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A Beautiful Mind: Is Neuroscience the Future of Advertising?

31/07/2015 11:32 | Updated 27 July 2016

Every year a new buzzword enters the marketing industry and one of this year's new entrants is 'neuromarketing'. By definition, neuromarketing comes from neuroscience - the study of the brain. When coupled with marketing it's a research method that studies a person's neuro responses or patterns when exposed to particular advertisement or image. Herbert Krugman, one the advertising masterminds of the mad men era, was one of the first to look at a consumer's brain activity and behaviour towards televisions ads. It was revolutionary at the time, but advances in technology and algorithms used to analyse data today have breathed new life into the practice. Whether it's measuring emotional response through electroencephalogram (EEG) testing or brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in brain activity in specific areas of the mind, neuromarketing is the one method that has the industry talking - whether they buy into its effectiveness or not.

So why are marketers jumping on the neuromarketing bandwagon now? In the last 5 years, advances in technology and data analytics have ushered in a new wave of marketing for brands. Cookies alone, have created a digital footprint of consumers that allows brands to gain access to real-time data about a person's browsing and purchasing habits. While it has led to much more personalised online experiences for consumers, it's also increased saturation. Consumers are now on auto pilot when it comes to responding to the images being thrown at them and have become desensitised to the point where, according to Google, more than half of ads aren't seen.

In a recent study conducted by Criteo and Censuswide, a third of the British public only recall seeing one ad a day and know instantly whether they love or hate a brand. It's no longer enough to serve up personalised ads, brands need to start understanding how to appeal to the emotional triggers and subconscious in a way that will make consumers stop and click. That's where neuromarketing comes in.

Major online retailers such as ASOS, John Lewis and Next have used psychological stimulants on their websites to entice consumers to stay online for longer or add an item to their online shopping cart, with great effect. While other brands have used it for brand positioning to gain an understanding of how consumers will respond emotionally to certain marketing and advertising campaigns.

KFC is a great example. With a saturated market of fast food chains and the increasing importance of 'healthy living' for today's consumers, the business is fighting for market share - despite being such an iconic brand. This year marks its 50th anniversary and using neurostudies of consumer behaviour it's repositioning to appeal to the emotions of its restaurant goers - focusing less on the love of their product and more on the love of the brand. That's permeated through its latest TV ad campaigns, digital and will be seen via a revamp in stores as well. It's worked for the likes of McDonalds and Weight Watchers, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out for KFC.

When it comes to online advertising, neuromarketing is still in its infancy and some experts believe it can be misleading. Clinical psychologist Vaughn Bell, claims that neuromarketing is a legitimate research area of cognitive science, but the results are 'abstract and ultra-focused' - making them far from applicable in everyday use. Eye tracking technology is often placed under the neuromarketing umbrella, but it's not technically a brain response test. True understanding of neuromarketing is fairly limited in the marketing world, and for me, I have yet to see it used in a way that produces real-time results that shed light on what's driving consumer decisions.

The Censuswide and Criteo study looked into the British public's attitudes towards online advertising and shopping revealed that colour, personalisation, and repetition emerged as the most common elements that convert consumers from browser to buyer.

Renowned web psychologist and author of Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion, Natalie Nahai believes that colour is a powerful persuasion tool online. According to the study only 24 per cent of respondents said they were most attracted to the colour red, yet over half said they were attracted to flash sales and offers - which are more often than not red. An indication that our subconscious is driving our desire to click.

It's not just neuromarketing, emotional response testing has become a staple in the marketing research toolkit. Facial coding, for example, is edging out in front of some of the other methods such as eye tracking and being used by top agencies like Millward Brown. It's the ability to monitor and test emotional responses based entirely on facial reactions and is often used before marketing content is launched to gauge consumers' subconscious reaction. While these automated methods of emotional tracking are great insight tools, what's missing is the 'why' consumers are reacting that way or what exactly in the ad has caused it? It's all subjective and no one has the silver bullet - yet.

Whatever the future holds for the industry, personalisation will remain at the heart of effective advertising. Consumers want to be seen as individuals rather than grouped by gender or trendy demographic clusters such as millennials or baby boomers. And as consumers become more sophisticated about online tracking methods, it's our responsibility to do so in a way that is rooted in integrity, transparency and gives consumers an opportunity to opt-in or out. Otherwise it can have a damaging impact for us all.

At the end of the day, the mind is a fascinating tool and what drives human decision-making will continue to keep marketers up at night - whether we understand the brain or not.