SXSW14: Neuromarketing is the next step in engagement

Pete Trainor, associate director, UX, part of Sapient Nitro
Pete Trainor, associate director, UX, part of Sapient Nitro

Successful brands today are manipulating consumers' minds to better their sales in new and developed ways, claims Pete Trainor, associate director, UX, part of SapientNitro. Here he walks us through his SXSW talk, "Is there a neurological recipe for success?"

Even before the age of Mad Men, marketers were trying to tap into the human subconscious to influence consumers to buy their products. You could argue that we, in the marketing industry, are in the habit-forming business - we build products meant to persuade people to do what we want them to do.

Since advertising began, the mass public has been influenced by the images they walk past, see in the press and have beamed into their eyes through their TVs. Smirnoff as an example used a technique called ZMET – Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique – in their advertising throughout the 2000s. Images were manipulated in the shape of the Smirnoff bottle to make the passer-by stop and study the shot.

The essence of ZMET reduces to exploring the human unconscious with specially selected sets of images that cause a positive emotional response and activate hidden images, metaphors stimulating the purchase.

The major thinking part of human activity (over 90%), including emotion, takes place in the subconscious area that is below the levels of controlled awareness. In today’s new technological landscape, it’s now even easier to reward that part of the subconscious brain and influence behaviour towards engagement.

Turning brands into habit

Turning brands into daily or weekly habits is the key in the next stage of consumer engagement. It’s what I call "Neuro CX" or Neuro Customer Experience. An experience with a brand that is immersive and can quickly become a habit.

Personalisation is starting to get really prescriptive because of big data in digital experiences.

A lot of the branded utilities that we’re creating are also something that we want to use to make the public’s life better, by facilitating a healthful habit. Nike Fuel, for example, is a habit-building product that, at its core, aims to create loyalty whilst reminding us every time we hit the button that Nike is still a brand that's relevant.

Nir Eyal, who wrote the book ‘Hooked’, says "If manipulation is a designed experience crafted to change behaviour, then Weight Watchers, one of the most successful mass-behaviour change products in history, fits the definition". Manipulation and influence can’t be all bad.

Personalisation is starting to get really prescriptive because of big data in digital experiences. The data is there now to create highly relevant experiences which in turn can enrich a consumer experience. Amazon targets products at you that they think you’d like based on your spending patterns for example.

Old retargeting methods are out

Instead of using old retargeting methods, such as showing someone an ad for a car that person just viewed online, brands are using new technologies to help them decide, often in advance, whether a consumer should be shown an ad for, say, a luxury car or an inexpensive car, or any car at all.

Social media companies work with advertisers to help segment users based on their Facebook data. Facebook can tell an advertiser that a group of mothers using the site are talking about sending their children to a festival, and a big manufacturer of say, sun cream, could create an ad campaign that focuses on children using their product at a festival.

Facebook can also help the manufacturer categorise consumers as heavy or light buyers of sun cream and determine the number of ads each group will see. Those who buy less may see fewer ads than those who buy more.

Online retail is one part of the economy that is really doing well in this space. Indeed, the statistics show it is a substantial success story bringing in record business for firms like John Lewis.

The psychological approach 

Retailers often talk about offerings, design and functions. But that focuses on the website and its mechanics. The companies that are doing well online lay their focus at the other end of the relationship; they focus on their visitors and customers, relegating the website itself to the lesser part of the equation. In other words, the successful retailers focus on online customer behaviour, taking a psychological approach, rather than a technical one.

Brain scanning research shows that website visitors make the decision as to whether to stay or to click away within 600 milliseconds.

This is evident in online retailers such as ASOS who changed their strategy a few years ago. Their website has several psychological triggers which show their visitors they need to stay. The same is true for Next or John Lewis. These firms provide psychological signals that the visitor can interpret within seconds. Brain scanning research shows that website visitors make the decision as to whether to stay or to click away within 600 milliseconds.

Traditional retailers are used to having several minutes in which to engage their customers. Plus they can manipulate things like lighting, temperature and sound, to make the shopping experience more enticing. But online retailers have only seconds and they cannot manipulate those environmental factors that increase the likelihood of buying.

Neuromarketers: exploiters?

Other examples of the manipulation of the mind to better advance product sales are; Microsoft mining EEG data to understand users' interactions with computers including their feelings of "surprise, satisfaction and frustration".

Google made some waves when it partnered with MediaVest on a "biometrics" study to measure the effectiveness of YouTube overlays versus pre-rolls. Result: Overlays were much more effective with subjects. Daimler employed fMRI research to inform a campaign featuring car headlights to suggest human faces which tied to the reward centre of the brain.

All the successful brands are doing it. But the practice is not without its critics and issues. First, consumer advocates and other groups have claimed neuromarketers are exploiting people to "sell us stuff we don't need" and creating unhealthy and irresponsible addictions and cravings.

Ian Bogost, the famed game creator and professor, calls the wave of habit-forming technologies the "cigarette of this century" and warns of equally addictive and potentially destructive side-effects. However, I believe the customer is smart enough to make up their own mind and we’re simply helping them make better, more relevant decisions. 

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