Nielsen (NLSN) clients use neuroscience to craft better commercials

Executive: The brain likes meaningful branding

It isn’t enough that Nielsen knows our media consumption and buying habits.

Now, they’re learning to read our minds.

The global market research firm with about 500 employees in downtown Cincinnati is using electroencephalograph (EEG) devices in several research labs to measure whether viewers are emotionally engaged in advertising. Nielsen executives told the local chapter of the American Marketing Association recently that neuroscience will play an increasing role the way ads are presented to U.S. consumers.

“The brain just doesn’t like rainbows and puppy dogs, which it does by the way. It also likes meaningful branding,” said Blake Burrus, senior vice president for Nielsen NeuroFocus.

Nielsen monitors brain waves to track memory, emotional engagement and the attention levels of viewers. Burrus said Nielsen clients have identified a correlation between ads that score high on its brain metrics and those producing sales gains.

Nielsen wouldn't say which advertisers are using the technique, but Procter & Gamble and Unilever are two companies that Burrus has counted as clients during his Nielsen career, according to his LinkedIn profile. Promotional material from Nielsen indicates NeuroFocus was used by CBS to evaluate promotional spots for “The Good Wife” television show.

Burrus is a former executive in Nielsen’s market research unit, AC Nielsen BASES. He has been working with NeuroFocus since August 2012. He presented to local marketing professionals at Xavier University’s Cintas Center Oct. 18.

“We make decisions very differently than we thought we did,” Burrus said. “We form opinions very differently than we thought we did. We’re much more emotional and instinctive in our thinking than we ever realized. Neuroscience is showing that we make decisions much faster, in the blink of an eye.”

NeuroFocus is a competitive advantage for Nielsen but the service is too expensive to be adopted as the industry standard, said Miami University Marketing Professor Mike McCarthy.  

“It’ll be something the big CPG companies like PG will do. I’m not sure Fifth Third could afford to do this to any great extent,” he said.

Burrus didn’t discuss pricing, but said costs will come down in the future as technology evolves. For example, EEG readings now require equipment that is cumbersome and expensive, including a skull cap with a gel that enables sensors to get a strong reading. But researchers are working on “a dry wireless headset” that cost about $500.

“We’ll probably be able to get this on (consumer research panels). So, you can imagine a Nielsen panel or a BASES panel giving out some of these and doing the data collection in your house. The cost will go down. Affordability will go way up,” Burrus said. “Frankly, we think it can replace a lot of survey-based research in the longer run. We don’t have enough specificity to do that yet, but we think that is where it’s going. We think it’ll be much more scalable.”

McCarthy doubts whether the technology will ever replace surveys as a research tool because “you can’t confuse the initial neurological response of somebody to the eventual attitude they form. Men and women react to baby’s faces differently … but that doesn’t mean men don’t love their child,” he said.

Burrus said Nielsen has collected data on more than 1,500 ads and helped its clients develop case studies linking NeuroFocus scores to sales results on almost 100 campaigns. NeuroFocus has been used to edit 30-second ads down to 15 seconds without losing their emotional impact. That can yield big savings for advertisers, as 15-second spots are cheaper to place and more adaptable to online usage.

“Creative agencies have known for 30 years that creating an emotional engagement with your customer is quite important. They spend a lot of their time trying to do that,” Burrus said. “But there aren’t a lot of ways to (demonstrate) how you can use neuroscience to optimize or improve your creative to make it more emotionally engaging.”

Burrus explained how it works by showing the audience of marketing professionals a 2013 Super Bowl ad by Gildan, a Montreal –based clothing company that is trying to make a name for itself in the U.S. activewear market. Gildan is not a Nielsen client. Its Super Bowl ad, called “The Getaway,” shows how devoted people can be to their favorite Gildan shirt.


View Gildan Super Bowl Ad

“This ad scored very well in NeuroFocus,” Burrus said. “It’s highly emotionally engaging.”

Nielsen researchers are using EEG devices to measure brain waves 500 times per second at 32 sensors that each have five channels. That’s more than half million data points in every 30-second commercial. Nielsen has learned to read the data in ways that measure when an ad provokes a memory, when the viewer is paying attention and whether the brain is emotionally engaged in the content.

The Gildan ad works because it engages viewers with a mystery that viewers are able to quickly solve.

“It’s an easy puzzle. The plot is resolved. We like that,” he said. “This is beautiful because at the end you have very high emotional engagement, top of the scale at 10. And it’s easy to understand.”

But the ad also had a major shortcoming in that viewers did not strongly associate it with the Gildan brand. After watching the commercial, viewers equally associated it with Gildan, Hanes and Russell. Burrus speculated the Gildan logo appears too briefly at the end or that Gildan has yet to establish itself as a branded T-Shirt company.

“That’s a problem,” said Burrus. “You spent how much on the Super Bowl spot? They’re not cheap, right? And you’re just kind of advertising for the general category.”

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