What do people really think of your logo? What emotion does your latest promotion trigger? Which brochure design is more effective? For decades, marketers have used traditional communications concepts like cognitive dissonance and color theory to try to dictate consumers’ answers to those questions.
For example, when Vomela was asked to create wall décor for an autism clinic, the design team developed an underwater theme that was fun and engaging but not overstimulating. Today, simple yellow and light blue sea life decals adorn the clinic’s walls—and contribute to a soothing environment for its young patients.
Still, assessing the accuracy of our theories—and the effectiveness of our communications—has historically relied on talking to consumers via methods like focus groups and surveys. And those assessments are built upon a sizeable assumption: that consumers can verbally articulate their true thoughts. But what if they can’t? What if consumers aren’t even consciously aware of what they truly feel about a brand and other visual content?
Since the early 2000s, a growing number of academics, researchers, and neuroscientists have argued that consumer feelings are deeply psychological—and unconsciously held. In fact, one such professional, Harvard Business School Professor Gerald Zaltman, estimates that 95 percent of our feelings originate in the subconscious mind—a place no survey or focus group can tap.
So how are we to learn what consumers really think about our content if we can’t just ask them? Consider neuromarketing— a slowly-but-surely emerging field of study that uses the measurement of physiological and neural signals (from eye movement and perspiration to facial expressions and blood) to gain insight into customers’ true feelings.
Here’s a brief overview of three neuromarketing techniques and how they might inform promotional content:
Facial coding recognizes expressions that are consistent across the human race and associated strongly with six specific emotions— happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and surprise. These expressions and their associated emotions can be tracked by an expert or by software. Facial coding could reveal that the direct mail piece you believe to be edgy and cool causes your target market to make facial expressions consistent with surprise, as you’d likely hoped. Or, conversely, your edgy mailer might elicit expressions of uneasiness.
Electrodermal Activity (EDA)
EDA is a measure of electric current passing through the skin. Because greater skin conductance is a byproduct of activating the flight-or-flight response in a person, it’s not something you’d want to see occurring in the skin of someone who is, say, trying to navigate using your in-store signage, as it likely indicates that he or she is uncomfortable and looking for a way to flee your establishment altogether.
fMRI uses a large magnet to measure changes in blood flow to different regions of the brain that are associated with different mental states. fMRI is the only existing neuromarketing research technology that can pinpoint activity in an exact brain location, making it the gold standard when it comes to measuring individual’s specific emotional responses to visual stimuli.
These neuromarketing techniques have their share of critics and, for most organizations, in-house neuromarketing research remains out of reach due to its costs. (An fMRI machine, for example, costs about $5 million, not to mention what you’ll pay the PhD-level scientists needed to operate it.) Still, they are gaining traction in the business world, particularly among those companies with deep pockets.