Neuromarketing Still Raises Questions, but Shouldn't Be Ignored

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"Our industry produces great campaigns 20% of the time at most. . . . We need to get that number up." So said Keith Reinhard, DDB chairman emeritus, at an ARF conference in 2004. Seven years on, how far have we come to meeting that challenge?

We believe that Keith's charge to the industry to improve the hit rate for great advertising is within our grasp, and the solution may come from neuromarketing.

The ability to evoke an emotional response from an ad is one of the most-prized arrows in the creative department's quiver. To measure this effect, brand managers have long sought better ways to understand emotion in their advertising-effectiveness research. Recent years have brought huge advances in the study of the brain demonstrating that emotion isn't really an arrow in the advertiser's quiver, a color in a palette or some kind of mysterious patina on an otherwise functional piece of furniture. It's the foundation for thought and action. It is clear that emotion plays more than a cameo role in driving consumer response and delivering marketing impact.

The human mind is not well-equipped to probe its own depths, to explain itself to itself, let alone to others. Many of the approaches used in traditional advertising research are not well-suited to understanding emotion and the unconscious. Regardless of our comfort level, we have to explore approaches that are fundamentally different -- indirect or passive approaches to measuring and understanding emotion and its impact.

Today it is clear that , in order to understand and actually manage the drivers of ROI in advertising creative, marketing organizations must begin the long and sometimes uncharted journey to understand the elusive yet decisive force of emotion. There is simply no choice. In the long run, any significant and lasting improvement in ROI for advertising and brand-equity development depends on it.

This realization made the ARF's NeuroStandards Collaboration a "must participate" initiative for eight major advertisers: AmEx, Campbell Soup, Clorox, Colgate, General Motors, Hershey, JP Morgan Chase and Miller-Coors. For some, traditional advertising research and tracking measures had not been successful in explaining the variation in advertising-driven, incremental sales across different executions and campaigns.

With its broad range of neuromarketing technologies and its multiple levels of review by objective experts in the relevant disciplines, the NeuroStandards Collaboration was designed to help the industry learn how best to apply the capabilities of neuromarketing to real marketing issues and decisions.

The experts identified some sound capabilities and promising directions, as well as some limitations and areas of disagreement with the neuromarketing approaches, reports and interpretations provided. The project addressed users' high expectations of precision and certainty, largely as a result of its elaborate technologies, sophisticated vocabularies and strong claims. The experts counseled that , in order to qualify as bona fide advertising science, neuromarketing approaches -- like any emerging research methodologies -- required further validation, clearer definitions, more documentation and more statistical precision. Of course, this is also true for many research methodologies.

Despite these reservations, the project did not conclude that researchers should abandon traditional measures. At the same time, it would be competitive folly for advertisers to defer learning about neuromarketing research "until things in neuromarketing settle down." The payoff from great advertising is simply too big, and the potential contribution that neuromarketing could make to great advertising is too significant.

Even without tests of statistical significance and with key debates unresolved, advertisers should not be afraid to use neuromarketing measures qualitatively, especially early in the creative process, to identify opportunities and pitfalls in storylines, messaging and key branding moments.

Conducting studies that combine neuromarketing with deep qualitative interviews will only augment the rewards. Does this kind of research provide definitive answers with known error ranges? Not yet. Can it provide deep, useful understanding -- not available through traditional techniques -- of the otherwise elusive world of consumer emotion? Absolutely.

The summit of great advertising is becoming more clearly visible in the distance. The next project, "How Advertising Works Today," is an exciting initiative that puts both traditional and neuromarketing methods to the test in search of the real drivers of advertising success in the marketplace. And in the meantime, find some constructive way to engage with neuromarketing methods.

Do what you can, but, by all means, do something!

Bob Woodard is exec VP-advertising effectiveness for the Advertising Research Foundation.
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