Neuromarketing brainwaves capitalize on sales opportunities

Lightweight brain activity monitors make it easier to gather neuromarketing data in-store to help brands fine-tune products.
27 June 2023

Happy shopper: product developers can tap into neuromarketing insights based on brain activity data to create more appealing goods for consumers.

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Customers walking into modern retail stores or shopping online – whether they like it or not – are participating in a never-ending sales experiment. And thanks to advances in brain-sensing technology, that experiment has grown ever more sophisticated. Today, sales teams can draw upon a growing body of neuromarketing knowledge to really get inside the head of their customers.

Pitching products to neurons

If you were wondering which kinds of brands are putting neuromarketing techniques to the test, you only have to look at the client list of customer behavior experts such as Neurons Inc. The firm – founded a decade ago and headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark – is trusted by brands such as Coca-Cola, H&M, Facebook, Google, TikTok, and many other multinational firms.

Just as mobile phones have shrunk in size from blocky designs with handheld battery packs to current slimline devices, so has brain-sensing technology. Lightweight, portable brain activity monitors can be worn while volunteers watch an advertisement or select products (albeit with some curious looks from other shoppers).

Examples of brain activity monitors used for gathering neuromarketing data include multi-channel EEG headsets.

List of lightweight EEG headset manufacturers –

Measuring brainwaves can determine how alert, relaxed, or tired, wearers of the headset-mounted EEG sensors are. And, of direct relevance to neuromarketing, the brain-monitoring technology can indicate – based on where neural pulses are firing – whether users are responding positively or negatively to products. But the details don’t stop there.

Neuromarketing consultants use other information, too, such as heart rate, pupil dilation, and eye-tracking coordinates, to build up an even more complete picture of how potential customers feel about what they are seeing and experiencing. Metrics that can be output – based on measurements gathered from volunteers – include excitement, stress, and engagement levels, and whether subjects are distracted.

Applied neuroscience is taking traditional research on the brain out of the lab and into the world of retail and other business settings. “Applied neuroscience can help you understand what consumers want, what motivates them, what drives their decision-making process, and what emotions they experience,” explains Shikher Chaudhary – Director of Neurons Inc Asia – in his 2020 TEDx talk on neuromarketing: decoding the consumer mind.

Focus group fail

Product developers might think that they have the answers based on focus groups and other spoken or written user feedback. But firms face a major roadblock when asking potential customers what they think of their products. “Most of our decision-making processes are unconscious,” writes UK-based Mindlab, which uses psychology-based tools to fill in the gaps for brands. “We [consumers] post-rationalise our decisions, but can’t always tell you why we really made them.”

Understanding buyers’ emotional preferences and responses at a subconscious level helps developers to navigate what’s really attracting clients to their products. According to Chaudhary, emotional preference can be as high as 85% accurate in predicting actual consumer choice, which makes it a key indicator in neuromarketing studies.

He has some useful insights into web metrics too – drawing on results collected for Ericsson, which was interested in the impact of network buffering on mobile device users. Ad loading delays of 2-3 seconds raised the stress response of subjects to levels similar to those felt when watching a horror movie, pointing to the kinds of details that neuromarketing can tease out.

Also, to emphasize the perils of overlooking the subconscious response of consumers, it’s worth recalling Coca-Cola’s experience when they launched a reformulated version of the classic drink in the mid-1980s. Despite having many thousands of people say that they preferred the new version during trials, the launch was a flop as the emotional attachment of buyers to the original recipe suppressed sales.

Neuromarketing guardrails

And if neuromarketing, which dates back to at least the early 1990s, is making you feel a little queasy about your next shopping trip, it’s time for some brain training. Easier said than done, but becoming more aware of your subconscious decision-making processes – System 1 thinking, to use cognitive psychologist and ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ author Daniel Kahneman’s terminology – could spotlight otherwise hidden behavior.

Hardware might help too. Consumer EEG devices such as headbands developed by mindfulness tech firm Muse or interactive controller designer MyndPlay give wearers an insight into their brain activity. In fact, shoppers of the future may even choose to wear some kind of neural sensor to monitor their buying responses. And thinking back to the auxiliary data that neuromarketing teams gather today, it’s possible that even heart rate monitoring smartwatches could alert emotional preferences and responses at a subconscious level.

Today, there are numerous market research agencies using consumer neuroscience to help companies to build products and services that resonate strongly with customers. And the Neuromarketing Science and Business Association (NMSBA) company directory has entries for vendors based all over the world. There are major conferences too, such as the Shopper Brain Conference series held in Europe and Asia, as well as the Neuromarketing World Forum in the US, which is now in its 11th year.

As a condition of membership, NMSBA members are expected to follow a code of ethics for the application of consumer neuroscience in business, which the association says represents a first step towards international standards.

Without a doubt, the field of neuromarketing is a fascinating one, and there’s AI to consider too, which further ramps up the possibilities – for example, a recent study has shown that generative AI can read your mind, if you let it.