Trust Me: Quality Control in Neuromarketing Research

[Big Ideas Series] Researchers need to take a step back from the buzz of neuromarketing to understand that the methodology is just one part of the consumer insights process.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Michelle Niedziela will be speaking at IIeX North America (June 11-13 in Atlanta). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more.

Qualitative and quantitative market research methodologies are the backbone of strategic business strategy. Getting the voice of the consumer is one of the key factors used in maintaining competitiveness against rival brands. Being able to trust in contracted research results is paramount to healthy, functioning industry research and often this is entrusted to research partners.

The problem of trust becomes even more of an issue with innovations and advances in technology such as neuromarketing (also known as applied neuroscience, consumer neuroscience, etc.). But does the product meet the promise?

Neuromarketing: What is it good for?

Neuromarketing uses neuropsychological methodologies from academia to study consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing and product stimuli. The idea of using neuromarketing over traditional market research is an appealing one, especially given the current climate of mistrust in the traditional measures. Neuromarketing companies suggest that not only can you not trust traditional market research providers, but that you also cannot trust consumers to tell you the truth.
There are quite a few options in the neuromarketer’s toolbox. Psychological and neuroscience tools can range from fMRI to psychological questionnaires. While neuromarketers suggest that this approach prevents bias and get to consumers’ “true feelings”, the fact is that a lot of neuromarketing work is full of poor research design and misuse and misinterpretation of neuroscience and psychological tools. But I’d like to stress here that it isn’t the tools themselves that are bad. In fact, I like to say that the tools do exactly what they are supposed to do; it’s the humans which are more often the problem by over-interpreting results or designing studies incorrectly, and yes, adding bias (experimenter and confirmation bias).

Ultimately, there is no one tool that will cover all research. And so we must be willing to accept that certain tools are better at collecting certain types of information over other tools. And we must be sure we are using the right tool for the right measure. It is paramount that neuromarketing research providers are clear on all the limitations of their measures.

How do we fix a problem like Neuromarketing?

While it’s great to use all of these scientific tools and be on the cutting edge of technology, it’s important to take a step back and think about what you are ultimately trying to accomplish. It’s my firm belief that if you can just ask someone, then just ask them (it’s certainly cheaper and more efficient than wiring someone up!). Consumers are actually quite reliable at knowing whether they will purchase something or if they like something and that’s not what the technology should be used for and is in fact, not great at doing. And, honestly, neuroscience really isn’t a great tool for lie detection (except for pupil dilation which has some reliable correlation to lying). So while some research providers claim that you can’t trust consumers to tell you what they really think, I don’t agree that that is necessarily true, although it makes for a very convenient story.

So what can you do?

I suggest following a few rules/guides to help decide how to use both neuroscience and a potential neuroscience provider:

  1. Start with the research question.
  2. Always use the right tool for the right question.
  3. Build a story with multiple research points.

Final Thoughts

It is the job of the research provider to use reliable, validated methods and technologies. The client-provider relationship is one of trust. And so we must do our very best to nurture that trust with full disclosure regarding the limitations of these tools. While it is important to always push the limits and create new and innovative applications, we must most importantly stay scientifically vigilant and maintain scientific integrity.

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