Using Neuroscience to Better Understand Consumer Behavior

For brands, the key to growing marketshare and consumer loyalty often lies in fulfilling consumer’s deep subconscious emotional needs that other brands have failed to meet. Delivered through innovative and at times disruptive products and solutions, many companies have accomplished this feat by moving a consumer from needing something to desiring it.

Getting to the heart of what drives consumer behavior is both a key challenge and under leveraged opportunity for marketers. History has demonstrated that consumers are very irrational, and asking them through conventional research will only provide a glimpse into their actual behaviors. To really get to the emotional side of the decision equation, which represents about 90 percent of buying decisions, marketers need to go deeper than conventional research. Until recently, this process could be cumbersome and intimidating for both researchers and respondents. 

However, today we are fortunate to have new EEG neuroscience scanning tools that measure physiological and neuro signals to gain deeper insight into how the subconscious of a consumer feels regarding questions and visuals, a key indication on their purchase intentions. Ultimately the growing sector of neuroscience research is becoming more prevalent in client’s research processes and budget allocations. A key reason is the fact the EEG technology has become less expensive and easier to use, and has added benefits such as the integration with VR and eye tracking devices.

Our firm has implemented several neuroscience studies supported by VR to determine which concepts had the greatest impact on customers loyalty and in driving purchases in a built environment. From our hands-on experience there are a few insights companies need to take into account as they consider such tools:

Not for early adolescent consumers: EEG leverages radio waves to access  brain activities that drive most of our emotional and cognitive behaviors. As such, it is ill advised to use this technology on any consumer younger than 18 years of age, as this segment’s brain is in constant development. If researchers are targeting the Gen Z segment, using neuroscience EEG technology is not advisable.

There are other platforms, such as wrist devices, that measure emotions through the electricity and heat levels of the body, which can provide some emotional insight on how consumers respond to various stimuli. New facial recognition technology is another emerging platform that allows the detection of sentiment through facial expressions. Although less accurate than the EEG platform, it does provide some key insights on how people feel and can be integrated as part of online research.

Quality over quantity approach: Since wearing the headgear and VR glasses does require significant set-up time and the technology–especially the VR headsets–requires access to a powerful computer, most neuroscience research is done based on a one-on-one interview approach. We have conducted research with up to three respondents at a time and found that the more individuals being studied at the same time the more of a challenge it becomes, and with a significant cost premium. 

We foresee this issue being resolved in the near future with better integrated and smaller technology that requires a significantly lower investment, perhaps driven by the gaming industries need to create less costly immersive experiences. In the interim, the ideal size of a neuroscience research study is around 40-60 respondents that are managed over a period of one to two weeks. Once the study is fielded it typically takes another three weeks for the report, typically the same duration as a major online study.

Does not work for all respondents: If the research is being conducted with a VR component, it’s important to understand many respondents have motion sickness, which makes screening the candidates and the incidence of them being the right profile for the research much more challenging and time consuming for the recruiting agency. 

Adding to the complexity is the challenge that some hair styles are not meant for EEG headsets. Consumers with thick hair, large afros or braided hair provide a real challenge for the EEG terminals to make contact with the respondents scalp, adding to the challenges of getting accurate neuro reads. Since most respondents do not provide photos of themselves as part of the recruitment process it is incumbent on the recruiting firm to include this element in how they select candidates.

With all the tribulations of using neuroscience research methodology, the insights you gain far outweighs the challenges. Getting into the consumer’s head to really understand how they feel is the only way to ensure what they are saying will lead to a predictive behavior.