Nielsen NeuroFocus is entering its seventh year as a research center in the field of neuromarketing. The term describes the practice of studying the brain to determine its responses to various marketing practices and techniques. NeuroFocus, which was acquired by Nielsen last year (Nielsen was already an investor), uses electroencephalography (EEG) and eye tracking to monitor its participants’ brainwave activity.
Caroline Winnett, CMO of Nielsen Neurofocus, discusses what marketers can learn from her department’s research.
DMN: What’s your methodology? Do you just slap an EEG cap onto someone’s head and tell them to go shopping?
Winnett: We can do that. We do some in-store studies. But we do a lot of virtual and video work as it’s less expensive. We take a video of the [shopping] aisle and have people experience it that way. We have a 3D virtual reality system so we can build an environment. The brain really likes that experience because it’s so realistic.
What sort of marketing stimuli do you typically look at?
We do a lot of package studies, video studies, and circular studies. That’s how we get the 360 view of the brain in the store. [We study people] going to the store, looking at something on a shelf, picking something up and considering a purchase.
What are the most surprising things you’ve learned?
The most surprising thing overall is that there are countless inputs that go into our mind and impact our decision that we don’t consciously process. For example, we have a study where someone is walking down the aisle and looking at the shelf. We know from the eye tracking what they’re looking at. But we also know if they’re processing it. If we ask, “Did you see that logo? Did you see that promotion?” they might say, “No.” But then we might test if the brain actually picked up that message and find that, in fact, it did.
We see things all the time. We experience them and hear them and they go into our minds and significantly impact our emotions and our behavior, but we’re not conscientiously aware of them, or we can’t understand how it impacted our decisions.
What are the biggest factors that drive our decision-making? Is it cultural or racial or geographic?
The two fundamental driving factors that define our brains are gender and age. Everything else is learned.
In terms of marketing, what’s the difference between men and women?
For shopping, we found some significant gender differences. Over 90%, close to 100%, of all of our studies have a gender difference. Male and female brains express themselves differently, especially when they’re shopping. Male and female brains see things differently: small things such as image clusters, groups of promotions, how information is laid out, the sequence with which the brain sees things, whether you have an in-store ad. Switching things from right to left can have a significant difference in whether the brain sees that.
Can you give me a real-world example?
This isn’t some neuroscientific revelation: The male brain goes in on a mission, looks for the target, acquires it, and gets out. Female brains take a more holistic view. There’s a generalization: Women shop and men buy. But there’s some truth to that. We did a study for a client where they were developing a new endcap. They wanted to know if the imagery they had would work for their primary shopper, which is female.
We found gender difference with how men and women react to imagery. When a female and a male brain look at a social interaction—people who are maybe touching or having an exchange—the female brain will be more powerfully responsive to that interaction. Her brain will respond more strongly than a male brain. For this particular display, we tested [an image featuring a] woman in isolation. Then we tested another image with two men having a social interaction. We tested [images of] men and women. Lo and behold, the women reacted far more positively and were more responsive to a female interaction on the display. So the client went with that image.
What role does age play?
We have a general body of insights in senior brains versus younger brains. We know a lot about how those brains differ based on our neuroscience work and we see those differences play out in our studies. Two people in their 30s with culturally similar backgrounds should have the same reaction [to the same marketing stimuli]. Ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which get marketers very agitated, we find when you’re listening directly to the brain, we cut through those and get to the fundamentals.
Do you break ages down into brackets? For instance, a 20- to 30-year-old bracket or a 30- to 40-year old bracket?
Our clients have a lot of considerations as far as who they’re trying to reach. We might test 18 to 35 or 45 to 55. The bracket we know we have to segment very cleanly is 55 and over. The brain goes through significant changes after that age. The 40- to 60-year-old age range, we can’t do. We need to segment that 55-and-older group.
What happens from 55 onward?
There are a couple of things. The brain has some cognitive slowing in terms of processing and taking in messages. You won’t be surprised to hear this, but a younger brain is going to process distracting, moving, and more cluttered images better than the mature brain can.
This is a very interesting finding by one of our science advisers Dr. Adam Gazzaley [professor of Neuroscience at UCSF] into what’s going on with memory: We all thought, when you get old, your memory fails.
What Dr. Gazzaley found out is that it’s not so much your memory that is failing; it’s that your ability to suppress distractions is compromised. A 60-year-old expected to switch quickly back and forth and ignore clutter will have a much harder time doing that than a 20-year-old. So if you can’t focus as strongly, you’ll have a harder time integrating that experience with long-term memory.
So what should marketers targeting seniors do?
Keep things simple and uncluttered. Less movement, less crazy, funky fonts, which the brain loves. But with a more mature brain you need to be careful.
We also know the mature brain is a better and more holistic thinker and processor of multiple concepts. A senior brain will be capable of focusing on a more complex message.
In other words, the message itself can be more complex, but the delivery has to be simpler.
Are marketers really going after seniors? Most advertising seems to be flashy, focused on a younger demographic.
What’s interesting is everyone is so interested in the younger general population. The standard marketing practice being: Let’s get the younger folks interested in my brand, we’ll nurture that at a young age, which will carry on. But we do see clients taking a stronger look at that boomer cohort because there are so many of them.
Going back to the younger demographic, many have grown up playing video games, using multiple screens to watch three programs at once. Young people are much more stimulated than their parents were. As millennials age, how will this affect the makeup of their brains?
I have a son who’s a video game fanatic and I worry he’s rotting his brain. But there are a lot of mixed results where we’re finding compelling evidence that certain types of video games can be highly beneficial to the brain. This is an entire field of study that’s yet to evolve. We do keep close track of this.
I think 10 years from now we’ll have more information and we’ll find that certain types of brain activities on the screen can be very beneficial. We do know the brain is like a muscle. You make it sweat, work hard, but don’t give it something it just can’t do. You give it those challenges and it will remain healthy and sharp and it will grow new neural connections. You stop that training, you lose that conditioning.
We’re also finding is that the brain is far more plastic—there’s elasticity, it adapts and grows in far more ways than we believed possible. We used to think you have the brain you’re given and there’s not much you can do about it. But even late in life, it can establish new connections.
We used to think our brain cells died off as we got older. That’s not the case—it’s just that the connections aren’t as powerful as when we’re younger. There’s not as much processing speed. Put it this way: The brain slows when you get older, but with focus and training and consistent effort, you can overcome so much of that.
What do you know about even younger demographics—teens and children?
We don’t test on children. The ethical question of whom you should be targeting, I’ll leave to other minds. We research adults who make buying and purchasing decisions.
As you consider NeuroFocus’s seven years of research, what are the three key takeaways for marketers?
In terms of what we find ourselves telling our clients over and over again, number one is the concept of simplicity. The brain is bombarded, more than ever, with countless messages and images it must process. The brain is always looking for an easy way to manage the world. It consumes 20% of your body’s energy but it’s only 2% of your body’s weight. It’s looking to take in complex information in a simple way. Does that mean things should be simplistic and all packaging should be blank? No, you want the brain to be entertained and delighted.
But make your message as simple and consistent as possible. That can mean making sure your images are consistent in various touchpoints. In-store advertising, social media, ads on buses—these should be very consistent so the brain can make connections. It can be tiny things like making sure your grammatical constructs are similar.
What else is important for marketers to consider?
This is something the entire industry has become hip to, but I’ll say it in a different way: We’ve been talking emotional engagement for quite some time. We used to think our brains had a rational part and an emotional part, always fighting each other. We rooted for the rational part, which made good decisions while the emotional part made bad decisions.
We know that’s not how the brain works. It’s a very nuanced creature that puts emotion, cognition, the rational, and the irrational, and makes them work together [until] a decision bubbles up and you say: “I’m going to buy that one.”
Don’t separate those two concepts. That will lead down a path that won’t help you understand your consumer. Think of an emotion and a rational decision as an integrated whole.
And there needs to be a third, because we can’t have even numbers…
I was told that whenever you’re making a list, it has to be in threes, fives, or sevens.
I have one more thing to say, which is very important. Brands can no longer hide behind an advertising campaign. They can’t create the message the way they could years ago. People can find out instantly if what you’re saying isn’t true. Everything is transparent. You must be authentic. Be absolutely authentic about everything you do when you’re talking to your consumers. Make sure it rings true. The brain smells a scam instantly and more than ever, we can find out immediately if claims are not authentic, or even if something just doesn’t feel right. There are millions of ways to find out more about that brand you’re trying to establish a relationship with.