Neuromarketing and Neuroscience in Market Research

What is Neuromarketing and Neuroscience?

‘Neuromarketing’ and ‘Neuroscience’ within the Marketing Services world generally involves the measurement of physiological and neurophysiological signals, in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of consumers’ preferences and behaviours. Methods typically associated with Neuromarketing include facial coding, EEG, ECG, Gait Analysis, GSR, voice analysis, etc. This is often (misleadingly) referred to as Emotion research.

What’s MMR’s position on ‘Neuroscience’ in Market Research?

One of the most common questions asked of NOVA, MMR’s in-house team dedicated to exploring and applying new research technology, is “Why doesn’t MMR use neuroscience?”

MMR’s position is based on two factors: Firstly, our own experiences in trialing ‘tech’ involving facial coding and other forms of biometrics. We’ve typically found these tools to be cumbersome, lacking in precision, and otherwise offering little diagnostic information or added value in the context of the types of projects we specialise in (innovation and product development). Whilst we’ve been fortunate to experiment with a range of new suppliers in this space, our conclusions remain unchanged. Secondly, we believe that the theory underpinning the notion of emotion prediction based on physiological and neurophysiological measurement is fundamentally flawed.

It seems that our own experiences may not be unique. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is an independent body linked directly to the UK Government, has also pitched in! Stephen Bonner (ICO Deputy Commissioner), could not have been clearer “We’re saying to organisations, it’s silly, don’t do it, it’s not that these technologies are immature, it’s that they will never work, from what we hear from scientists, it’s based on a false premise of how people work.”

The ICO’s full guidance on the use of biometric technologies is due in Spring 2023. Whilst we appreciate that much of their focus has been on GDPR concerns, their fiercest criticism is aimed at the tech that’s typically used in our sector, which they term “emotional AI”.

What’s the ‘false premise’ underpinning ‘Neuromarketing’?

Whilst it’s recognised that the technology behind many of these techniques is impressive and will inevitably continue to improve, there’s a fundamental disconnect between what these solutions purport to offer and the false assumption that there is a relationship between the nature and magnitude of the emotion someone may be experiencing and the expression on their face, or any other physical signal for that matter.

This stems from uncertainties associated with the increasingly contested Basic Emotion Theory, which assumes we have a limited number of basic emotion faculties that we’re born with. One of the supposed manifestations of each of these basic emotions is a prototypical facial expression (based on the work of Paul Ekman).

With the emergence of fMRI technology, neuroscientists have come to realise that there are no manifestations of these emotions in the brain, or any other part of the body that can be used reliably to predict someone’s emotional state. Meta analyses of literally 100s of scientific papers have consistently failed to establish any such relationship, and the weight of evidence supporting this conclusion is becoming overwhelming.

What’s the Alternative?

The Theory of Constructed Emotion (as developed by Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, Boston) provides fresh thinking, and is rapidly becoming the prevailing school of thought in this space. It states that there are no basic emotions and consequently no physiological manifestations in face, body or brain that would allow you to accurately predict the emotions of others. It dictates that the process by which we arrive at emotions is based on a combination of external and sensory inputs, our core affect (how we’re feeling at the time), the situational context and our memory of past experiences.

Is it more complicated than the Theory of Basic Emotion? Yes

Is it right? We certainly think so and the science backs it!

What does this mean for CPG research?

It’s important in this context to come back to the well-founded scientific theory that human behaviour is motivated by reward (or the prospect of reward) of which there are two aspects: reward via immediate pleasure (e.g., when something tastes nice) and reward via emotional outcomes (e.g., only buying free-range eggs). The key point being that reward via immediate pleasure (RIP) is immediate - it’s obvious, as is the source of the reward - and it’s readily measurable (i.e., via ratings on a liking scale) whereas reward via emotional outcomes (REO) may emerge over time - it may not be apparent – and it cannot be measured directly. This presents obvious challenges when trying to understand cause and effect, especially since REO is fundamentally inaccessible via direct questioning or self-reported measurements. In more recent times, compelling neuroscientific evidence has been found in support of the idea of two aspects of reward.

These days, for a product to succeed in-market, it must deliver on both aspects of reward. To borrow a metaphor for human relationships: RIP can create immediate infatuation, but a long-lasting, and meaningful relationship requires REO, and hereby lies the problem! Because RIP is readily accessible and REO isn’t, almost all our thoughts default to RIP, even when we believe that we’re delving much deeper. Even some of the most deeply searching qualitative methods fail to penetrate the inner world of REO.

Over the past decade and more, MMR has developed radical new methodologies for exploring REO, heavily based on the Theory of Constructed Emotion. The Theory proposes that emotions emerge from concepts that are brought to mind, either by thinking about things, or otherwise triggered by our interaction with ‘things’ in the physical world (e.g., objects, people, places, events, and other occurrences, etc.). Knowing which concepts are brought to mind by particular products and brands gives an indication as to which part of the emotional landscape the product or brand is operating in, and hence the routes through which they are likely to deliver reward. This takes us all the way back to the Duality of Reward because some concepts are responsible for delivering pleasure (or displeasure/unpleasantness) and known as ‘valence concepts’, whilst others are responsible for delivering emotional outcomes and known as ‘non-valence concepts’.

To this end, MMR has developed a very practical process known as ‘non-valence concept profiling’ where we identify the ‘non-valence concepts’ that cause the emotions, that deliver the reward, that motivates people to adopt a particular product, product category or brand into their longer-term consumption repertoires - and that’s what matters.

Non-valence concept profiling is based upon established scientific theory. The development of our methodologies has been published in highly credible, peer-reviewed scientific journals, with several more to come, and absolutely nothing is hidden in any black boxes. It allows us to go beyond liking and reliably access what really motivates consumers’ choices.

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