Editor's note: Based in Norwalk, Conn., Elissa Moses is executive vice president, Ipsos Neuro and Behavioral Science Center.

The drive to understand human emotion is epic. As cavemen it was our earliest form of communication. And now as marketers, to learn to interpret, measure and influence emotion promises to be potentially the most influential driver of business success. As Marc Pritchard, global marketing and brand building officer of Procter and Gamble, has observed, “People’s feelings and emotions guide behavior. We try to create an emotional connection with people.” In that statement, Pritchard could be speaking not just for P&G but for the marketing and research industry as a whole.

The challenge for understanding and measuring consumer emotion is that it occurs mostly at the non-conscious level of brain processing and is too fast to be put into words. The language of emotion is felt and not easily verbalized. How then do we harness it as market researchers – especially when our best traditional survey approaches cannot expect to represent the realm of the unconscious?

It could be argued that the biggest breakthrough in market research this decade is in understanding non-conscious consumer response based on data and methodologies leveraged from neuroscience and behavioral economics.

This article addresses the three major research industry shifts that are shaping the way we collect data in 2015 in our continued quest to better measure non-conscious consumer response.

1. Shifts in perspective

The emergence and growing adoption of non-conscious methods across the market research industry has created a rapid evolution in perspective about these tools. At first, there was widespread skepticism, especially as some early practitioners made bold claims. However the unwavering need to understand human emotion led many researchers to persevere and experiment, leading to more mature perspectives about what non-conscious measurement tools can and can’t do, how and when they are best used and also what to reasonably expect from them.

Conscious measurement is not going away. Contrary to unfounded early fears that non-conscious measurement would replace the common simple question, most concerns have been alleviated as people better understand how the mind makes decisions and why conscious perceptions will always remain critical. Essentially we know from Daniel Kahneman, David Eagleman and other academic field leaders that the decision process is wrought with conflict and lobbying by the conscious mind against our non-conscious emotional forces. To only understand non-conscious response is to only understand one side of the argument. If we are to advance our understanding of consumers, we need to understand how both sides of the brand or purchase decision debate unfolds. What are the conscious influencers and what are the non-conscious drivers? The only way to sensibly achieve a comprehensive understanding of consumer response and probability of resulting impact or intent is to design studies that layer non-conscious measurements with traditional research methods.

Not all non-conscious measurement tools do the same things. This is actually a serious understatement. Several methods address emotional engagement and types of emotions. Others focus on impact. Some are far more sensitive than others. Some are more expensive and less scalable. There is need for expertise and agnostic design when designing market research not only to fully understand study objectives, as always, but also to understand which non-conscious methods best to apply, why and how. Clients should be wary of one-size-fits-all method recommendations because the variations are pronounced and meaningful in weighing the practicality (scalable, representative and affordable) with the value (reliable, sensitive and actionable).

With growing sophistication regarding the strengths and weaknesses of various non-conscious measurement approaches there is now the necessary understanding that one type of method cannot do it all or be the same one needed every time.

Rapidly growing interest in behavioral economics. Research in behavioral economics focuses on understanding the decision process by taking into account emotional and other psychological factors. It is focused more on empirical outcomes measured by changing stimuli scenarios rather than the detailed understanding of specific non-conscious response. It is a very rich area to be explored and is a relatively young field with respect to market research applications. Since marketers need to understand and influence the drivers of behavior-based outcomes, we can expect to see increasing experimentation in this area, particularly using approaches that incorporate various forms of non-conscious data collection.

2. Shifts in emerging methods

There are a number of now relatively established non-conscious measurement methods that have proven themselves to be meaningful, reliable, consumer-friendly, scalable and affordable. These include facial coding, implicit, eye-tracking and to some extent, biometrics and EEG. However, with rapid innovations in technology and software, the market will expand this year with new testing options. Moreover there will be far more creativity for combining tools and methods to provide just the right types of insights for the objectives of each study.

New methods and uses are on the horizon. Most people have noticed that there is a mainstream revolution going on in wearable/mobile biometrics. This has infiltrated the mass market with devices such as Fitbit, Google Glass and the much anticipated Apple Watch. For the market research realm, this means that there are new options for mobile biometrics that capture heart rate and GSR, which enable ease of motion and new applications combining simultaneous measurements with mobile eye-tracking, Google Glass, etc. Customer experience and shopper journey research is about to change dramatically.

There are huge leaps occurring in accessibility and affordability of Internet survey integrated tools for non-conscious measurement such as facial coding, implicit reaction time and eye-tracking.

Neuro tools are finally exploring the world of qualitative research on a larger scale, particularly with facial coding and eye-tracking etc. (However it should be remembered there is trade-off with respect to test/retest reliability and projectability, as with any qualitative vs. quantitative tool application.)

3. Shifts in practices

It was the original vision of recent neuro pioneers, who were among the first to apply neuro methods to market research studies, that non-conscious measurement tools would become mainstream. In less than 10 years, it is already happening with additional implications for changes in our industry.

Non-conscious methods become standard. At the large research companies, non-conscious measurement tools are being embedded into standard research studies for copy testing, brand tracking, product testing, concept evaluation, package and fragrance screens, media research, customer experience and shopper journeys. Among clients and research designers, the question isn’t “Should we include non-conscious methods?” but “Which non-conscious methods are the best to include?” This is a major and relatively swift sea change to have everyday neuro for the market research industry.

In some respects, non-conscious measurement, which hinges on technological equipment and software, is being embraced along the curve of conventional technology adoption, where awareness and trial are escalating as availability and prices come down.

Non-conscious methods become universally available. Less than a decade ago, non-conscious measurement was exclusively the domain of the universities and neuro boutiques. However as the primary tools and methods of applied neuroscience innovation such as biometrics, EEG, facial coding and implicit became more readily accessible, large and mid-size market research firms began to conduct their own R&D, hire experts and also partner with boutique providers. This has encouraged the growth of non-conscious measurement by making the methods easily attainable through more distribution points and also globally scalable. Today the volume dynamic has shifted as more non-conscious measurement research is being conducted by the once traditional research agencies because of the sheer quantity and scale of their client needs. Hence the term “traditional research agency” is rapidly losing meaning as the large players aggressively innovate and conduct R&D in this area.

Broad learning from meta-analyses makes marketers smarter. We are approaching a tipping point in the number of data sets and studies with new methods now available to conduct meta-analyses and begin to harness the unique learning that can come from including non-conscious measures. This is where non-conscious data gathering gets really exciting. Now that we have increasingly large data sets against various techniques, we conduct meta-analyses that contribute not just to the learning of individual clients and projects but to the principles of good marketing and communications overall. For instance, we have conducted a number of meta-analyses on facial coding results for ad testing at Ipsos and observed some of the following as food for thought:

  • Generally, the more emotion the better. Emotion means that viewers are engaged and interacting with the message. Lack of overall emotion may be a strong predictor of ad failure. Failure to have viewers engage in an ad emotionally diminishes its ability to get its message across at both the conscious and non-conscious level.
  • Negative emotion can play a powerful role if appropriate to the story. It can cause dramatic tension and interest. It can also set the product up to be the hero. However, negative emotion is never warranted in response to product and branding moments.
  • The last one-third of an ad is the most important for achieving success. This is usually because the end of an ad is where the product makes its benefit pronouncement and reinforces the brand. An ad can create intense emotional tumult but if it leaves viewers in a strong positive place, it has a high chance of succeeding.

Other meta-analyses for implicit and EEG yield similarly useful patterns and insights for improving overall marketing and communications.

Marketing and creative strategies will change to incorporate more specific emotional goals. With new understanding of how emotions drive consumer decisions, it is time for creative and strategic briefs to change to incorporate this understanding. Just as briefs since the Mad Men days have had specific goals about raising awareness and trial, strategies today need to take into consideration how the ad or other marketing materials will evoke emotions surrounding the experience to drive behavior. If emotional response is accepted as critical, we need to make it part of intended response strategy and not just a lucky (or not so lucky) byproduct of the rational promise and reason why. This is how marketing is going to begin to improve across the board.

Correlations will be further established between non-conscious measurement and market results. One highly desired outcome from the new array of non-conscious data is to be able to reduce predictive variance for consumer response modeling based on traditional survey data. Modeling of neuro data against in-market results will create new variables for non-conscious response in standard market response models. What’s needed is for clients to share in-market data for new ground to be broken in non-conscious data predictive modeling. There are already many studies that suggest strong correlations between emotional response variables and in-market success. But this type of modeling is just beginning with non-conscious data. The more market data clients share the better and faster the industry will be able to provide important new capabilities.

New vantage points

Client market research departments and research companies will begin to increasingly recruit researchers with background in cognitive psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience, the hot new majors. The next generation of researchers with these foundational academic backgrounds will be able to approach consumer response, decision-making and behavior from entirely new vantage points. Moreover they will be equipped with the scientific foundation and methods to build new approaches and advance consumer understanding in ways we have only dreamed of in decades past.