market research
Creativity Marketing Transformation

You Read My Mind: The Future of Market Research

6 Minute Read

You’re sitting in your office watching a stream of market research data flood the screen in front of you. Through the two-way mirror you can see the participants plugged in, wires running upward from tight-fitting caps and glasses to a small, sleek white box on the ceiling with a single blue light: your organization’s central database. In their individual pods, participants are standing, sitting, or moving around, experiencing a stream of content that consists of interactive virtual reality experiences and multimedia clips. You can’t see what they’re watching, only how they react; their facial expressions and movements. Number Seven is currently crouched on top of her chair, clinging to it as if her life depended on it.

Notably absent from this focus group is any sign of pen and paper, conversation, or any other human interaction whatsoever. It’s a bizarre scene, but you’ve become so used to it by now that nothing surprises you. You check in with your screen which has already analyzed, calculated, and created a set of metrics and a mock-up of the perfect ad spot. This combination of visuals, audio and interactive media will maximize sales. You send it off to the creative department immediately so they can finish the campaign in time to run it in next week’s national VR gaming championships. As Number Three bangs his fists forcefully on the two-way mirror you wave, as if he could see you, to say, “I agree, time for a coffee break!”

If this sounds like a sci-fi novel (any book publishers reading this?) then the growing field of neuromarketing may disabuse you of the assumption that this scene is purely fictional.

The Scientific Future of Market Research

A new field has been gaining traction in recent years that bridges the worlds of neuroscience, consumer behavior, and marketing: neuromarketing. In one of the first neuromarketing studies published in Neuron in 2004, researchers discovered, through the use of brain scanning technology, that different parts of the brain light up according to whether we are aware, or not, of the brand of the product we are consuming (in this case Coke vs Pepsi). In this study, when people knew they were drinking Coke they would say they preferred Coke, but when they didn’t know what they were drinking (making a decision purely based on taste), they would actually prefer Pepsi. The idea that a “stronger” brand could “own” more of the real estate in the brain related to preferences and decision making, even when people objectively preferred the more weakly marketed brand, set off a wave of interest in looking at consumer behavior from a brain perspective.

EEG study

While there was a good deal of backlash to the findings of this study at the time, the concept of neuromarketing has become more accepted in recent years. An article published in Organizational Research Methods claimed that “over the past decade or so, it has been estimated that more than 100 companies have sprung up around the globe offering some form of commercial neuromarketing service.”

The drive to adopt more precise ways to conduct market research that effectively inform marketing strategy is more pertinent than ever as our technology and media channels become more complex. As marketers struggle to keep up with this increasing complexity, neuropsychological tools like brain scanning technologies combined with other physiological measurements such as eye tracking and heart rate monitoring are beginning to gain more mainstream attention. They represent new ways to reduce the noise and hone in on the most important and most accurate consumer behavior information. Neuromarketing could be the next big shift in marketing transformation.

The problem with current market research techniques

In an article published with Springer, published with Springer, researcher Christophe Morin explained: “Each year, over 400 billion dollars is invested in advertising campaigns. Yet, conventional methods for testing and predicting the effectiveness of those investments have generally failed because they depend on consumers’ willingness and competency to describe how they feel when they are exposed to an advertisement.”

Traditional market research techniques

The same tools that are problematic for psychological research are problematic for the marketing and advertising industry. Why? Subjective methodologies like surveys and focus groups are one level removed from genuine thoughts and reactions.

This is a problem for several reasons. First, the idea that people are able to accurately describe their own cognitive and emotional processes is misguided, as science has shown many of these processes are actually subconscious. Second, sometimes we consciously modify our responses. Often we will try to answer in the way we think the inquirer wants us to, or to try to paint ourselves in the best light. All this combined with increasing technological and information complexity makes it more difficult than ever for marketers to isolate and act on relevant insights.

The problem is big—and expensive. According to research by Charles Spence, estimates range from 70-95 percent of product launches that fail every year, while the money spent on traditional marketing research is upwards of $6.8 billion. That means that something in the order of $4.8 to 6.5 billion is spent getting it wrong, every year.

The State of Neuromarketing Today

The attraction of neuroscientific technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) is that they go straight to the source of our thoughts and emotions. So what have we learned so far from neuroimaging studies that applies to the marketing world? Here are some high-level insights from Christophe Morin.

Because we only use about 20 percent of our brains consciously, we do not actually control the bulk of our attention as our consciousness is mostly dedicated to what has been and always will be the most important thing: survival. This activity involves the most ancient parts of our brain responsible for fight-or-flight instincts and knee-jerk emotional reactions. This part of the brain, often referred to as the reptilian brain, is preverbal, doesn’t understand complex messages, and is basically preoccupied with pain avoidance. It is responsible for selfishness and mental shortcuts over long deliberations. It’s a master of processing visual stimuli without needing to consult the higher-up rational brain, which means we prefer images over words and experiences over explanations. And when we receive an average of 10,000 messages per day, only those that appeal to our reptilian brain have any chance of sticking.

When it comes to research in marketing, different neuroscientific technologies are useful for different types of consumer behavior understanding. While EEG measures can help us understand the general effectiveness of an ad campaign, fMRI measures can help us understand the cognitive processes that lead to our reactions to an ad campaign. Such technologies have already been shown to be more effective than traditional market-based research techniques at tapping into certain specific aspects of consumer understanding such as social engagement and information processing.

But there are, of course, still plenty of limitations and concerns with neuromarketing that need to be overcome before it will become a driver of marketing transformation, particularly around cost, access, ecological validity, and generalizability. The cost of using fMRI and EEG machines is huge (an fMRI machine costs around $3 million) which means access to the kind of data these technologies can provide at the moment is expensive and limited. This extends to the problem of generalizing results, as very few people currently participate in neurological studies. And how genuine is the data we collect from someone lying flat inside a small tube filled with loud noise, anyway?

For those who fear the dystopian snippet above, rest assured: we aren’t quite there yet. But don’t hold out hope that we won’t get there eventually. We will.

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Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at

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