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Professor Moran Cerf discusses neuromarketing, which analyzes brain activity to bypass the pitfalls of traditional marketing research.

Moran Cerf

How to read a mind

A new immersion trip explores how marketers can research consumers’ brain activity

By Rachel Nuwer

9/25/2014 - In early September, 20 Kellogg faculty members went on a field trip to talk about the human brain.

Organized by Assistant Professor of Marketing Moran Cerf, the faculty immersion trip took Kellogg to Nielsen Holdings, a global information and measurement company, to discuss a new field of research known as neuromarketing, or “consumer neuroscience.”

Traditional marketing relies on self-reported information, with all the traps and biases that brings. Study participants tell researchers what they want to hear, or report for the person they want to be rather than the person they are.

Neuromarketing bypasses these traps by analyzing activity within the brain itself, trying to tap into the underlying choices and decisions a person makes, without the biases our conscious minds pose.

“Instead of using psychology — as we’ve done for the past 20 years — to try and understand what people do and want or are interested in, we try to look at the brain to understand those desires,” Cerf says.

A new path to insight

Traditionally, researchers or companies interested in consumer behavior relied on surveys or focus groups to gain insight on their customers’ preferences and perceptions.

“We think that people do not necessarily tell us the truth,” says Mitchell Petersen, the Glen Vasel Professor of Finance and the director of the Helzer Center for Private Equity and Venture Capital at Kellogg. “They tell us what they think we want to hear.”

In many cases, Cerf adds, people actually lie to themselves — promising to exercise daily, for example, or to stop procrastinating — even though they will most likely never actually do these things.

“In our brains lies the ‘true’ answer to what we are going to end up doing,” he says.

Peering into a person’s brain allows researchers to see what their subjects are thinking both consciously and subconsciously. This strategy could perhaps ultimately lead to determining people’s perceptions on things ranging from marketing to risk and reward.

Mind reading

In the past five years, around 120 companies, including Nielsen, have begun offering services that used physical measurements — either from analyzing brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), or from measurements of secondary factors indicative of brain activity, such as eye-tracking — to figure out what research subjects are thinking.

Potential customers, they found, tended to balk at the cost of these services, often pointing to a perceived lack of scientific data to back up neuromarketing’s validity.

Cerf hopes further research will produce the data that will convince the skeptics.

“We push for studies that will give answers about what can and cannot be done,” Cerf says. “Nielsen is interested in having relationships with academics.”

Nielsen representatives and Cerf — who is collaborating with the company on neuromarketing research — said the data are compelling enough to call for further study.

“Even if it’s not obvious how we would use this new tool, it is something we can put in our toolbox,” Petersen says. “You never know where research will take you.”

Seeing what you think

After explaining the technology, Nielsen offered a demonstration. Two volunteers put on an EEG cap and watched various video ads that promoted adopting older pets. One ad featured a cat, another a dog. Some animals bounded around the screen, others just sat there.

According to measurements of activity in the brain centers responsible for attentiveness, memory and emotion, dogs won over cats — but the participants lost interest even in the dogs for the last 10 seconds of the ad. For a company, this might indicate selecting a dog as the star, and cutting the run time from 30 to 20 seconds.

“I was fascinated by what they can see happening in our brains,” Petersen says. “Instead of asking you what you think, I get to literally see what you think.”

Peter Klibanoff, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg, says that he might consider integrating some of the data generated at Nielsen into his statistics courses and possibly integrate the method into his own research in the future. He also appreciated the trip, he adds, because it allowed him to interact with colleagues he normally does not have much contact with.

“It is exciting in an intellectual way,” Klibanoff says. “It gets you thinking about new things in new ways.”

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