Shopper Insights at the Synapse

Neural marketing or neuromarketing is an emerging practice of scanning the brain of focus group members as they watch advertisements or images and slogans to understand their propensity to buy.  Without going further, what you imagine in your mind’s eye (no pun intended) is what happens: a bunch of folks hooked up to electrodes watching movies on a big screen with some white-lab-coated scientists scurrying around (and likely some marketers watching behind a two-way mirror).  While the concept gained ground in the early 2000’s, neural marketing is hitting the mainstream with the publication of the first handbook on the topic, Buyology by Martin Lindstrom.  While the book has received some poor reviews, the first mainstream book of a new movement or technique is not expected to be especially good—others like The One to One Future by Peppers and Rogers or Clicking by Faith Popcorn weren’t accused of being perfectly written–we all can’t be Gladwell or Vollmann.  Whitepapers and blogs abound, but the real story here is what happens in the future.  Today, neural marketing is expensive.  And the data is very hard to collect, manage and analyze.  A full brain scan for a few seconds might represent 10 gigabytes of data.  One could imagine collecting a terabyte of data from one subject for a pair of single television commercials.  Then to get an n of 20 for both the control and experimental groups would represent 40 terabytes of data.  For a single experiment.  Fortunately, innovation and price decreases continue for systems that can handle the loading throughput, storage and mining of data of this size—it was previously cost prohibitive with typical database and hardware configurations.  However, it will be some time before this is available at any kind of non-stellar cost.  One problem is that medicine is driving deeper into specificity and speed—which creates more data.  Older techniques like echo-planar imaging sequences led us down to microsecond recording times of tiny micron-length parts of the brain.  They have one subject at a time (the patient), and want to take a single picture and review it.  As you can imagine, any computer wants to print out the image and immediately get rid of that enormous data file.  Marketers, on the other hand, want to do something more akin to taking a video–think sleep lab.  Marketing, on the other hand, wants less data, more aggregation, and most importantly, an objective way to score the scan numerically rather than visual comparison that comes out of the medical tradition.

So is this going to be real?  Nestle was reported in 2008 to be noodling around a step away from the brain on its way to replicating the nose and brain of its taste testers.  And Microsoft thinks so—they patented an approach to measuring reactions to graphical user interfaces from focus group members.