No Research Technique is an Island

Sep 17 2010

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”  - John Donne

Buying into new research tools

I am a keen follower of the latest developments in neuroscience, and read The Buying Brain with genuine interest.  I have long believed that one of the biggest challenges facing market research is to develop new tools and techniques which take account of recent findings in neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I felt disappointed and frustrated after finishing The Buying Brain, and thought long and hard about whether to write something on the topic before reading Robert Bain’s article at research-live, which neatly summarised all my concerns.  So the only reason to write another article, is to expand on his comments and hopefully place them in a broader context.

We need to understand the buying brain

Let me start by talking about the book.  The Buying Brain is well written, and in its first half contains many interesting anecdotes and findings on how the brain works, which are placed very much in a marketing context.  For someone new to the field, this overview will be of great interest and will give them many good tips.  However, the second half of the book is an unashamed plug for the author’s company, consisting of a shopping list of their services and the different measurements that are used for different aspects of buying behaviour.  Overall, the book lacks a coherent theme or over-arching idea, and is very thin on real hard evidence of the tools that are discussed, especially in side to side comparison with alternative approaches.  In this respect it is similar to Buyology, which was also big on public relations but less impressive on hard facts.

Having said that the book contains important ideas for research (although these ideas are not new and can be found elsewhere).  The key measures which are used in the work described in the book are attention, emotion and memory.  That is, does a stimulus get noticed, does it have emotional resonance, and does it get remembered?  Another strong thread is the importance of simplicity: the brain uses 20% of the body’s energy but only makes up 3% of its weight, and therefore always seeks ways to simplify and therefore ease the burden of cognitive processing.  Most importantly of all, nearly all of our behaviour is automatic and unconscious

Nothing new under the sun

These are important ideas, which I don’t think research has yet to address.  Most research (and I include qualitative and quantitative approaches) is still based on a very rational view of behaviour which is simply not supported by the evidence.  Asking long lists of attributes or for rational explanations of behaviour which is mostly outside our own introspection is producing potentially misleading results at best.

Let’s take an example of the very famous neuroscience study which looked at the brain activity stimulated by Coca-Cola branded and unbranded.  This was a great study in illuminating the huge gulf between unbranded and branded stimuli - or to look at it more generally, the importance of context in how consumers evaluate any stimulus.  The dramatic result is not just down to the Coca-Cola brand itself, but rather reflects the rich network of associations that Coca-Cola has built in the consumer’s mind, over many repeated and reinforcing (pleasant) experiences, by always being ‘within an arm’s reach of desire’ as one of the company’s early pioneers famously said.  This rich network of associations is a function of 100  years of history, a large and efficient distribution network, the creation of well known icons such as the contoured bottle and red Santa Claus and (relatively) consistent brand and communication strategy.

The brain’s new clothes?

My concern is therefore that while these brain images provide stunning validation of the importance of brand building, and warn us that any consumer reaction to a stimulus is completely context dependent, they don’t add to our knowledge of how to create brands like Coca-Cola (although they do add to our understanding of the consumer’s brain).

Don’t get me wrong.  I do believe that neuroscience can offer ways to measure brain activity that cannot be measured by other means, and will be important to developing an understanding of our subconscious and unconscious decisions.  But such measurements are still very crude, and while telling us about the amount of activity taking part in different areas of the brain, offer little insight into the reasons for the activity.

No brain is an island

One of the biggest challenges for neuroscience (and market research) is to measure behaviours in context.  Humans are social animals, and brains depend on other brains and environmental cues in determining our behaviour.  Whatever our likes and dislikes,context and social situation play a far more important role in decision making than predisposition.  Placing wires on someone’s head in a laboratory cannot replicate real life, although I am sure measurements will eventually become much less intrusive.

The answers are out there, and neuroscience is one of the windows into the house of human behaviour.  But it’s a big house, and there are many other windows.


Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind by Dr A.K. Pradeep (2010) Brain sells: Cutting through the neuromarketing hype by Robert Bain

Buyology by Martin Lindstrom (2008)

Pop: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company by Constance Hays (2005)

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