Injecting some humility into Neuromarketing

Aaron Reid
Ph.D. Chief Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

Behavioral Science is the future of market research, and the subdiscipline of Neuroscience has a lot to offer that future. Neuroscience is providing new insight on the implicit drivers of behavior by revealing what consumers either can’t or won’t tell us through self-reported methods. Neuromarketing – the application of neuroscience principles and measurement tools to marketing issues – has captured the imagination of the advanced marketing research world. The Advertising Research Foundation recently held an evaluation of “neurostandards” for the industry in an attempt to establish a baseline of best practices and recommendations for enterprises interested in applying these techniques. One of the key conclusions from the study was that Neuroscience methods should be used along with “traditional” techniques, rather than supplanting them in the market researchers’ toolbox. This is a valid conclusion, and yet it lands a little short of where we need to be pushing this industry forward. As we see it at Sentient, there are two major issues facing Neuromarketing that will determine the rate at which its methods are able to transcend early adoption levels to a broader market application; they both involve humility.

1) Researchers need to approach studies that utilize Neuroscience techniques with the same critical thinking that they apply to all other studies. With all of the excitement around Neuromarketing, many practitioners find themselves in awe of its potential. Admittedly, it is hard to argue with images of the brain lighting up in direct response to advertising or product exposure. The data seems compelling simply because it is brain data. But here is the essential challenge for researchers facing the seductive allure of Neuromarketing studies: the results of a Neuroscience study are only as good as the experimental design and analysis techniques that produce them. If your experimental design is flawed, your brain data is flawed. So we need to approach these studies with humility and critical thinking. Here is an interview with the CMO advantage, where we talk more about the need for humility in Neuromarketing:

2) The industry needs to establish clear guidelines on where Neuroscience techniques are most appropriately applied versus traditional techniques or other implicit research methods. When does neural data actually provide us with insight that we can’t get from other methods? Example: self-reported data is good for understanding what consumers have done, but it is not so good for understanding why. And yet, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to look at actual neural data to get to the truth. There are numerous implicit techniques that provide deep insight on the whys of behavior including qualitative projective techniques, deep relaxation interviewing, and quantitative priming and response time techniques. Of course, quantitative implicit techniques also carry the advantage of large representative samples, which not only help with sizing market segments, but can also easily be coupled with derived preference measures from choice based conjoint studies. These studies provide both implicit and explicit data on consumer behavioral drivers and involve no neural data at all. On the other hand, EEG, measured simultaneously with eye-tracking during the evaluation of dynamic or static advertising, can provide insight on stimulus specific reactions including emotion, self-identification, memory, comprehension and surprise. These are insights that quantitative priming and response time techniques would struggle to provide even with the most clever and complex experimental designs. As an industry, we’re begging for protocols to tell us when certain implicit and explicit methods are most appropriate. The feeling right now in the industry is that if you’re not using neural methods, you’re not getting the truth, and this simply isn’t true. We need a humble program of research dedicated to establishing which implicit techniques are most appropriate for which research questions. A strong dose of humility and a fierce commitment to the real advancement of our industry will help us make the promise of Neuromarketing a reality. To read more about how the Sentient Consumer Subconscious Research Lab is making a humble contribution to the establishment of these protocols, visit us at

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