Exploring the subconscious mind: How do we get the ‘right’ answer?

By Georgina Woodley

One of the challenges we face in research is fitting what people say to their subsequent behaviour.

I can think of projects where someone looked me in the eye and said that they love ‘Product X’, it will change their life and they will be queuing to buy it as soon as it’s released. Once released into market however, it tanked. Having carefully researched the product, how do we now explain this outcome?

To help understand this phenomenon, it’s useful to firstly review what academia has to say:

Studies have shown that only 10% of our behaviour is a result of conscious decision-making, with the remaining 90% driven by our subconscious. Applying this in a commercial setting, we realise that despite their best intentions, research participants struggle to forecast how they will behave in a given situation. This is a concern, as one premise of research (particularly product development) is the ability to extrapolate predictive measures to a broader audience.

This issue has generated innovation in the industry, with a number of approaches trying to solve it, borrowing from a range of disciplines. Some are qualitative, such as the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET®). This uses projective techniques and metaphors to get to the heart of what consumers really think about a topic. Others adopt a quantitative approach, adapting psychological approaches to collect direct feedback via physiological responses. Grouped together under the banner of Neuromarketing, these cover everything from measurement of skin conductivity, eye tracking and facial coding through to measuring brain activity in response to stimuli.

“Only 10% of our behaviour is a result of conscious decision-making, with the remaining 90% driven by our subconscious”

Since its introduction in the 1980’s, Neuromarketing has recorded some high profile wins, such as the Coke vs. Pepsi research carried out at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. In this study, volunteers in a brain scanning machine drank either Coke or Pepsi, telling researchers which they preferred. During the initial blind tasting, researchers found that brain activity was localised within the same area for both brands. When volunteers were told which brand they were drinking, a different part of the brain became active and preference for Coke skyrocketed. Using Neuromarketing techniques to isolate these unconscious responses, meant the researchers were able to demonstrate the impact of brand knowledge on the decision making process.

There is however another ‘darker’ side to Neuromarketing. Experts acknowledge a lack of comparability and consistency across providers. The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) sought to address this, overseeing a validation study comparing eight providers offering neurological and biometric research (ARF, NeuroStandards Project White Paper, http://thearf.org). With each provider offering proprietary techniques, underpinned by ‘black box’ methodologies, this was a difficult undertaking. While all were able to measure consumer attention, absolute measures of results varied widely. The ARF also noted that few were willing to openly submit their process to peer review.

Considering all of this information, the big question at this point is ‘what does it mean for us as researchers right now?’

While Neuromarketing offers exciting potential, the lack of consistency in approaches and outcomes mean that we should still approach it with care. It can open the door into previously untapped areas of the human psyche, but in my view (and as concluded by the ARF), at this time it should remain complementary to a broader research programme.

“While Neuromarketing remains a work in progress, it is something that we should regularly visit and reconsider”

Campbells Soup Company offers a great example of this. In 2010, the company updated its condensed soup labels. Interviews revealed that this was following two years of intensive research. A combination of biometric measurement and in-depth ZMET® interviewing had identified triggers that could make its labels more attention catching, and simplify the selection process for consumers (Wall Street Journal, The Emotional Quotient of Soup Shopping, 17 Feb 2010). This perfectly illustrates that while Neuromarketing remains a work in progress, it is something that we should regularly revisit and reconsider.

Our opinions