To most, their tools look like something out of a sci-fi movie – black skull caps with dozens of wires hanging off, imposing tunnels that whir and transmit images of people’s brains to computer screens. But for neuromarketers, these technologies – EEG (electroencephalogram) caps and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines – are just a few of the high-tech devices as essential and commonplace to their job as pencils and laptops are to the rest of ours.

Neuromarketing is an emerging branch of neuroscience that analyzes consumer brain activity in hope of predicting (and potentially changing) behavior. And while the field’s been long beleaguered by skeptics, recent breakthroughs demonstrate its potential to help marketers understand consumers on a deeper, more unbiased, and more accurate level than traditional research.

Sounds pretty good, right?

The only drawback is… for most marketers, practicality and cost (fMRI machines cost millions of dollars and a single scan can cost thousands) will keep us from using these tools anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the evidence.

Below are three learnings from recent neuromarketing/neuroscience studies and three accompanying research “hacks” that use other methodologies – ones that don’t require a PhD or medical grade technology – to help us better understand our customers.

Learning 1: Consumers don’t always know when and why they make decisions

A recent neuromarketing study found consumers can identify and decide between two different food brands in as little as 313 ms [1]– which is problematic because consumers are not consciously aware of the decisions they’ve made up until 7-10 s later [2]. Taken together, we can infer that a large amount of consumer decision-making happens subconsciously and that self-report measures that ask consumers why they made a certain decision will always come with a level of conjecture.

How to hack it:

Instead of a traditional interview, use… Eye or Click Tracking

Eye tracking is a great way to monitor implicit consumer reactions to visual stimuli in real time – giving insight into what elements capture the eye of the consumer, what elements will drive decision-making, and even the overall effectiveness of the marketing materials.

However, if eye tracking isn’t an option (because, granted, it can still be pretty pricy), another way to hack into more accurate feedback from your consumers is through click tracking. While traditionally thought of as a UX method map how users interact with webpages, click tracking can be used to test any type of visual stimuli – advertisements, copy, etc. And many survey platforms now allow consumers to click on and leave feedback for certain elements within a given visual stimulus. (While this obviously involves some conscious decision-making, at least it forces consumers to parse out their reactions. Plus, click order and frequency adds layers of objective measurement.)

Learning 2: Consumers have unconscious biases and preferences

One of the most famous neuromarketing studies of all time found that, based on fMRI activity, consumers – unaware of what brand they were drinking – preferred Pepsi to Coke. However, when the experiment was replicated, with consumers aware of the brand, the fMRI activity showed that they preferred Coke to Pepsi.[3] While this study is cause enough for marketers everywhere to jump for joy – because it proves that brand “emotion” is neurologically verifiable – it also demonstrates something else. Unconscious biases and preferences mediate consumer experiences and decisions. In this case, the Coke preference was positive. But in another instance, it could be negative. (Take, for example, another study which showed that consumer brain activity in response to an odor depended on whether the consumer believed they were smelling cheese or body odor.)

How to hack it:

Instead of a traditional survey, use an… Implicit Association Test

In marketing context, an implicit associations test is used to detect the strength of a consumer’s subconscious (or automatic) associations with a brand or product. During the test, participants are asked to quickly group together positive or negative associations with different concepts, and then the strength of associations is calculated based on reaction time differences (these differences are telling because the brain requires more time to act on incongruent thoughts). While the test won’t tell you everything you need to know about consumer perceptions, it can provide an added, unbiased layer of understanding. And it could be an extra boon if your brand deals with taboo topics that could cause consumers to answer normal survey questions in an untruthful, more socially desirable way.

Learning 3: Consumers don’t remember experiences the way they experienced them

Neurobiological studies have shown that even powerful memories, such as fearful ones, can be altered or eradicated by changing neural conditions during retrieval – suggesting that memories are active and dynamic.[4] Additionally, multiple recent studies by consumer psychologists have found that advertising can unconsciously alter consumers’ beliefs about an earlier experience with a product.[5] While the implications of these studies are good news for our industry, they also provide proof that present experiences alter past ones, meaning consumer self-reporting of past experiences can be unreliable.

How to hack it:

Instead of a traditional focus group, use a… Virtual Diary

A diary study is a research method that asks consumers to provide real-time, self-report data about their behaviors, activities, and experiences over a period of time – anywhere from a few days to a month or longer – and typically, marketers will probe with different questions and activities along the way to make them stop and reflect upon their day-to-day routine. A virtual diary can be especially helpful in this instance because it allows you to easily and remotely message/prompt their participants while also allowing for a variety of response formats – text, picture, video, survey, chat, etc. At the end of the study, you have pointed, accurate data that is unbiased by participants’ future experiences.

While neuromarketing is years away from providing the “mind-reading” type results proponents and science fiction authors predict it someday will, it does provide us with insight into how our consumers’ minds work. And the better able we are to understand that, the better equipped we will be to design research that accurately and unbiasedly answers the questions we’ve been asking all along.

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[1] Milosavljevic, M., Koch, C., & Rangel, A. (2011). Consumers can make choices in as little as a third of a second. Judgement and Decision Making.

[2] Siong Soon, C., Brass, M., Hans-Jochen, H., Haynes, J.D. (2008) Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience.

[3] McClure, S. M., Li, J., Tomlin, D., Cypert, K.S., Montague, L.M., & Montague, P.R. (2004) Neural correlates of behavioral preference for culturally familiar drinks. Neuron.

[4] Nader, K., Schafe, G. E., & LeDoux, J. E. (2000). The labile nature of consolidation theory. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

[5] Plassmann, H., et al., (2012) Branding the brain: A critical review and outlook, Journal of Consumer Psychology.