Getting to the heart of it

Editor's note: Carl Marci is chief neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, a Boston research firm.

For those in and around advertising, the next few weeks leading up to the Super Bowl in early February are an exciting time. While football fans salivate over the matchups on the field, marketers can’t wait for the drama that unfolds off the field – between touchdowns and stops in play. The Super Bowl isn’t just one of the biggest sporting spectacles in the world, it may be the biggest spectacle in advertising – a competition for the hearts and minds of more than 100 million viewers (and millions more before and after the game online). Brands will showcase ads that have been planned and tweaked for months, with each considering new ways to unveil them and experimenting with new messages that, they hope, will connect emotionally with their target audiences.

For marketers, focusing on making emotional connections in any communication is critical, given our modern understanding of emotion. Why? Because, at our core, we are not rational beings who occasionally act emotionally. Rather, we are emotional beings who occasionally act rationally.

This has been shown time and again, but perhaps no clearer than a 2009 Binet and Field study that highlights the role of emotion. The research sought to understand drivers of advertising success including the impact of “emotional” and “rational” approaches. The authors assumed both were necessary. The study reviewed more than 800 ad campaigns in the U.K., each with clearly-stated business objectives and hard business outcomes (e.g., sales, market share, price sensitivity, profit). To the authors’ surprise, the data clearly suggested that the more emotions were at the center of the campaign, the bigger the business impact. Even further, researchers found that the positive outcomes for advertising campaigns were associated with little or no rational content at all.

The findings were fascinating and should have been illuminating for anyone in marketing. As a consumer neuroscientist, understanding and measuring emotion really intrigues me, especially during the Super Bowl, when the stakes are so high. Despite huge audiences, advertising approaches vary from humorous to serious to sentimental – from Clint Eastwood monologues to lost puppies; from fatherhood to child safety. But the end goal should be the same: to engage audiences on an emotional level that ties the story to the brand in compelling ways. These in-the-moment emotional responses are so critical for success because they work on a neurobiological level. Emotional responses are critical for forming brand-building associations in the brains of consumers that impact future buying behaviors.

This isn’t just about Super Bowl Sunday. Competition for attention in our daily lives is getting increasingly more intense, something that cannot be understated when striving for marketing success. As our modern media landscape becomes ever more cluttered – from social media to text messaging to always-on e-mail – leveraging emotion when creating products and advertising is essential to breaking through.

Always on and always working

So what are emotions and how do we measure them accurately in the context of marketing and market research? Emotional responses are an automatic, coordinated brain and body reaction to some stimulus of relevance to us in our environment. Our emotional system is always on and always working for us. While in general the stimulus could be internal (e.g., a thought or memory) or external (i.e., as experienced by one of our five senses) for marketers and market researchers, we mostly concern ourselves with responses to external stimuli (e.g., brands, products and their related consumer touchpoints). Emotional responses guide us by tagging information from our senses for relevance, signaling importance to us and directing attention, memory and decision making resources in our brains that ultimately impact some future behavior.

It is important to note that a large portion of emotional processing occurs below conscious awareness and is a more complex state than “feeling” states. Feeling states (e.g., happy, sad, angry, surprised) are more narrowly defined by emotion experts to reflect the relatively rare, more subjective and more conscious representation of some emotional experience. Thus, while all emotional responses have a non-conscious coordinate brain and bodily response, only a few manifest themselves as feeling states.

A significant amount of research shows that when an individual is confronted with a stimulus that elicits an emotional response, information about that response is manifested in the body and is stored as a somatic marker in the prefrontal cortex (and several other parts) of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is one of the most highly evolved parts of our brains and it has many, many connections to our emotion centers. When an individual is later confronted with a future, similar decision, relevant prior emotion-based somatic markers are accessed from memory centers and provide non-conscious feedback to help inform the decision.

In marketing, the goal of communications is to leverage emotional responses to create and amplify “meaning” and trigger emotional “approach” (as opposed to “ignore” or “avoid”) motivations in consumers. The outcome is the same regardless of the associated emotion word or subjective feeling state generated. Successful advertising leads consumers toward lasting connections with positive sentiment and ultimately an endorsement or purchase of a brand, product or service.

An authentic emotional connection

While it is one thing to understand the need for creating emotional connections, it is something else entirely to understand how to accurately measure emotions and to know if creative executions ultimately deliver an authentic emotional connection to their target consumers.

For years, marketers had to rely solely on conscious measures to evaluate emotional responses. In traditional measures of self-report, such as surveys and focus groups, emotions are evaluated based on the words and associated language for the narrow feeling state experienced by the participant. There are two challenges in relying upon these measures alone. First, the reporting is done after the experience of the target stimulus, which introduces just a few of the well-known biases that can interfere with the accuracy of the research (e.g., hindsight bias, recency bias, recall bias). Second, as outlined above, much of emotion processing is happening below the level of conscious awareness and not all emotional responses reach a state where an emotion word or subjective feeling state is consciously experienced.

Fortunately for marketers, the tools available today from neuroscience leave them better equipped than ever to measure emotion. Advances in technologies and sheer computing power continue to make sophisticated methods more scalable and affordable, with quicker turnaround times and clearer insights. These market-ready measures with well-validated algorithms allow an unprecedented analyses of the early steps of consumers’ non-conscious emotional processing in response to a wide variety of marketing communications.

In addition to technological advances, validation of consumer neuroscience techniques in-market has advanced rapidly in recent years. There have been a number of studies that show the relationship between various non-conscious consumer neuroscience measures of emotional response and behaviors relevant to marketers. These behaviors cross the spectrum and include correlations between various neurometrics of emotion and what consumers will watch, say and purchase.

These technologies include electroencephalography (EEG), biometrics (which includes traditional psycho-physiological measures like skin conductance response, heart rate and respiration), facial coding, implicit response measures and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). All of these measures allow for the non-invasive measurement of some aspect of non-conscious emotional response and often draw on both models in order to provide valuable insights for marketers.

Integrate multiple measures

One of the clear trends in both academic and business applications of consumer neuroscience is to integrate multiple measures for comparison and for new predictive power. In one of the largest comparison studies to date, researchers at Temple University collaborated with the Advertising Research Foundation in a study sponsored by large advertisers and media companies investigated the relationship between a wide variety of neuro-metrics and in-market sales. In this study, an area of the brain called the ventral striatum (typically associated with emotional or behavioral reward) was the strongest predictor of real-world, market-level response to the advertising tested. The team at Temple University also partnered with Innerscope Research on a Super Bowl study that combined biometric responses with fMRI results. The results showed that ads that had very high levels of emotional response as measured by the biometrics also showed increased activity in the ventral striatum as well as other important emotional and memory centers including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus.

It is my experience after nearly a decade of practicing consumer neuroscience that there is no single technology or methodology that has a monopoly on the truth. It is also clear that each method has value and it requires experience and expertise to know the strengths and limitations of each. The following is a brief overview of each of the most widely used consumer neuroscience technologies:

EEG is a time-tested measure in consumer neuroscience and reflects the direct electrical activity in neurons in the upper cortex of the brain as cells become active to convey information. High-quality EEG is typically more complex than other measures but as a direct measure of brain activity, it has been demonstrated to be one of the best measures of emotion motivation (i.e., approach vs. avoid response) on a non-conscious level.

Biometrics refers to a variety of measures of the autonomic branch of the peripheral nervous system that indirectly reflect brain responses but directly measure the embodied response and components of emotional response. Measures of heart rate, skin conductance and motion represent the very earliest of the steps in emotion generation. One advantage of biometrics is the ability to capture “upstream” emotional reactions, even when these emotional experiences are not experienced on a conscious level.

Facial coding is a relatively new tool that has been automated with software that allows near real-time measurement of the emotional expressions of consumers as they experience marketing content. The technique can be a useful diagnostic tool to understand whether a stimulus has elicited a specific facial expression (e.g., a smile) and is increasingly used to evaluate ad effectiveness. It must be kept in mind, however, that facial expressions evolved to communicate our feeling states in a social context and therefore occur at relatively low levels in the context of the passive media upon which the vast majority of marketing communications occur (i.e., television, Internet, out-of-home signage).

Implicit response testing is another technique that can be used to try to understand information – specifically, semantic associations or “feeling states” – that individuals are unable or unwilling to verbalize. Consumers are provided stimulus to react to and timing of the responses captured can show non-conscious associations with brands and products. It can be used for understanding branding, positioning, ad messaging and packaging.

Eye-tracking monitors eye movements to pinpoint where someone is looking – whether on screen, on a store shelf or elsewhere. Often used in addition to other technologies, it provides very specific feedback about whether consumers are experiencing the elements of your creative, packing or placement in the way marketers want.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging uses a massive rotating magnet to take images of the brain while participants lay in a large oval-shaped magnet and complete cognitive tasks or watch marketing material. The machine and computers can measure changes in oxygenated blood flow to understand which brain regions are being activated. Activity during the task of interest (e.g., watching an ad) is subtracted from activity during some independent baseline or control task (e.g., looking at a fixation dot). Brain activity that remains following the subtraction is assumed to be uniquely related to the target task and not to the control task.

Address the challenge

None of these technologies has all of the answers. What they do, in tandem and individually, is address the challenge that’s fundamental to marketers: understanding consumers who are more distracted every day. Mobile devices and mobile connectivity provide us with more options and something shiny, new and entertaining is always just a swipe or a click away.

In this environment, leveraging a deeper understanding of emotional response in messaging, imagery or other creative content to capture the hearts and minds of consumers is critical to getting a brand or product noticed, remembered and selected over competitors.

The Super Bowl, and the halo surrounding it, provides marketers with tremendous opportunity to make these connections. For those of us connected to marketing, the competition to see who delivered that emotional connection is even more exciting than the emotions that will be spilled on the field.