Expert Interview with Duncan Smith on Neuromarketing

NeuromarketingAccording to Duncan Smith, managing director at Mindlab International, most brands already do a great job getting to know their customers by asking the right questions. But that's not enough.

"To better understand customers they just need to do more than just asking," he says.

This is where Mindlab comes in.

The U.K.-based company offers market research services that delve deeper into how consumers make decisions through the use of neuromarketing. Here, Duncan discusses how MindLab works and how their insight can be used to grow business. Read on:

Can you tell us the story behind Mindlab?

Mindlab was started in 2005 by cognitive psychologists Dr. David Lewis and Darren Bridger. Dr. Lewis has been dubbed 'the father of neuromarketing' based on some of the experiments he conducted in the 80s. Not long after he received his doctorate in 1983, he acquired a newly-invented piece of equipment called a Mind Mirror, the world's first easily portable electroencephalogram (EEG).

With only five electrodes, brain waves could only be stored on a cassette tape. The testing of TV advertising came by accident. Dr. Lewis needed suitably attention-grabbing and emotion-arousing stimuli for the Mind Mirror. The TV ads were used because they had the advantage of having been crafted to catch and hold people's attention as well as arouse a variety of emotions. This work has attracted a certain amount of media interest, including coverage on BBC TV's iconic science program "Tomorrow's World."

The first EEG study on retail premises involved volunteer shoppers walking around wearing sensors to record brain activity. They had to push bulky equipment powered by a motorcar battery on a trolley in front of them. Technology has come a long way since then.

David and Darren also ran a sister company called Neuroco, which was set up in 2001 with Thom Noble and was sold in 2008 to Neurofocus, now part of the Nielsen Group.

In 2007, I joined and opened up our lab at the Sussex Innovation Centre.

Mindlab initially worked only with large multinationals because the cost of early neuromarketing was considerably higher than traditional market research. The past few years has seen a shift not only with Mindlab, but also with other neuromarketing companies away from a laboratory setting towards online tests.

What services do you offer? Who should be using them?

At Mindlab, we are passionate about uncovering the real drivers of consumer behavior, because we don't just ask people what they think; we find out how they feel and what subconscious associations they have.

Relying on surveys and focus groups alone for insight is limited because our decisions are heavily influenced by factors outside of our conscious awareness. If you want to understand the real drivers of consumer behavior, you need to go beyond what people say.

We offer a complete marketing research service to provide insight supporting every stage of the marketing cycle from strategy and planning through to evaluation. This generally falls into the areas of brand research and measuring the effectiveness of advertising and packaging designs.

Our online neuromarketing consumer research tools allow us to quantitatively test anyone, anywhere. Tootsuite is Mindlab's cloud-based virtual lab, offering quantitative research techniques to provide insights into why people behave the way that they do.

What's your methodology? How do you conduct your research?

A good research project starts with a good hypothesis.

The first step is to work with the client directly to ensure that we are actually trying to find out the right things. We have a range of technologies at our disposal and it's important to use the right ones, so we don't lead with the technology but the solution. We either test concepts in our lab based in Brighton, or we use our virtual lab, which allows us to test people around the world so long as they have a computer and an Internet connection.

The majority of the research we conduct at the moment uses implicit and reaction-time-based testing to uncover how strongly people associate concepts with one another - for example, a brand with "innovation" and a new package design with "refreshing."

Why is the insight you offer so important to today's business owners?

Mistakes can be costly and there are countless examples of where market research has provided the wrong results. It's not because people lie. It's more about the fact that we are not always able to accurately reflect on our emotions and measure what drives our behavior. Many decisions are made without conscious reasoning and weighing lists of pros and cons; so when you ask people why they chose to act a certain way, they often come up with post-rationalized, made-up reasons.

Emotions power our decision-making. Even when we think we have made a conscious, rational decision, our emotions play a huge part in the decision-making process - partially because we can unconsciously take into account much more information than consciously. This information forms our decisions.

If you want to really understand how your customers think and how they are likely to behave, you must go beyond simply asking people what they think.

What have been some of the most predictable consumer behaviors you've uncovered?

We know that people are irrational and make irrational decisions. This should not be news to anyone, especially not those who have invested money in market research and then been surprised by market performance. What's important to understand, however, is that people are predictably irrational. We can uncover factors influencing their behavior that traditional market research methods overlook. In short, we can shape how people feel to change brand perceptions.

What are some of the most interesting, surprising or unique facts you've learned about consumers over the years?

One thing that comes up time and time again in our research is the power of positive messaging. Much advertising relies on engaging people with fear. We are hardwired to pay attention to a threat, and negative messaging gets people's attention. What we have found on many occasions is that if you want people to change their long-term perceptions and behavior, the use of negative messaging is significantly less effective than positive messaging. We have found this in areas as diverse as for long-term savings and pensions, for making people recycle more in the workplace and political campaigning.

For consumers, what are some of the most common ways that brands try to gain favor without us even noticing?

Many still stick with the AIDA acronym, which says you need to capture attention to engage consumers. What many brands have found is that familiarity increases trust, and trusting something makes you like it more. This explains why the low attention processing of nauseating and pointless advertising for a brand can be so effective.

Retail spaces can effectively hijack our emotions by conjuring up Proustian memories. We have very strong connections between taste, smells and memory. The powerful effect of music should also not be underrated.

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