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FEATURE: Myths and Realities in Neuromarketing

January 11 2022

In the first feature from our forthcoming special issue on neuroscience techniques, Michelle Niedziela and Glenn Kessler from title sponsor HCD Research give an introduction to the progress and potential of the field, and cut through some of the hype and misconceptions surrounding it.

Michelle Niedziela and Glenn Kessler
Michelle Niedziela, PhD is VP of Research and Innovation and Glenn Kessler is company President at HCD.

The interdisciplinary field of 'neuromarketing' utilizes techniques from psychology, neuroscience, economics, and marketing to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the consumer experience. Commercial tools for leveraging these methodologies continue to get better, faster, and cheaper: however, the field has been plagued with pseudoscience and 'neuro-hype.' Researchers and clients alike have experienced some disappointments as they incorporate these measures into their research. From EEG (electroencephalogram) headsets to facial coding, neuromarketing tools have never been so accessible (or confusing). We will discuss how misconceptions and neuro-hype have led to a misunderstanding about what consumer neuroscience can and cannot do, and what the future may hold for the field.

Potential, and Problems

Technology is ever changing and almost impossible to follow. If you buy the latest laptop today, within 6 months, another model will be more advanced than your recent purchase. While it is important to be willing and able to change with the times by staying on top of the latest tools and methodologies, these advances come with nuisances and complexities. To make actionable progress, continuous learning and mastery is necessary. The current business environment is a free-for-all race where suppliers compete to impress clients with new capabilities. One industry most affected by the rapid advancement of technology, with a mist of mythology and misinformation, is neuromarketing (also referred to as consumer neuroscience, applied neuroscience, or behavioral science).

With more accessible neuro-tools (cheaper headsets, greater popularity, etc.), the once very academic field has become more mainstream in consumer and market research, especially in the areas of advertising, marketing, product research and measuring consumer emotions. Finding the best tool to measure emotions is highly sought-after, since it presents an opportunity to better connect consumers with products, concepts, or packaging.

However, this search has been plagued by difficulties. The complexity of studying and identifying emotions, as well as the need to choose the right tool for the right research question, underlines the need for interdisciplinary and thoughtful approaches. Consumer neuroscience providers, eager to sell services, often perpetuate neuromyths which lead to fundamental misunderstandings, misuse, and disappointment in the science.

Avoiding Neuro-Hype: Using the right tool for the right question

Marketers and consumer researchers have traditionally relied on consumers' self-reported reactions using survey research. Motivated to apply newer and more in-depth emotional and perceptual measures to understand and predict the consumer experience, researchers tap into neuromarketing measures. The ability to gain neuroscientific insights into the emotional product experience has therefore become very successful, as it provides useful information about the consumer experience.

The neuroscience toolbox has many great options for exploring a consumer experience, from measuring skin temperature and heart rate to more advanced technologies such as EEG and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Neuro-measurements provide nuanced and complicated results that are heavily influenced by research design. Each tool within the neuro-toolbox has its strengths and weaknesses, along with having situations where measures are best applied and times where certain measures are not appropriate.

An applied neuroscience approach is appealing, but it is most useful as a complement rather than a substitute to an existing methodology. Technical inconveniences in using neuroscience to study consumer experiences (such as experimental noise, reliability of measures, etc.) do exist. Therefore, the application of neuroscience and psychological methods should be done thoughtfully, with care, to correctly use certain tools to best answer specific experimental conditions. This means recognizing the limitations of these often-over-hyped tools.

To help sort through the clutter, be cautious of these 'neuro-hype' characteristics:

  • Psychobabble. The use of neuro-words or neuro-brands (now we're doing it!) is often intended to build confidence in a product or company. The field is much more interdisciplinary than just combining neuroscience and marketing, including psychology, sociology, and economics.
  • Reliance on anecdotal evidence. In place of published studies, many neuromarketing companies offer case studies, and most do not validate their tools or methods with any scientific research. Any new measure or new application of a neurological tool must be validated before being used (and sold). While case studies can be very informative and lead to great research ideas, thoughtful research must still be done to validate a methodology.
  • Unprovable false claims. When making claims about neuro-methodologies, researchers often fall into the trap of hindsight bias. They often try to fit the data into a story rather than do proper research design. It's the act of seeing the final score of the Super Bowl and then telling everyone you predicted it. No one can prove you didn't, and it can make you seem very smart. However, these types of falsities hinder the scientific process of moving the field forward.
  • Claims countering scientific fact. It's not currently possible to 'read the mind' with any tool. Brains are really complicated (neuro-understatement of the year). If the claim seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • The absence of adequate peer review. One of the biggest problems in neuromarketing is the absence of peer review (though some are trying to correct this problem). This is difficult for many neuromarketing companies trying to keep their methodologies proprietary. The lack of a legitimate scientific peer review process for proposed methodologies has allowed many neuromarketers to get away with using non-validated tools unchecked.

Looking Forward

Consumer neuroscience, as a field, will only continue to grow. Technology will continue to advance, and measures will become more accurate. End clients and practitioners will need to better understand these tools in order to be sure they are using valid approaches, but also to protect their own consumers. While it does not seem that real 'mind reading' will be possible in the immediate future, concerns around these technologies will remain.

Technologies continue to improve and become faster, better, and cheaper. Neuroscientific methodologies will continue to develop in the future of consumer and market research, but with great technology comes great responsibility. Much more research will be needed to continue to validate new methodologies and theories to continue to make positive strides within the ever-expanding field of neuromarketing. The future of consumer neuroscience will likely need to involve better ways to integrate non-conscious measures with cognitive data to make predictive analyses of the drivers behind different consumer responses.

In the upcoming articles we (and others) will be sharing with MrWeb's Daily Research News we will discuss and review some of the most exciting developments in the neuromarketing/consumer neuroscience space, such as wearables and augmented reality, best practices for improving neuroscience applications in market research, and relevant case studies showcasing those applications. Combining proper use of neuroscience tools with traditional market research methods and also other disciplines such as behavioural science, will lead ultimately to a more powerful and holistic understanding of consumer decision making. With proper use 'neuromarketing' can become a mainstream service with more automation, better standardization of methodologies, more accurate technologies and interpretations, and less sensationalism.

HCD is a marketing and consumer sciences company that provides expert recommendations by employing traditional and applied consumer neuroscience to optimize the design of products, experiences, and communications. We are 'methodologically agnostic' and approach each client inquiry as a unique market research challenge. Our customized solutions employ the most appropriate research tools based on the specific objectives, and we believe this is the best way forward for the neuromarketing field.

Michelle Murphy Niedziela (PhD; @hcdneuroscience) is a behavioral neuroscience expert in neuropsychology, psychology and consumer science. Experienced from academia (Monell Chemical Senses Center) and industry (Johnson & Johnson, Mars Chocolate) in R&D of innovation technologies and methodologies for consumer research. As VP of Research and Innovation at HCD Research, Michelle focuses on integrating applied consumer neuroscience tools with traditional methods used to measure consumer response.

Glenn Kessler is the President & CEO of HCD Research, a communications and sensory research company which uses applied consumer neuroscience methods and traditional research tools to answer a variety of research questions. In addition to years of experience in management, marketing and market research analysis, he has conducted political communications research for campaigns and evaluated Super Bowl Advertising for major media outlets, becoming an 'expert' in political advertising. He is a regular guest speaker at The College of New Jersey, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and The Rutgers Graduate School of Business and Management. He is now focused on bringing innovation and new business opportunities to HCD.

SEE ALSO other pieces from this supplement published as articles on DRNO:

Neuro Best Practice Guide - March 1 2022

Neuroscience Techniques and Best Practice #1 - February 24

Podcast / video interview: Neuro-Guru Dr Michelle Niedziela - February 3 2022

Using EDA to Track Response to SquidGame - February 2 2022

Wearable Tech - Fit for MRX? - January 18 2022

View the whole supplement in pdf format - download for free

All articles 2006-22 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.

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