Discovering the Feeling: Applying Neuroscience to Marketing

13 Jun 2006|Added Value

“Why does a consumer choose one brand over another?”  This is a key question marketers often struggle with, and information solicited from consumers frequently falls short of providing a decent answer.  With the explosion of brands and product choices (perhaps linked to increasingly incomprehensible technology) consumers have more to process than they have time, inclination, or sometimes ability.

So how do they cope?  Well, they are having to trust more and more to their gut feelings.  Marketers have long recognized this and, particularly for brands that do not have any clear tangible advantages, have sought to directly infer emotional benefits in their communication.  This has pushed the complexity of understanding choice beyond the recording of simple beliefs like how many people think A is better value than B.

Brand development is still driven by one part science and one part pure instinct.  The battle has been to tip the balance in favour of science.  But despite an arsenal of modern weapons, understanding how marketers can affect choice remains one of the greatest struggles for brands today.

It is partly this that explains the ongoing fascination we have with the area of Neuroscience, a branch of scientific and clinical knowledge dealing with the nervous system, particularly the brain.

Reason and Emotion are inextricably linked
“The astonishing hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrow, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”
(Francis Crick, Nobel Prize Winner)

Work done by neuroscientists, such as Prof. Antonio R. Damasio, has helped us develop a better understanding of how decisions are made.  Damasio, currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of the Brain and Creativity at the University of Southern California, has been one of the leaders in this research and has proved that emotions play a central role in human decision making.

Whereas it was previously assumed that emotions were the antithesis of reason, today they are seen as the foundation upon which decisions, thought processes and actions are based.

In his book, ‘Descartes’ Error’ Damasio states: “Far from interfering with rationality, the absence of emotion and feelings can break down rationality and make “wise” decision-making almost impossible.”

In other words, emotions underpin reason making the rational and emotional inextricable linked. Therefore, the term “rational decision” does not mean an objective choice but rather a decision in favour of the maximum subjective expected benefit.  For example, a perception of “good value” might be termed a rational criterion for choice.  But owning things that are deemed to be “good value” is not normally an intrinsic life goal.  “Good value” represents a judicious use of money, and not wasting money will increase our possibility of acquiring more things in the future, things that we believe will bring us more good feelings.  If this was not so, why would “good value” be any reason for doing anything at all?  So, the concept of “good value” is only rational when we consider its emotional consequence.

In fact, it has been established that our emotional response to a situation occurs  much more rapidly than our conscious deliberations.  When the bear steps out in front of us as we stroll through the forest, our immediate and unconsidered response is to run like hell.  The automatic flight response to the emotion of fear might also be deemed the most rational course of action, given the circumstance.

“Gut Feeling”: Discovering the Feeling
Damasio’s work suggests that, when faced with a decision, humans use only one criterion in making their choice: “How will I feel if I do that?” Brand decision-making is no different.

When we make a decision our brains relate our perceptions back to previous experiences and their associated emotions.  By assembling these “somatic markers” we can anticipate the feelings that we believe we will experience from each of the options. We will assess the possible outcomes and consequences of these available choices and make a decision based on our “gut feeling”.  In turn, each experience and choice is remembered as good or bad and is stored as part of our future decision toolkit.

However, understanding how our brains work and how decisions are made are only the first steps.  More importantly, we have to understand what this means for market research, insight and branding and how we can apply this understanding to make our brand the consumer’s first choice.

The Emotional connection
“The biggest misconception in branding strategies is the belief that branding is about market share when it is really always about ‘mind and emotions’ share” (Joel Desgrippes – ‘Emotional Branding’)

The breakthroughs in neuroscience have already influenced the marketing world.  Acknowledging the importance of emotions in decision making has made “emotions” the new buzzword in branding, resulting in the “Emotional Branding” concept and a proliferation of new ways of measuring emotion.

However it is important to understand that trying to distinguish between what’s rational and emotional is totally subjective, and largely artificial, as the two are inseparable.  Similarly, the importance of emotions in decision-making doesn’t mean we should just randomly include emotions in the brand relationship or brand communication.

Dan Herman explains in his book, ‘Creating Emotionally Significant Brands’: “The popularity of “Emotional Branding” and of ESP (Emotional Selling Proposition) is often based on the erroneous assumption that emotions can be simply ‘glued’ to brands by means of advertising. In other words, this kind of Emotional Branding is faking rather than making emotionally significant brands. It creates look-alikes. The symbolizations, the advertising, the packaging may evoke emotions and impress the untrained eye, but the brand will lack genuine feel appeal to its target consumers.”

Herman’s argument emphasises that there is more to it than just hoping consumers will replicate the emotions they see or feel towards the brand or its communications.  If consumers choose brands based on how they think they will make them feel; including emotions, physical sensations and theoretical evaluations, then the implication for insight and branding is far more significant.

It means that consumers don’t desire brands, but rather they desire an outcome.

Our focus therefore should be on discovering and understanding the feeling – not the brand.

It means that it is not just about what the brand says, projects or portrays (e.g. the brand is sexy).  If this imagery is not internalised as desired feelings by consumers and linked to the brand (e.g. that they will look or feel sexy when using it), it will not affect their brand choice.  In fact, simply looking at beliefs can lead to erroneous results.  Two ads were tested for the same brand — one of them set out to imply the feeling of confidence that would come from using the brand.  After exposure to each ad, there was no measured difference between the two groups in terms of their belief about the brand’s ability to make you feel confident.  The ad appeared to have failed on its objective.  However, examining the feelings anticipated from using the brand revealed a significantly higher sense of confidence among the group who had been exposed to the ad that more accurately reflected the desired feeling.

As marketers, the real quest should be to develop and reinforce a “somatic marker” for your brand.  The brand should become the shorthand in consumers’ minds for the desired feeling that they are looking for in that given situation.  And every brand signal must help shape the belief of how the consumer can expect to feel.

We also have to be truly customer-centric in the way we do market research by not focusing on what consumers feel (i.e. think) about our brand but rather how they believe our brand will make them feel.  We know that what a product has and what product does will probably affect how the consumer feels about the brand, however what is even more important is how every interaction with the brand molds the anticipation of feelings, as this is ultimately the deciding factor.

The difference is best illustrated by a simple example.  Only 27% of respondents expressed a positive reaction to Porsche 911 drivers and yet, given the chance to be one, 89% said “it would be my lucky day”.  The disconnect between how the consumers felt about the brand and how they anticipated the brand would make them feel is glaringly obvious.

The feeling challenge
“The idea that emotions might play a far more important role in the human behaviour than originally was accepted was a big disappointment for many researchers. Emotions are very difficult to describe, they seem irrational and scarcely be predicted”
(Decock & Pelsmacker “Emotions matter”)

‘Discovering the feeling’ has largely been neglected in traditional research.  Researchers have even tried to physically record the emotions a respondent is experiencing through a variety of techniques like fMRI, galvanic skin response, smile/frown muscle movement.  But these approaches have only served to reinforce the idea that measuring emotions is difficult.

Current research methodologies concentrate on the overly cerebral approach and force respondents to make logical connections to explain their behavior.  This has three serious flaws:

• Often respondents can’t tell us why they did something because they don’t understand it themselves (although this doesn’t necessarily stop them from trying).
• Direct questioning results in respondents logically projecting from what they know about the brand – giving us a list of imagery that the brand portrays and what they believe makes sense.
• This type of research results in an over reliance on intuitive analysis.

As Solms & Turnbull explain in their research, ‘The Brain and The Inner World – An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience’: “A central point to grasp is that the multiplicity of long term memory storage systems makes it a commonplace for experiences to influence our behavior and beliefs without us consciously remembering the experience in question. The fact that you cannot explicitly bring something to mind does not mean that you do not know (unconsciously, implicitly) what happened, nor that you will not act on the basis of this knowledge.”

Yet we continue to hope that we can understand consumers’ decisions by asking them for information that we believe will explain their choices.  A belief that continuing to ask “why” will bring us closer to the truth in fact does just the opposite.  Asking “why” only forces the consumer to focus on the brand/product and rationally explain their choices, which they are often very good at doing.

Most brand stimuli, like advertisements and packaging, produce a wide range of tiny emotional changes, not absolutely clear feelings, making it hard to know and verbalize the cause of this emotional cocktail.  It might be easy for a consumer to judge if an ad was inspiring, say, but it is far harder for them to know whether or not they were inspired. By focusing on the life event rather than on the brand, we can identify these emotions much more clearly.

How do we do things differently?
We know people are particularly bad at explaining what caused them to have a specific emotion or what prompted them to make a decision.  Using neuroscience as a platform, we replicate the way our brains actually work and help respondents to project themselves into a usage situation, as they mostly know how they believe they will feel within that given situation.

In this way we stop relying so heavily on conscious recall by getting as close as we can to the actual process consumers follow when making decisions.

Contrary to popular belief, qualitative research is not the only way to understand these feelings.  Due to the complexity of emotions and feelings a combination of qualitative, quantitative and observational approaches should be used.

All of these approaches do however need to be adapted to this new thinking in the way the questions are structured and the stimulus is presented.  Aspects such as the situational context, respondent’s emotional characteristics, allowing for multiple conflicting emotions and ways of capturing “gut instinct” vs “absolute truth” all need to be incorporated in designing the approach.

Some of these elements good insighters, marketers and advertisers have applied instinctively in the past, but now we understand with much greater precision what to do, what works and why.

The thinking challenges traditional research to the point that some may see this approach as threatening to the industry, but we believe that it is the future of insight, branding and advertising.

It allows us as brand owners, marketers and insighters to get to the heart of how brand decisions are made by delivering better insight into those decisions.   It helps us to craft more relevant strategies, create more engaging brand communications and offer brand experiences that go beyond just measuring emotions or developing “Emotional Brands”, to actually delivering the feelings consumers truly desire and making them work for your brand.

Written by Christine Williams, Added Value SA and Mark Weeks, Added Value LA

prev next