplace among established traditional research vendors, neuromarketing will remain at a serious disadvantage as a mainstream research alternative.


Help marketers and researchers learn a new language 0f consumer insights


Neuromarketing needs to contribute to the language of insights. As Edward Appleton recently observed in this blog, Consumer Insights and Market Research speak different languages. Researchers talk about data and findings, but insights professionals talk about interpretations, narratives, strategies, and action plans. Neuromarketing tends to speak the language of research, but it also has much to contribute to the language of insights.


What is needed? Neuromarketing should stop talking vaguely about “nonconscious processes” and begin using the new language of “how the brain actually works” to explain how those processes predictably impact consumer decisions and actions. What’s important is not just to reiterate that consumer’ brains operate nonconsciously (we get that), but to introduce a new language for talking about how those nonconscious processes subtly nudge consumers in one direction or another.


In our book Neuromarketing for Dummies, we introduced the concept of the Intuitive Consumer, in contrast to the old concept of the Deliberative Consumer, to make the point that consumers respond intuitively, not explicitly or consciously, to much of the marketing, advertising, brands, products, and media that surround them. Using established concepts from neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics, we highlight several of the intuitive mechanisms that directly influence consumer responses, choices, and behavior. For example:


  • Novelty automatically attracts attention, but also triggers vigilance and resistance.
  • Familiarity is key for establishing a sense of comfort, safety, and emotional attraction.
  • Processing fluency is a powerful attractor that imparts an impression of familiarity, truthfulness, attractiveness, and low risk.
  • Nonconscious emotional markers are significant sources of approach or avoidance motivation.
  • Implicit learning is an established mechanism for acquiring information nonconsciously and effortlessly.
  • Judgment and decision heuristics make us predictably sensitive to the contexts within which choices are framed.


Today, we do not commonly hear this kind of language used when insights teams are looking for new consumer insights. Helping insights professionals learn and leverage the new language of intuitive consumer marketing can strengthen the connection between neuromarketing concepts, metrics, and business outcomes, add value to the insights development process, and improve neuromarketing’s credibility with mainstream research buyers.


So, can neuromarketing get its groove back?


What is required of neuromarketing at this point in its young history is to look unflinching at its strengths and weaknesses, its opportunities and threats, and honestly internalize the lessons it can learn from its experiences to date. By providing more scalable solutions, abandoning “black box” methodologies, incorporating choice and behavior into its offerings, and creating closer ties to consumer insights, I believe neuromarketing can become a much more attractive option for mainstream research buyers. Some neuromarketing vendors are already well on their way to implementing various aspects of these strategies, so we can anticipate that the marketplace will soon begin to render its verdict as to whether a revitalized neuromarketing is on its way to getting its groove back.


Let’s check in again in a year and see how things are going.


Please share...

8 responses to “Can Neuromarketing Get Its Groove Back? Part 2

  1. Great analysis – and the processing fluency engendered by your writing style makes your arguments seem even that much more trustworthy! It’s an exciting time for our industry, not often will we have the opportunity to move an entire set of research products from the early adoption phase to majority use. If we do this right, by staying true to the science and translating it into real business insight, all boats should rise with the tide.

  2. Your point about tying neurological behavior to purchasing behavior is, to me, the most important thing you said and the reason much of neuromarketing has failed. It’s all well and good to propose mediators of distal stimuli and their impact on behavior, it’s another to show it. The showing it is the compelling part of the tool and the sales pitch.
    I would disagree with you though, that scalability and convenience are what is needed now. An error-filled technique is only going to hurt neuromarketing’s developement.

  3. Steve, couldn’t agree more. Without solid predictability and connections to behavior, scalability is just getting more bad data faster. But there are some cases of very promising predictability today, such as the PSA advertising effectiveness fMRI studies from UCLA (e.g., Falk, Emily B., Elliot T. Berkman, and Matthew D. Lieberman. “From Neural Responses to Population Behavior Neural Focus Group Predicts Population-Level Media Effects.” Psychological science 23.5 (2012): 439-445). I think the scalability issue applies here — great work but there’s no way it can be run off an assembly line or turned around in a day or two.

  4. First, there is not a single piece of independent evidence to support any statement in this post. Second these statements contradict all experimental brain science. Third the author has a conflicts of interest – he is selling this silly stuff – like most con men.

    Forth, and last, look…clients demand all sorts of things that don’t work – neuromarketing is one of them. whever sells clients what they want makes money. Ho hum.

    Salespeople always say yes to the client. Marketers usually have to say no – “That will not work.” since most “marketers” – esp so called neuromarketers never say no and take clients checks they are just selling stuff…Predictable.

  5. A little harsh, Brain. Tons of research on novelty generating attention (thinking Berlyne’s work, for example), familiarity is attracting (Berscheid, Walster, et. al.’s work on attraction) and decisions being contextually sensitive (Sherif, Kahnemann, Ariely, etc.). None of this conflicts with all experimental brain science, although it may well conflict with some studies.

  6. We are having a professional, evidence based discussion here – personal style is irrelevant.

    No, the no free will and 140ms “decision” period across all mammals thoroughly, and medically, debunks all models positing consciousness, emotions, thinking – really just self reports and subjective experience as anything more than epiphenomenal to behavior.

    By definition, if it can’t be found in other animals, it’s biologically untenable.

Join the conversation