Neuroscience provides us with deeper insights into how consumers think, feel and make decisions than ever available before, and these insights have the potential to revolutionize traditional marketing practice. Neuroscience provides us with new directions when it comes to dealing with habitual buyers or to shaping considered purchase decisions, revitalizing a mature brand, designing a communications campaign that delivers results, priming the consumer along the path to purchase, or using disruption to gain market share.
But the application of neuroscience to these sorts of strategic issues – what we call neuromarketing – is not always understood.
For example – more and more marketers and their agencies are testing ads, logos, package designs and other collateral material in labs, typically by assessing the reaction of consumers on the basis of brain activity. This is useful: it can tell us if, say, an ad succeeds in activating emotions or leading to memory formation. Importantly, we can assess memory formation in the nonconscious mind – something that can’t be measured by traditional research techniques such as asking about ad recall.
That's great! But what does it really mean?
If we test a TV ad, it’s useful to know that certain frames or sequences lead to a drop in emotional engagement. This may allow us to make some corrections. It is also important to know that memory formation is being triggered – we don't want an ad that doesn’t shape existing or create new memories.
But none of this is particularly useful unless we understand the strategic context – what neuromarketing tells us about the role of advertising and, therefore, how to set appropriate communication objectives.
There are two types of memory that are relevant here, and neuroscience tells us that both require emotional engagement to be shaped, or formed in the first place:
The brand memory – the feelings, sensations, and attributes associated (consciously or nonconsciously) with the brand in the consumer’s mind, the most important of which is the belief that the brand has the ability to satisfy a particular consumer goal.
The advertising memory (‘ad memory’) – the feelings, sensations, and attributes associated (consciously or nonconsciously) with the advertisement in the consumer’s mind.
The purpose of advertising is to shape the brand memory in a way that primes future purchases. This can be done either by associating the brand with new qualities or capabilities or by reinforcing existing associations.
What does neuroscience-based ad testing tell us? Brain activity measurement may tell us that we have emotional engagement and memory formation, so that our ad might be creating an ad memory – but this doesn’t guarantee that the ad memory will be linked to the brand memory, in which case it will be ineffective. If you think this is not likely to happen just consider that tens of millions consumers downloaded funny Budweiser virals, while the brand's market share declined. There was a great ad (or viral) memory, but it looks like it had no impact on the brand memory, i.e., it did not prime the purchase decision.
Alternatively, we might have had an impact on the brand memory, but it may not be the desired impact. Measuring brain waves cannot tell us if our brand memory has been shaped in the way intended.
My conclusion is that lab tests' primary contribution is to weed out the worst. They can tell you if you are just about ready to waste your media budget by airing an ad that clearly is not going to work for you. But they cannot tell you if and how your ad will impact on the consumer's brand memory. In other words, they can't tell you if the ad tested will actually help you to realize your campaign objectives. At the end of the day we need to look at lab testing as a useful initial screening stage rather than an assessment of an ad's effectiveness in the context of your campaign objectives.
This is where neuromarketing (as opposed to neuroscience based market research) really comes into its own. By helping us to understand how consumers make purchase decisions, and the role of brands and advertising within that, we are better able to clearly define brand and communication objectives, as well as the strategies with the best chance of achieving those objectives.