Black Magic

3 11 2010

When I wrote about the barriers to neuroscience adoption a while ago there was one issue I skirted which probably could have been fleshed out a bit more – ethics.  When I did the talk at XLRI I basically lumped it in with ‘Scpeticism’ but I got asked about it again in a meeting yesterday so thought I’d note a couple of thoughts.

The reason that neuroscience/biometric methods are appealing to researchers and marketers is also the thing that makes people unsure as to whether it’s ethical to use them.  It’s well known that people don’t know why they behave the way they do and find it hard to talk about the way they feel about things – so cutting out the middle man and going direct to source for that info is pretty valuable.  But those worried about this stuff would say that the middle man we’re cutting out is sort of the bit where our  humanity resides.  People may, justifiably, want to keep some things under wraps for any number of reasons (although most often we’re learning things that people can’t tell us rather than things they won’t).  As a result, those who doubt the ethics of biometric measurement would argue that we are taking knowledge that people have not volunteered and, like black magic, using it to control them.

Those are potentially valid concerns.  My argument, however, is that they are not concerns specific to neuroscience/biometric research but to all research and, by extension, any advertising that draws learning from that research.  If you have an ethical problem with research and advertising generally (which some do) then fine – but people raising these concerns with me in meetings are usually people spending a lot of money on advertising and research, so I assume they don’t.

Let me illustrate my point.  As Tom Ewing has ably pointed out, what those critics of research who roll out the ‘all research is wrong‘ line fail to understand is that we already know that it is (in an absolute sense).  As such, we have all kinds of ways of finding stuff out about people’s thoughts, feelings and desires without asking them directly.  Take one of Millward Brown’s many hundreds of tracking studies, I don’t ask people to rank the associations they have with brands by how important they are because I know they’re not very good at it (and often, they just don’t know whether sexy or easy to use is more important to them).  Instead, given that I also ask them about their preference for brands, I am able to run myself a lovely regression model from which I can infer which of these associations are the stronger drivers of preference either within the category as a whole or for specific brands.  They haven’t told me why they like Persil better than Surf, but sneaky researcher that I am, I’ve found out – and maybe Persil will use that information to better target them and people like them.

(Before you say so, I know that’s not perfect, I know my model is only telling me about the relative strengths of relationships between claimed brand preference and a set of associations that I chose to put to the sort of people I chose at the specific point in time, by now already in the past, that I deigned to ask them. But I’d ask you to focus on the matter in hand, this isn’t a question of which [if either] of these approaches is most valid it’s about whether or not they are ethical).

So research has, for many years, generated insights into human behaviour without people necessarily volunteering them directly.  People are no more aware of my regression models and how brands are using them to sell them more soap powder, than they are of the brainwave outputs they voluntarily hand over and how clever boffins run those through an algorithm to give me something I can use to understand advertising better.  Is either of those things deceitful and insidious?  Maybe, but if so, I say they are equally so.

Further, some perspective is required.  We may be increasingly tapping into people’s deep, unspoken desires – but we’re not homing in on a magic bullet that lets advertisers push a button that has a definitive and predictable consumer response at the other end.  We are gaining a better understanding of why an ad has worked when we do get it right of course and therefore narrowing the odds of us being able to repeat it – but we’re a long way off complete mind control.  People still have agency.  That’s not going anywhere.

As long as the usual rules apply – we’re doing this at an aggregated level, we’re not using it to target the specific people involved through direct use of their personal details or data, they have given us their express, informed permission to collect whatever data we’re collecting through whatever method and so on – I really don’t see how neuroscience and biometric research is any different from ‘traditional’ methods.  If you object to one, you object to it all.


XLRI Behavioural Research Symposium

20 10 2010

Jamshedpur Airport

I have just got back from XLRI in Jamshedpur where I had been invited to speak at a symposium inaugurating their Behavioural Research lab – a first of its kind in India.  I was almost certainly the least expert of all of the assembled experts on the panel so it was a pleasure to be invited and to sit in such distinguished company.  The other people on the panel were Nicholas Hall, Managing Director of the Behavioural Lab at Stanford; Dr K.K. Deepak who has just written a book on neuromarketing and has been a Professor at AIIMS (India’s leading medical institute and teaching hospital) for some 30 years;  Dr S.L. Vaya who is applying neuroscience and other biometric techniques to forensic criminology in Gujurat and has been doing so for 15 years and Manu Batra who offered the client marketing perspective, having worked for the likes of Unilever, General Mills, Cadbury’s and currently working for International Foodstuffs in Mumbai.  Sujith Sudhakaran, who is working towards a PhD from XLRI and is a Strategic Planning Director for DraftFCB in his day job, chaired the panel discussion.

The brief all of the speakers had been given was pretty open, so it was interesting to see the different perspective that everyone brought to the discussion.  I’ll talk about a couple of the other speakers in subsequent posts, but first I shall bore you with what I had to say (it’s my blog afterall).

I was there as The Practitioner so it was beholden on me to talk about the adoption of neuroscience/behavioural techniques by commercial research, where it was headed and what the barriers were to adoption.  The first bit of that was the stuff you will have heard many times before if you’ve ever heard someone from Millward Brown talk about neuroscience – it will augment traditional research but not completely replace it, become part of the toolkit not be the entire toolkit, has the potential to add huge value but not a panacea etc. etc. etc.  so no need to dwell on that too much.

The barriers to adoption are all me, I suspect the Powers That Be would agree with them, but I haven’t checked.  Still, this is ‘all thoughts my own’ territory after all, so here they are:

  • Hype – There is a fine line between the evangelist and the zealot.  The way to the Lord is not through neuroscience alone.  Let us talk about the strengths and successes of neuroscience techniques, let us show case studies where they have demonstrated value over and above what traditional methods could offer – but let’s do it in a measured and sensible way and not over-egg the pudding for a quick headline.
  • Industry in-fighting – There are always disagreements on methodology and philosophy in any field of research.  In my view, this is too often gloves-off street-fighting where neuroscience practitioners are concerned rather than the level of professional debate the subject deserves.  Let’s try and stick to the Queensbury Rules shall we?
  • Scepticism – Some scepticism is, of course, healthy.  However, there are many who believe neuroscience practitioners are little more than snake oil salesman hawking techniques that claim to solve all their problems and some problems they didn’t even know they had but that in reality have little validation outside the academic textbook.  For that reason robust in-market validation based on multiple cases is an essential next step.  Case studies are all well and good, but they won’t cut the mustard for long.  Of course, we are making a rod for our own backs where scepticism is concerned with the hype and in-fighting.
  • Confidence – Neuroscience approaches are typically way outside the comfort zone of the people buying it and, often for Big Research, the people selling it (outside of specialist teams like mine).  There’s plenty of new techniques around (social media research an obvious example) but most are far more easily accessible to an experienced researcher because they have some basis in what they have always known/done.  An Insights manager suddenly having to answer questions about brain science from their brand teams is unlikely to be immediately comfortable.  We need to kill the jargon and talk in simple terms about the outputs and what they mean for marketing decisions.  Blinding people with science might make us sound clever, but it’s counter productive in the long term.
  • Cost/Benefits – Neuroscience is, of course, subject to the usual business logic.  The reality is that a fully blown neuroscience project is likely to be more expensive than the traditional research it would replace – or if you’re taking our approach and building it onto traditional methods, then there’s obviously an additional cost for the neuroscience elements.  Naturally, it is then essential to demonstrate real value over and above the cost that was previously being paid.  It’s not enough to simply be better, you have to be enough better to justify the extra spending.

Neuroscience is a relatively young discipline and the application of it to marketing younger still, so we shouldn’t be disheartened by the barriers we face.  Indeed, the more XLRI-style Behavioural Labs that start to pop up around the World, the more we will see some of them disappear organically.  The MBA at XLRI will already have had exposure to neuroscience and other behavioural research methods before they go into businesses – things like lack of confidence and (undue) scepticism will not be an issue.  To turn a terrible phrase, we will be beginning to work with marketers who are neuroscience natives.

NeuroFocus and the New Scientist: Don’t believe the hype.

3 09 2010

NeuroFoucs and the New Scientist are claiming that a 12% spike in sales for the edition that NeuroFocus helped choose a cover for proves that Neuro-Marketing techniques will help you shift more magazines.

Wow, quite a claim.  I’d love it if it were true (even if it is a big rival that did the work), but as Roger Dooley pointed out in the run up to the edition hitting news-stands, the experiment itself might have been done very scientifically but the validation of the result certainly wasn’t as there is no control group for comparison.

The truth is there was a huge amount of PR coverage over the fact that this collaboration/experiment was taking place.  I know I’m keeping an eye out for neuroscience work, but I certainly heard far more about New Scientist in the run up to this edition than I had about any previous edition ever.  I’d be interested to hear if that’s also the case for non-neurosciencey people as well?

So is it not fairer to conclude that effective PR and marketing shifts magazines (hardly revolutionary)?  Sure, the neuro stuff may have helped (otherwise I’d be out of a job) but to imply the choice of cover alone, however it was decided upon, is responsible for this 12% spike is pretty misleading in my opinion.  At best we could say that it may have contributed in some way, but really there’s no way of explaining how much of that spike the cover choice drove.

Even if that could be clearly demonstrated, there’s also no comparison to traditional research here.  Unless it is shown that people explicitly rating these covers would have led to something different being chosen and that this choice led to lower sales than the neuroscience approach we really haven’t learned anything.

This type of poorly founded hype will garner some attention, but I don’t think it’s helpful for neuroscience in the long term if it wants to be taken seriously as a marketing discipline.

UDPATE: I’ve just seen this piece from Research that makes many of the same points I’ve made above.  In fairness, the editor of New Scientist acknowledges that ‘there is no real way of telling’ if it was the Neuroscience work that boosted the sales or the surrounding PR.  A.K. Pradeep is far more bullish – according to him “What these results for New Scientist add is clear, unmistakable and very public validation for the core science that underlies all that we do.” – if you don’t mind Doctor Pradeep, I may seek a second opinion.

Tan Le at TED: Mind Control

7 08 2010

(If anyone can tell me how to embed the video directly, I’d appreciate it, can’t seem to make it work!)

I love this Tan Le TED talk for a few reasons.

Firstly, it’s another example (like quantitative market research) of an application of EEG technology for which the existing medical EEG technology, with it’s hundreds of sensors and wires, conductive gels, slcalp abrasions and requirement for technical expertise is really not practical and scalable. Le and her team were smart enough to recognise that and engineer a technical solution specific to their requirements rather than attempt to engineer their requirements to suit the existing technology. Millward Brown’s EEG partners EmSense did the same thing for research.

Secondly, this looks to me like it has the potential to be genuinely disruptive. These technologies are moving so fast that in a couple of years the things it will be possible to control just by thinking of them are likely to be myriad. Could this effectively lead to the death of the mediated UI? What would this mean for the likes of Apple who have built a significant part of their brand advantage on the back of having a slicker UI than everyone else?

Finally, it’s just cool isn’t it? Closing your curtains just by thinking about it? There’s nothing I hate more than having done all the thinking you need to do about a presentation and then having to actually spend hours making all the bloody charts – if all I had to do is think about it and the charts were made exactly how I wanted them that would make me a very happy boy. That might be a way off, but it seems like this is a step in the right direction where that dream is concerned.

Persuasion Is Social, Stupid

14 04 2010

Today I have the day off for a combination of Ambedkar Jayanti and Baisakhi. They say there is a festival for every day of the year in India – the reality is that on some days there are several. Anyway, by way of testament to the title of my blog, I’m spending some of the day writing up a few posts I’ve been thinking about but haven’t got round to. I’ll drip feed them over the next few days.

My starting point is persuasion. Persuasion is hugely unfashionable at the moment (it has never been that fashionable in fairness, we don’t really like to be reminded our job is to sell stuff), it is under attack from any number of angles. Ehrenberg, behavioural economics, neuroscience – all these things call into question what we thought we knew about persuasion. Ehrenberg tells us behaviour leads to attitudes and not the other way around, behavioural economics tells us we’re not the super-rational post-Enlightenment thinkers we think we are – we rarely, if ever, weigh up the options and make the best possible decision, neuroscience tells us we basically buy brands because we like them – advertising is not seperate from brand memories it’s all one big jumbled up mess, so by extension, the most effective ads are ads we like not ones that persuade us. I don’t doubt that any of this is true, which led me to ask myself why then is persuasion such a good predictor of short term sales changes – why does it work?

First, let’s deal with whether it actually does work. I’m fully willing to accept that we’re unlikely to learn much about long term sales from a persuasion question and we all know they’re the bulk of any sales an ad is likely to generate. I also accept that correlation doesn’t mean causation and I’m not arguing that persuasion questions work because we’re actually persuading people to change their behaviour in the traditional sense – but virtually every pre-test uses some approach to persuasion and despite arriving at a metric through different approaches and different means, they all tend to see some relationship with a change in sales in the short term. I know lots of people used to think the world was flat (remarkably, some still do) but I think it’s unlikely that we’ve all reached the same point through very different journeys and come up with something completely meaningless. It seems more likely that persuasion metrics are telling us something meaningful – just not necessarily what we thought they were telling us.

My personal hypothesis is this (emphasis on ‘my’ and ‘personal’ here) – we are not rational, we do not buy brands because we have been persuaded to do so by compelling, newsworthy creative – but we believe we are and we believe we do. Our peers in society expect us to behave in a rational and sensible way – if you’re a housewife in Pune spending an extra Rs100 on a washing powder, you’re going to have to justify that to your husband – ‘I liked it more’ doesn’t allow you to justify it to yourself, let alone him even if deep down that’s the fundamental reason you were swayed. One criticism we hear regularly is that we talk too much about what advertising does to people and not what people do with advertising – my feeling is that persuasive advertising has massive utility – it allows people to justify their irrational decisions to themselves and to their peers. It’s not telling us why people are buying, it’s telling us why people think they are buying.

Further, we know from neuroscience work we’ve done with the University of Bangor that brand memories sit in three broad buckets – knowledge, emotion and experience. We have found that a breadth of associations across these three buckets is more important than depth in any one single bucket. Effectively, the greater area of brain with firing neurons, the greater likely brand strength. Experience can be driven by advertising (through enhancement) but most advertising is probably primarily dealing with the other to. Ads that have traditionally been seen as persuasive are likely to be doing a good job with your knowledge bucket.

Broadly speaking, the emotional reaction will happen first (in fact it is this that garners our attention in the first place) and then spread across the brain into other areas where we seek to clarify what the reaction was and why we had it. Clearly if that initial emotional reaction is negative, we’ve lost – fundamentally, it’s this that drives our decisions. However, if two brands generate a positive emotion of similar proportions but one has done a better job of explaining why we feel that way (through being new, relevant, credible and different – sound familiar?) then that brand is likely to win out. Not only do we love it, but we can explain to people (including ourselves) why in terms that don’t make us sound ridiculous.

Fundamentally, there is no question that too much emphasis is placed on persuasion (for some people it’s the ONLY important metric!) given what we now know about decision making and how the brain works. I don’t think we should be afraid of admitting that. But I also think there’s a reason why measures that tell us how emotionally involving and likeable an ad is and measures of persuasion are both related to sales changes, but not related to each other. We shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but we should definitely be reappraising why that is and, more importantly, where our priorities should lie as a result.

I tried to come up with a clever acronym, but it’s probably a fair comment on my character that I came up with a puerile one instead – Persuasion is Social, Stupid. I’m not sure I’ve fully fleshed all this out in my own mind as yet, let alone in this post, and I’d welcome any thoughts.

New Job: Neuroboffinry

1 04 2010


Some of you may have seen this announcement made by my employers recently. In an exciting twist, I’ll be doing this neurothingy business on behalf of most of the world’s population – being, from this day forward, Director, Consumer Neuroscience – Africa, Middle-East & Asia-Pacific.

Yay me!

The omen of officially starting this new role on April Fool’s Day may be slightly disconcerting, but it doesn’t seem to be exist in India anyway (although that didn’t help my long-suffering girlfriend this morning when she couldn’t find her purse as I’d hidden it in the fridge).

Clearly this is an exciting area to be working in and coupled with being in such a diverse/interesting region, I can’t wait to get stuck in. I still have a lot to learn though, so don’t ask me too many questions about the limbic system or ask me to draw/explain any Hinton diagrams, at least for the time being.