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Googling The Customer's Brain

Neuroscience is all the rage.

It's hard to read a newspaper (do people still do that?), magazine or blog without bumping into the latest brain research findings. Books about how pleasure works, how the brain experiences emotion and where its "buy button" is are pouring out daily. Everywhere you look there are colorful Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) pictures, Blood Pressure/Respiration/Galvanic Skin Response bracelets, eye-tracking and facial expression coding studies, and Electroencephalograph (EEG) squiggles proving one point or another. 

What the heck is going on?

It looks like business has fallen head over heels in love with neuroscience. 

I blame Google. 

Over the last 10 years, Google has systematically de-mystified one of the biggest conundrums in business history: advertising. Google's Adwords and Adsense made laughable the old saw about "50% of my advertising is wasted, but I just don't know which 50%." Google's algorithm knows which half works and which doesn't. Precisely. 

Google took the idea of "target marketing" four places to the right of the decimal. 

And, that was just the beginning. Just as Roger Bannister's running of the sub-four-minute mile in 1954 led to 16 other runners doing so in the next 24 months, Google's demonstration of the impact of microanalysis on marketing has led to the explosive growth of behavioral targeting. Marketers no longer have to wonder how a customer learned about their product, which competitors she also considered or how long it took her to decide. Tracking cookies now reveal all. Add all that to Facebook and the customer almost turns into one of those Visible Man dolls.

This really got us all thinking. 

What if we could go beyond past and present behavior? What if we could reliably predict future behavior? Even better, what if we could carefully control it? 

Isn't that what we've been trying to do in marketing for the last hundred or so years?

Yes, but Google and these neuroscientists have shown us we've been going about it all wrong.


Well…how have we tried to figure out what the customer wants? 

We've tried asking them in focus groups. We've tried questionnaires of all kinds. We've tried observing them and interviewing them in every possible circumstance. 

And, what happened? 

Over 80% of new products still fail.

So we need new tools to help us predict customer behavior.

Google showed us the kind of information we can get about the past. It's trying very hard to give us that same kind of information about the present.

But what we really need is to be able to Google the future.

Specifically, the customer's future!

Ah ha! 

What if we could know how the customer thinks? What if we could know how the customer feels? What if we could know what the customer is going to do? What if we could know things about the customer even the customer didn't know?  

What if we could Google the customer's brain?

Now we're talkin'! 

That's a unique selling proposition even the most hard-headed (sorry) executive couldn't resist.

Enter "neuromarketing."

The race to Google the customer's brain is on.

And the stakes are very high. Read Montague's fMRI variation on the famous "Pepsi Challenge" showed how the customer's brain anticipates an experience when told which brand s/he was about to drink. We might say the brand, not the beverage, created the experience. More accurately: the meaning of the brand to this particular individual, not the physical characteristics of the product itself, is the determining factor in the nature of that individual's experience of the brand. And that "meaning" can now be objectively captured, free of reporting biases, embarrassment or fudging, without the customer doing anything except agreeing to climb into one of those scary tunnel machines. 

And recent EEG studies claim to isolate the elements that most strongly contribute to a brand's meaning.  

Knowing how to create and image that meaning gets very close to Googling the customer's future. 

Recently, MIT Media Lab affiliate Affectiva received $5.7 million in financing from advertising giant WPP. This was only weeks after Nielsen beat out WPP to purchase NeuroFocus for an undisclosed amount. After losing out, one WPP insider noted: "Some of our biggest brands are all sexed up about this category. Right now there isn't a lot of money being allocated to this area, but it is very sexy stuff that is showing the potential for real growth."


Everybody wants to be the brain's Google. 

And every brand wants to be sure it has the "BrainyMetrics" to help guide product development.  

The prospect has also raised concerns about privacy and manipulation. 

In "Googling The Customer's Brain, Part II" I'll examine some of neuromarketing's implications. 

Don't be the product, buy the product!