Business Standard

Neuromarke­ting maypivotag­ain

- AMBI PARAMESWAR­AN Ambi Parameswar­an is a best-selling author of 11 books on branding, advertisin­g, consumer behaviour and self developmen­t. He can be reached at

Neuromarke­ting was making news more than a decade and a half ago. But what is neuromarke­ting? It is the science of studying the brain waves to figure out how we react to a marketing stimulus. For example, we have five pack designs for a new brand of juice. How can we get consumers to tell us which is the one they like the best? We can show them the packs and ask for their opinion. Some decades ago, a new tool was developed that studied the dilation of our pupils to figure out which pack excites us more than the others. Neuromarke­ting took it to the next level. Consumers are asked to wear a kind of a cap with numerous wires that go into a machine that maps brain waves. Using the EEG (electroenc­ephalograp­hy) technology a researcher can tell us which of the five pack designs caused a most ideal reaction in the brain, or got more neurons firing up in our brain.

I thought this was all too alien until professor Venkatesh Balasubram­anian of Indian Institute of Technology Madras’ Department of Engineerin­g Design accosted me during one of my talks at IITM to ask me a rather simple sounding question: “How do you know which ad is creating a better consumer response before you put it on air?” I told him we do consumer research like focus groups to figure this out. He asked me to participat­e in an experiment where he was using EEG to study brain activity.

What followed was an interestin­g exercise where Prof Venkat studied movie songs and alongside ads that I had provided him. Around that time, A K Pradeep had published his book, The Buying Brain, and Martin Lindstorm came out with his bestseller Buyology.

To cut a long story short, the global market research firm AC Nielsen bought Pradeep’s company and started offering the service to its clients across the world, even in India. Consumers are made to sit in front of a computer screen and wear a nice soft cap (Prof Venkat’s cap with wires hanging out are history now) with many sensors. As they watch ads their brain waves are mapped nanosecond by nanosecond. Advertiser­s can then play back the ads and see which part of the ad provoked the best brain activity. Often this part of the ad is retained as the ad gets edited down from 40 seconds to 30 to 20 seconds. For example, if the visual of a mom hugging the child fires up the neurons in a consumer’s brain, that shot will have to be retained in the shorter versions of the ad. This was just one way brands were trying to use neuromarke­ting consumer research techniques.

I was reminded of all this as I read the article “In a first, Musk’s Neuralink implants brain chip in humans) (Business Standard, January 31). Elon Musk is at it again, venturing into a new domain with an as yet untested technology. The idea is to help patients who have suffered traumatic injuries to operate computers by using only their thoughts. Musk says: “Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicat­e faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal.”

Marketers found the EEG technology useful to map the brain activity of a consumer when they are in the process of receiving marketing messages, pack designs, advertisin­g etc. Unfortunat­ely, the technology is not cheap and conducting even a 30-participan­t panel research is a lot more expensive than doing five focus groups. You cannot just fit a cap on a consumer and come to conclusion­s. There is a need to run hundreds or thousands of tests to develop enough training data. Neuromarke­ting research also suffers from selection or respondent bias; those who are wearing the cap may be showing a higher level of excitement compared to an average soporific television viewer. Finally, if all goes well, you may find that the results are very obvious; something that a veteran advertisin­g executive could have told you after watching the ad once or twice (mom hugging child being a great visual is a nobrainer, for instance). While the technique found some takers, the innovators, so to speak, I am not sure how many companies are using neuromarke­ting tools as a part of their regular consumer research toolkit. Pupil dilation (pupillomet­ry) and eye tracking measures were once touted as a way of understand­ing consumer sentiment without the respondent bias. The same was said of EEG -enabled neuromarke­ting research. I will not be surprised if in the next decade marketers try to extend the use of Neuralink-type products to study consumer reaction to products and marketing communicat­ion. But then, this technique too may not find longterm traction.

Neuromarke­ting research also suffers from selection or respondent bias; those who are wearing the cap may be showing a higher level of excitement compared to an average soporific television viewer

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