Category Archives: Blog

Beauty: The Update that Saved Cosmetics

Washing your face with a cleanser, putting on foundation, or using lip balm to help chapped lips are some of the many personal care rituals integrated into consumers’ lives. Personal care is an intimate part of a consumer’s day, and the reality is that the circumstances of 2020 forced many of us to reconsider personal care routines, since our daily lives were disrupted. This created a domino effect, making industries, like the beauty industry, refocus on new needs. Since consumers’ routines were modified, the products involved in certain regimens were also reconsidered as essential, luxury, or unnecessary. This was a time for beauty brands to identify the new practices in place and learn where and how cosmetics can better support the consumer.

The pandemic obviously impacted not only the act of personal care but the means of exploring and purchasing products. While online shopping has been steadily becoming more normalized the past few years, store restrictions or personal health precautions pushed this digital approach to the forefront of the shopping experience. Going digital opens up a lot of opportunities, but it absolutely comes with some cautionary concerns. Reflecting on these advancements in the beauty industry shows how retailers and brands combatted the challenges of 2020 by creating novel ways to keep the consumer close and connected.

Selling in a Digital World  

The dynamic online experience holds a lot of opportunities for beauty brands to uniquely express themselves and connect with consumers in an innovative forum. The beauty industry has needed to adapt new strategies to attract consumers as well as meet changing needs. The biggest shift can be seen in the switch to both digital products and communications.  

As the world of shopping has shifted from in-store to online, especially in the wake of the pandemic, consumers have lost the ability to touch, feel, and experience products in person. In the past, this was a key selling point for cosmetic products where consumers could see the colors next to their skin or even try on test products. In those moments, consumers could evaluate the coloring or consistency in-person to help feel confident in a purchase. However, with this shift to digital, marketers have needed to find ways to emulate the tangibility and accessibility of experiencing a product at shelf, including free trials and samples or influencer campaigns in social media, to help consumers review and evaluate a new product without being able to touch it. These consumer-centric tactics help build a connection and trust in the brands and products in the absence of direct experiences.  

The nuances of social media marketing, however, are no longer a surprise. We all anticipate seeing personalized (some eerily so) ads when scrolling social media platforms. The ability to integrate offline experiences to the digital world is no longer a “nice to have” but presumed by consumers. Therefore, cosmetic companies must welcome creative ideas to deliver unique and impactful experiences that are superior to the competition to be able to stand out. Beauty brands must manifest novel ways to keep the consumer excited and engaged. The future of foundation is not only an interactive beauty application (through virtual try-ons, interactive questionnaires, beauty scanning apps, etc.) but also through truly personalized care. Truly innovative, creative, and authentic personalization, however, requires investment into really understanding consumer behavior, expectations, and drivers of purchase. Otherwise, brands risk losing consumer trust and loyalty. 

Smart Technology, Smart Consumers

Understanding how vital the smartphone has become to most consumers, beauty brands began to invest in technology to stay in touch with the consumer—literally. From tapping the screen to applying formula on the skin, beauty brands want to be at consumers’ fingertips. Finding ways to ensure products perform well includes any initial interactions the consumer has with the brand prior to purchase all the way until final use. The technology should ease the process and make a complicated process simpler. A convenient outlet offering a wide variety of options creates a strong consumer-centric message.   

Smart technology can be interactive by giving feedback or advice, emulating the counter service that diminished during the pandemic. Through outlets like the internet, the consumer is becoming more educated on components of life to consider when exploring personal care items. The beauty industry is aware of this growth, thus highlighting how context may impact which product to purchase. For example, evaluating a consumer’s skin does not only mean recommending certain shades to best match. The consideration of environmental factors (like humidity, air quality, or UV exposure) as well as consumer priorities (such as fine lines, pore visibility, or dark spots) makes the serum feel unique and catered to consumer lifestyles. Companies are trying to help consumers feel satisfied with the products by finding innovative ways to get the most out of a beauty routine. By incorporating consumer electronics into the beauty industry, brands can use the behavioral data to follow the trends and priorities of consumers more precisely and, therefore, adapt quickly.

From curating personalized recommendations through AI (artificial intelligence) to using an app with augmented reality (AR) capabilities to virtually sample different products, the beauty industry has adopted new technologies into the product process to give consumers confidence in their purchase without physically handling the product. Enhancing the sensory experience in this process is critical since consumers are more frequently removed from the aisle and arriving at a phone screen. Using devices to formulate results through an easy interface gives the perception of higher quality and overall professionalism. The no-hassle approach is appealing for consumers interested in testing out various looks easily. The user experience is no longer just the product and package itself but includes the virtual arms attached to the product. Whether it be an app with voice-enabled commands or the ability to virtually try-on various shades of eyeshadow, the technology informs the consumer in a digestible manner, thus helping make the new tech part of an established regimen.

Using technology does require foresight into how this addition will be incorporated into the product experience. A balance must be achieved to ensure its an appropriate application of the technology. While it is cool to incorporate trendy features and gain the perception of being cutting-edge, the improper implementation may cause the tech-push to fall flat. When choosing the right technology to include, consider the value it will bring to the consumer in the context of buying personal care items. The digital technology should support the actual product rather than overshadow it. Consumers will know if the technology isn’t intuitive or doesn’t add value to a product. So, even though offering personalized experiences at scale through digital means gives the consumers a sense of individual attention, ensure the technology proves itself as part of a product with purpose rather than some wacky add-on gadget. The technological tools should be used to enhance the overall product experience.  

The Data is in the Details

The truth about digital products, such as apps, search engines, or websites, is that there is a lot of tracking done with the data. This resource of information is often managed by for-profit companies, allowing channels of communication and access to collect, store, and analyze user behaviors. The “big brother watching you” mentality has caused some consumers to be weary to utilize smart technology, while others either recognize it as a tradeoff for the service, or worse, don’t realize this is occurring at all. For companies to appropriately utilize smart technology while promoting a trustworthy image, transparency must be at the forefront of the user experience. New laws, such as the CCPA, are being enacted to protect the consumer with data privacy objectives. While these basic requirements illustrate the need for a level compliance, companies also benefit by being upfront with consumers. Allowing consumers to agree to the well stated terms and conditions gives a sense of ownership and autonomy back to the consumer. Furthermore, being forthcoming about the data creates a positive brand image, ultimately promoting the overall goal: to connect with consumers.  

When beauty tech products emphasize a certain formula for a consumer, the individual should always have the agency to defer to a different product, brand, style, or nothing. Technology can help consumers in making decisions, but it can never make the decision for the consumer. If the consumer decides against a suggestion, the marketers and designers may learn what is driving interest elsewhere and push the company to create better products. The benefits and hesitations about data usage are valuable to know and give a clear understanding of the product. By taking ahold of the narrative, the company can set the proper expectations for consumers to feel both comfortable and satisfied with the overall experience.

Being compliant to privacy mandates adds a sense of authenticity to the brand image since the consumer knows what the deal is upfront. Transparency not only keeps the brand honest, it also sets a precedent which can have ramifications if broken. The integrity earned in sharing this information should not feel like a threat or a reward but a fact of the matter. Consumers should have the right to make an informed decision, which ultimately benefits the company because openness helps avoid backlash. Using the digital experience is a proactive approach to informing and enhancing the beauty buying journey. Support the consumer in the fine details by aligning product objectives with consumer expectations.

Moving Forward 

From using skin-scanning devices to customize regimens to tracking results through a smart mirror, smart beauty devices are helping companies learn the driving forces behind consumer preferences. Having this insight is crucial for brands to grow with the consumer. The shift towards digital advances requires companies to anticipate ways to address future scrutiny. Brands must prepare to be able to effectively communicate how the technological medium benefits both the consumer and the company. Further, brands must be ready to explain the inner workings of the app or device to let consumers be aware of its impact.

The world of cosmetics continues to expand as innovations rush to meet the needs and interests of consumers. Some changes from the pandemic will extend far beyond the year 2020. Being camera-ready for video conference calls or finding ways to combat acne caused by mask wearing (“maskne”) were not major concerns until Covid-19 occurred. Keeping up with the general consumer is a challenge, but smart technology is a way to provide lifestyle relief. Integrating technology should have an objective for creating products that consumers do not see as a whacky machine but as something that adds value to their daily routines and lifestyle. The beauty industry is one of the many industries effectively trying to elevate the standard experience by leveraging higher engagement with modern mediums.

If you are interested in learning more about technology that helps to better understand the consumer, please reach out to Allison Gutkowski at

The Power in Knowing: How Media Marketing Optimized the “Now Streaming…” Craze

Streaming services such as Netflix, Spotify, Twitch, and even social media platforms like YouTube or Instagram Live, have infiltrated the entertainment business from various angles and are poised to become (if not already) more popular than cable services. Even if your household doesn’t subscribe to one of the many on-demand options for shows, movies, or music, the concept of streaming is most likely not foreign. With this increase in streaming entertainment, the means of traditional media-based marketing has needed to adjust to accommodate changing behaviors towards advertising and types of marketing exposures. The evolution of how leisure time is spent impacts how consumers establish connections and, therefore, requires marketers to develop innovative ways to discover consumer preferences. 

To convert new customers, media consumers are inundated with promotional activities to get hooked. Having family rates or bundle deals are some of the many ways companies attract viewers to their platform. Behaviorally, rather than a one-time payment, these streaming services typically utilize monthly subscriptions. Access to different levels of service and benefits may be determined by the amount you pay. Hulu, as an example, offers a base service with the option for add-on networks. The freedom to access entertainment on-demand is convenient and enticing but has ultimately and fundamentally changed how consumers consume and retain information. Understanding consumer preferences and priorities gives developers and marketers a better gauge as to which messaging, offerings, and designs are best to promote. Addressing how the streaming industry uses market research strategies to combat consumer hesitations reveals the value in really knowing the consumer. Through the appropriate use of media market research, information gleaned can be telling of which strategies are best to employ.

The Marie Kondo Motive: Does it bring (the consumer) joy?

The streaming industry has unique challenges to overcome compared to other forms of entertainment. Streaming companies must act aggressively to compete with the other content providers offering similar services. Critical components, such as differentiation and price, will influence the audience willing to consistently subscribe. Consumers have adapted to the on-demand lifestyle and find streaming a very personal experience since the suggestions seem customized to the individual. This discipline of consumer goods, known as digital offerings, does not fit the mold of traditional goods and requires the field to get creative in the marketing space.

The relationship between consumers and content providers has shifted due to the advancement in streaming. Prior to streaming, most individuals would have a cable package or own a physical copy of a DVD, VHS, CD, vinyl LP, etc. Both cable and physical copies have features which may be enticing to consumers. Cable TV offers many types of news outlets as well as local community channels which are not options for many streaming services. Flipping through different channels is also a fun pastime for viewers. Further, owning a physical display, like an impressive CD collection, can have sentimental value or feel like a higher echelon of appreciation due to the continuous process of maintaining and curating. While both cable and physical copies have benefits, it is clear the convenience of streaming technology is enticing many to make the switch. The flexibility of a monthly subscription, personalization of the media, and minimal ads encourages digital adoption.

Modifications to consumer preferences are even represented by the medium in which the entertainment is shared. Entertainment is now accessible not only from the television but also from mobile devices, gaming devices, or tablets. Following the growth of products associated with the service itself helps to learn what best resonates with certain audiences. Awareness of the challenges of traditional means facilitates solutions and improves the advantages of the alternative to better suit consumer expectations.  

One Big Hurdle: Making the Virtual More Tangible

Any new digitalization must prove itself as a real value to consumers’ lives. The physical purchase has a tangible component which is challenging to obtain with streaming. If you cancel a subscription, the service no longer exists (or now includes ads after every few songs or videos). The fragmented experience of streaming altered the expectation from ownership to access (Micken, Roberts, & Oliver, 2020). Kirk and Swain (2018) recognized that physical versus digital entertainment products are an innately different experience both fulfilling the same need; therefore, consumer media habits must benefit by one over the other in order to commit to its use. 

Companies are aware of the disconnect created by selling a service as opposed to tangible items. Different strategies are implemented from behavioral economics to trigger a stronger feeling of ownership. One common concept frequently tapped into is known as the endowment effect, which suggests consumers value items more when they personally own it (Knutson et al., 2008). To trigger the endowment effect, companies try to make the experience as personalized as possible. By insinuating the consumer is associated with the service, it suggests the platform tells something consumer identity. Further, the personalization implies a sense of ownership over the service. For example, offering a three-month free trial taps into the endowment effect by making the service actually available for consumers to use.  Not only does this offer allow consumers to get familiar with the platform, but the interactions give consumers more of a reason to stay. Getting hooked on a new series or creating personalized playlists continues that feeling of ownership, even in a virtual environment. This particular strategy also makes the endowment effect more apparent by setting a limit. After the three months are up, consumers either have to downgrade or start to pay the cost. Having a designated cutoff forces the consumer to be aware of the loss potential of the service. This makes the endowment effect more apparent since consumers have lived the experience of using a streaming service, thus creating a sense of ownership.

Utilizing these strategies from behavioral economics helps companies to encourage service adoption, but the value in keeping the consumer engaged is inherent in the design. Customer retention and increased satisfaction creates brand loyalty, thus making it easier to listen and consider the consumer response. To see what causes certain consumer responses, marketing research can help to analyze behaviors and understand intentionality of the viewer.

The Media Marathon

When investigating media testing, it’s important to consider all the components that make up the final product. Each medium, from advertisements to movies, includes a multitude of variabilities which can impact the experience. It is important to reflect on the overall message of the media research to build a research question addressing key objectives. Commonly explored areas of media testing include attention, affect, memory, and desirability which are constructs used to determine effectiveness. Further, traditional measures, such as self-reports or interviews, can address measures of liking or excitability (Venkatraman et al., 2015). By leveraging the different sources of information from market research, content creators and marketing teams can gain insights into what is engaging the viewer. How entertaining is the experience? Did the viewer notice the call to action at the branding moment? Is the storyline memorable? Behavioral, psychological, neuroscientific, and traditional tools can create more informed decisions to improve the final product and determine what components are enhancing or hindering the desired effect. By collecting the appropriate behavioral data, psychophysiological research, or conducting survey research, the consumer perception of the particular media experience can be revealed. The table below shares some useful methodologies to integrate with media testing from Venkatraman et al. (2015).

ToolFunctionThe Media Advantage
Heart rate/heart rate variability (HR/HRV)Records the electrical activity of the heart through skin electrodesProvides insight into motivation, emotional arousal, and attention
Electroencephalography (EEG)Records the brain’s synaptic waves in volts across its surface to examine brain functions and responsesQuantifies brain states such as cognitive load, engagement, or motivation about an experience
Galvanic Skin Response (GSR)Measures changes in skin conductanceProvides insight into engagement, intensity, and excitement
Facial Electromyography (fEMG)Measures electrical pulses in facial muscle activityRecords positive and negative emotional valences
Eye trackingCaptures visual attention via gaze behaviorIdentifies visual patterns, areas of focus, and the sequence of visual events
Implicit MeasuresMeasures the strength of associations among conceptsUnderstanding consumer perceptions reveals facets such as brand affinity, attitudes towards stimuli, and emotional valence

This table reflects just a few of the many innovative tools which can be used to advance media testing. Designing a study to best answer the research question involves considering all the different tools available to know which is the most appropriate to utilize. Interest in stopping power may need different assessments than evaluations on branding moment or overall attention. By developing a strong research question, the insights can help not only the developers, but the end-viewers as well.

Time is of the Essence

Time is a very valuable resource for companies and consumers. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to create engaging media content to truly have your message received by the viewers. The end-design must best reflect the consumer, or they will just find other content libraries in the vast streaming market. This competitive landscape of media and entertainment pushes the quality of the content to be innovative and engaging. To make that consumer connection, learning about what shapes attitudes, behaviors, and preferences is key to having a successful media campaign. So, the takeaway for mastering the ever-changing consumer media consumption is really quite simple: in order to grow, you have to know. By collecting quality data, an opportunity is created to design a strong, valuable message or service with a lasting effect.   

If you are interested in learning more about how HCD Research can elevate your media testing, please contact Allison Gutkowski at


Kirk, C. P., & Swain, S. D. (2018). Consumer psychological ownership of digital technology. In Psychological ownership and consumer behavior (pp. 69-90). Springer, Cham.

Knutson, B., Wimmer, G. E., Rick, S., Hollon, N. G., Prelec, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2008). Neural antecedents of the endowment effect. Neuron58(5), 814-822.

Micken, K. S., Roberts, S. D., & Oliver, J. D. (2020). The digital continuum: the influence of ownership, access, control, and Cocreation on digital offerings. AMS Review10(1), 98-115.

Venkatraman, V., Dimoka, A., Pavlou, P. A., Vo, K., Hampton, W., Bollinger, B., … & Winer, R. S. (2015). Predicting advertising success beyond traditional measures: New insights from neurophysiological methods and market response modeling. Journal of Marketing Research52(4), 436-452.

Making Claims that Stick: Webinar Panel Recap

The world of wellness can be complicated to navigate as new products and players are constantly entering the market. From the consumer perspective, wellness involves actively making choices towards a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle. This is done by continuously learning how to create a lifestyle to fit specific needs and values. Wellness products may include self-care habits, such as gym weights, mindfulness apps, or aromatherapy diffusers, to aiding recovery through lotions, supplements, or weighted blankets. With the wellness space continuously growing, marketers are trying to find ways to differentiate from competitors by highlighting a special ingredient or benefit. For these claims to be successful, they must not only resonate with the consumer but also adhere to regulatory standards such as validation through clinical or efficacy research. Having strong, validated claims satisfies consumer needs, business objectives, and cross functional priorities. 

In the webinar Making Claims that Stick: A Frank Discussion on the Science of Claims Testing in Consumer & Wellness Products, HCD’s VP of Research and Innovation, Michelle Niedziela, is joined by a roundtable of expert panelists to discuss the rules, rewards, and repercussions regarding claims research. To help get a taste for this exciting conversation, we listed out 5 key moments from the webinar. Curious to learn more about identifying a claim and how you can make one? Keep scrolling!

Keep your claims clear.

Bethia Margoshes and Kristine Wilke kick off the conversation by defining a claim and also sharing the importance of keeping any claim study focused, clear, and targeted. Although it may be enticing to try to get as much out of one study as possible, having a broad amount of data can cause muddy results and potentially create inconclusive findings. Contradictions within the research survey or design can negate the claims and create conflict if the claim is questioned.

Let the claim you are trying to make frame the research.

Dennis Sawchuk shared how claim substantiation can be proven in many different ways, depending on the type of claim being made. While literal claims may be able to use formulation proofs or chemistry research to provide evidence, other claims may require consumer input for descriptive analysis to help prove the claims. Space between different types of claims, such as nutritional or functional, can get complicated quicky. Using resources such as the Significant Scientific Agreement standard (SSA) or the qualified health claims may guide the research to better address any overlap by learning about the general consensus within the literature.  Having data to support a claim is important in order to understand the full extent of the safety and efficacy within the specific research findings.

Make sure to define your terms.

The nuances in the wording of the claim can make or break its impact (and its legitimacy). Clearly defining the intended response of the product allows the claims research to better address the effects in question. Michelle Niedziela brings up the example of different ways to use the term “relax”—does the product promote relaxation? Cause relaxation? Maybe the product relaxes the consumer. Each of these three claims has distinct differences, and thus requires unique research approaches to prove the benefit. Once the core team creates a list of potential claim options, the panel agreed seeking legal or regulatory counseling to navigate which claim is most appropriate is critical. Creating a claim is a team effort among internal departments, including marketing, R&D, and legal. Internal communications and discussions avoid something being overlooked. Martha Bajec reminds everyone to reflect on the potential claim statements to make sure the product can actually deliver what the claim is stating.

Know your audience.

In setting up a claims study, the panel discussed how to be aware of the limits to the claim. Consumer segmentation should be discussed prior to running any studies and will influence how the claims study is set up. Exploring demographic distributions, such as age or gender, is important to justify by explaining the rationale behind why the claim is only applicable to a certain population. Bethia Margoshes suggested exploring Section 9 of the ASTM guidelines to review ways to prepare for a claims substantiation study, especially when selecting a population. As an example, Margoshes explained how the campaign “Choosy mothers choose Jif” focuses on mothers who expressed a choice (aka being choosy) rather than all mothers which would then require the inclusion of mothers who were indifferent. With this carefully crafted slogan, Jif clearly defined the subset of the population in a creative, conspicuous, and catchy way.

Anticipate a challenge from any direction.

Throughout this panel discussion, the importance of planning and preparation is emphasized. From demographics to an analysis plan, claim substantiation requires a thorough assessment of its risks. Is this claim worth investing in? Will the consumers even care about the specific benefit researched? Additionally, Bajec recommends considering any form of possible scrutiny since the claim is going to be evaluated by regulators, governing bodies, competitors, and consumers. To ensure the attention will benefit the company, the claim must deliver. Learning about what motivates the consumer will help develop impactful wording which will resonate with the target demographic. Being efficient by designing a narrow study with clear objectives will enhance the quality of the findings and create an overall more productive experience. Having a streamlined approach avoids any deception or confusion, giving reliable scientific evidence if ever needed.

The complexity surrounding claims research and industry standards can be overwhelming, but learning the best approaches to designing this type of research provides a unique opportunity to connect with consumers. Creating a straightforward design for the claims which need substantiation (or additional actions, such as clinical trials) gives both the company and the consumer confidence in the product or service. Ensuring best practices for a truthful claim is a mutually beneficial experience to be distinguishable in the marketplace and exciting for the consumer. If you are interested in connecting with Team HCD to discuss the claims research process, please contact Allison Gutkowski (

Word Bank of Acronyms:

FTC: Federal Trade Commission 

FDA: Food and Drug Administration

FDC: Federal Data Corporation

FD&C: Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act

ASTM: American Society for Testing and Materials

SSA: Significant Scientific Agreement

SSP: Society for Sensory Professionals

A Reflection on my Science Communications Internship

During my time as a scientific communications intern at HCD Research, I was exposed to a new subdiscipline in my desired career. The internship helped me realize that neuroscience can have a critical role in marketing. When marketing a product or service, it can be really important to do research on the target audience through tools like surveys or biometric technology. Being introduced to interesting components of a discipline, such as applied consumer neuroscience, cannot be overestimated. The research conducted in this particular area serves an important function: to improve the lives of consumers by bettering products, packaging, and communications. Learning about this specific area of research was quite useful for my future endeavors in a career in neuroscience.

I am thankful that the internship broadcast the idea that a successful venture in any field is helped through an interdisciplinary approach. Just as there are many parts to a machine, today’s field of neuroscience includes an array of specialties, all contributing to advancements in the field. I learned important skills, such as adaptability, responsibility, time management, problem-solving, and networking, and discovered just how diligent I need to be to stay updated in such an ever-progressing field.

Proper research focuses on the question at hand and benefits by being well-rounded. Considering the context of research by exploring the public’s opinions and attitudes, as well as the populaces’ fears and desires, can be really important for understanding the whole story. Neuroscience is not just neurons in the brain but ways people behave and respond to the world around them. Through blog-writing, I began to understand how necessary critical thinking skills and creativity are in application to modern problems. We first must address a topic or problem from an objective standpoint, then ponder how market research can step in to propose products or services relevant to the ever-changing customer. I explored the fight-or-flight response and the pandemic-changed society, and researched ways both of these areas are relevant in the marketing world. For both topics, market researchers need to ensure that their stimuli properly communicate the intended message, later improving the stimuli to meet consumer expectations and stay relevant to the ever-changing customer. Research into both blogs tied into the overarching idea that tools from neuroscience can greatly influence market research insights.

I participated in many discussions, the first being a Mindset episode where the importance of consumer research in the complex, novel topic of CBD was emphasized. I also attended a webinar where neuro-driven metrics and predictive norms in the media space were covered.  I ended my internship with a presentation of the application of voice analysis, a biometrics program which allows users to analyze recordings or conversations to identify the emotion and intent of consumers, in marketing. My presentation reviews on how tone analyzer detects audio patterns for stress, tempo, pitch, and rhythm. I then looked into the market research application of how voice analysis may help explain consumer reactions. While researching this topic, it helped me consider not only the benefits, but also the limitations of voice analysis. Being aware of the limitations is a very important aspect of research, which was highlighted during this internship. All of these exercises helped me realize how well neuroscience and marketing complement one another—reliability and validity are undoubtedly the most important qualities in research, no matter the application, and many research strategies can be improved through collaborative studies.

COVID-19: A Call for Change

Unfamiliar Orders and Strange Routines

The unexpected COVID-19 outbreak called for our nation to change. This change came in all forms: change in hygienic measures, change in store policies, and change in our daily habits. With the pandemic came distress, fear, and panic as we struggled to identify the virus and find ways to slow its spread. Preventative measures needed to be taken. The CDC called for mask-wearing, social distancing, and limited gatherings (CDC, 2020). These changes seemed dramatic at first, as we have dealt with many outbreaks and never taken these types of measures before. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic taught us how to adapt to the changes and innovate with the new circumstances of our lives. Plus, the encouraged use of these preventative measures in our daily lives has reprioritized avoiding disease and awareness of germs. These behaviors can have lasting benefit for us, even after the pandemic ends.

Hand Sanitizer for the Wiser

We all know to wash our hands frequently, clean and disinfect our household surfaces often, and stay away from people when we are sick. However, although intuitive, it seemed like these practices had diminished in importance until being reimplemented and popularized by the current pandemic. Even though these hygienic measures have always been commonplace, reminders and nudges from the media, stores, and government officials made it impossible to avoid these messages. New measures, which may turn into the norm, are being implemented. From wearing a mask to visit the doctor’s office to exercising extra caution when travelling, some policies have informed behavioral trends which are likely to be here to stay. Although it seemed unusual at first, these simple practices have become part of our daily routines (Clavin, 2020). Even though we had to make a conscious effort at first to adjust, actively participating in these new rituals allowed us to become quickly accustomed to grabbing a mask before heading out the door or leaving a little extra room between other customers in the grocery store line. 

How do Habits Form?

Think about something that took you a really long time to learn, such as how to play your favorite song on the piano. At first, it was difficult, and much of your time and energy was devoted to mastering it. But after you became more comfortable with the instrument’s features and understood how to produce certain sounds, it became much easier —habitual.

Playing an instrument, exercising, washing your face, and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns. Every habit starts with a psychological pattern, a “habit loop,” which is defined by Duhigg (2012) in a three-part process: 

  • First, there is a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into “autopilot” to let a behavior unfold. This can be a certain time in the day for picking up the instrument or seeing a poster of your favorite artist as you walk home after work. Basically, it is the first push into teaching your brain a new trick.
  • Next is the routine, which is the behavior itself. Here, we learn this behavior either through practice or just repetition and eventually incorporate it into our daily routines.
  • The third step is the reward, which is something that your brain enjoys. The reward helps the brain remember the “habit loop” so that the behavior can be carried out in the future (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012).

The Science Behind Habits

Neuroscientists have traced our primary habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition (Duhigg, 2012). The decision-making part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, becomes less active as a behavior becomes habitual. Eventually, the prefrontal cortex activity diminishes as the behavior is mastered. This explains why multitasking is easy while performing a habitual behavior, such as talking to a passenger while on your daily drive to work. Navigating the roads to end up at your destination may seem difficult at first, but after performing it many times, you don’t even need to think twice about what turn to make or what street to park on–you just know. The basal ganglia allow us to carry out these originally complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it by turning them into our automatic routines (Duhigg, 2012).

Habit formation exists in our relationship to products as well. The associations between a customer’s habit and the reward that comes with it may encourage buying behavior. This is how Febreeze or other cleaning supplies are marketed: convince customers that their product can deliver that reward that follows a habit (Duhigg, 2012). Cleaning companies highlight the rewards, such as eliminating odors, to entice customers to adopt the product into their habit loop. During the pandemic, the ritual of wiping items down to stay clean was reinforced constantly by messaging on TV, by the news, and even through the behaviors of others. As individual behaviors changed, companies and marketers took note and aligned their messaging to better connect with their customers. By adjusting to the newly formed habits, the products and companies who adapted stayed relevant to the ever-changing customer.

The New Normal

The pandemic has shifted the ordinary—in some ways for the better. It is evident that the world has been transformed since the onset of COVID-19. Here are a few examples of impactful behavior changes emphasized by the pandemic:  

No More Handshakes

Isn’t it weird to reminisce on our old practices, pre-COVID-19? Specifically, our standard greeting: the handshake. Our hands carry so many germs that it is difficult to ever entertain the thought of shaking a friend’s hand ever again. Luckily, this behavior is one of the many impacted by the pandemic and has changed for the better. The classic handshake may no longer be considered the standard way to greet clients, coworkers, or friends, and can instead be replaced by a nod, wave, or warm smile. 

Handshakes are just one form of touch that has been dismantled by the pandemic, along with high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs. As we begin to emerge from our homes and move closer together to rebuild our social lives, experts are betting that some degree of social touch will disappear permanently, even after the pandemic ends (Oaklander, 2020). Although we do not know for sure what social interactions will feel awkward or outdated as we move past COVID-19, it is safe to say the way we view human connection via touch has changed.

The Work from Home Life

Prior to the pandemic, allowing students and employees to work from the comfort of their homes seemed like an uncommon luxury, but drastic times call for drastic measures. Since the pandemic started, millions of professionals have figured out how to be productive from their homes. Technological advances made this luxury a reality, causing both educational and office life to have permanent changes. These advances enabled students or workers to log on wherever they are, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that work can indeed be completed at home. Coming out of the pandemic, companies are more likely to allow for flexible work environments, and therefore, individuals may take advantage of remote opportunities.

Telehealth…for Better Health

Working from home is not the only thing to go virtual during these interesting times. Minimizing exposure to large crowds has encouraged the use of grocery delivery services and online shopping. This pandemic has made us reflect on what “essential” means. Even some doctor’s offices have moved to a telehealth arrangement to promote social distancing. Before the pandemic, meeting with our doctor online seemed foreign. COVID-19 has proved to us that although it is nice to connect face-to-face, many meetings or appointments can be conducted successfully virtually (Kumar & Modalavalasa, 2020). Care at a distance has brought along with it a large array of benefits for both the doctor and the patient:

1) Reducing the Spread of Infections: Remote medical consultations serve to eliminate the threat of disease transmission and infection among healthcare providers and vulnerable patients (Schmid, 2016). This is key, as it is easy to spread infectious diseases, such as the flu or common cold, in a medical setting where many sick patients may gather in one room.

2) Reducing Stress: Travelling to a doctor’s appointment, along with sitting in a waiting room amongst other sick patients, may be intimidating for some. A remote consultation via a video call can ease the anxiety associated with a trip to the doctor’s office as well as remove the burden of travelling (Schmid, 2016).

3) Increasing Accessibility:  Virtual appointments provide more accessibility to the elderly, disabled, or those who live far from their healthcare practitioners and no longer feel comfortable travelling. Whether the reason be due to an injury which makes it difficult to walk or a condition resulting in the inability to drive, virtual consultations allow for more people to have better access to their healthcare providers. Although this type of access is extremely valuable during a pandemic, it has lasting effects with a positive impact. 

So, whether you scheduled a virtual appointment or worked from home, COVID-19 has made an impact on your life. As our behaviors continue to adapt with the changing environment, we have a choice to modify or continue certain habits. The habits developed during the pandemic are not all life-altering; some small changes make big differences. Our unhealthy habits and practices can be swapped out for healthier, safer, and less tactile ones, but it’s ultimately up to us to decide what habits stay and what go.

Benefits of Connecting Through the Screen

Video communication services, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Teladoc, now offer different types of video sessions; for example, the first two offer breakout rooms or blurred backgrounds to make it easier to work from home (Kumar & Modalavalasa, 2020). Having special features to enhance virtual meetings has enticed a lot of people to take advantage of this offer. As the number of people switching to these video communication services increases, companies and schools are also switching to these services to meet consumer needs and expectations. Fitness studios, schools, and healthcare offices have become hybrid– they still allow the in-person experience with modifications, while still having the option of going remote for anyone who wishes to accept.

Diving into the world of professional virtual sessions was a foreign practice for many industries, but it’s one that might be here to stay (Tigar, 2020). While in-person appointments will start up again, and gyms will reopen, the virtual option will always be available to assist those who are reluctant or incapable of joining in-person. Some individuals simply enjoy the leisure of virtual sessions, and companies or practitioners may benefit from this change too. For example, individuals may feel more comfortable being vulnerable during a therapy session or a focus group in a safe, familiar space like their home (Tigar, 2020). Having a virtual component as an option is a great alternative for many everyday situations we used to believe had to be in-person. Tools like video communication have a positive impact and integrate well to the new circumstances of 2020 and beyond.

Sustaining These Changes

Deviation from our normal routines due to COVID-19 has caused us to pick up new habits, whether they be beneficial (using your commute time to go on a walk), unfavorable (sleeping in until noon), or just different (wearing casual clothes to work meetings). Regardless, the habits we formed during the pandemic may outlast the virus. This includes the habits we have picked up for the safety of ourselves and others, such as mask-wearing and hand-washing, or personal goals, such as waking up early to exercise.

Our ability to adapt and form new habits will come in handy even after the pandemic has ended. We have seen signs in practically every public place that read to “stay six feet apart,” hand sanitizer dispensers on every corner, and even personal protective equipment for sale in just about every store. The pandemic has created a newfound appreciation for our health. We should all strive to continue to listen to the CDC for guidance as the situation continues to change. Behaviors which were once challenging to disrupt, like face-touching, practicing social-distancing, and cleaning surfaces frequently, have now become habitual for many and helped greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The gravity of COVID-19 is immense, and there is no way to know for certain what habits will be sustained, although it’s almost certain none of the habits will last forever (Lichfield, 2020). However, we can understand that forming new habits during the COVID-19 era was much needed and transformed us, as both companies and consumers, for the better. Companies found the value in telecommuting and employees discovered the joys of working from home. Our habitual response to the pandemic brought about significant improvements in many aspects of our lifestyles. While adapting to this changing reality was necessary, we learned that perseverance in the face of change is what allows us to thrive. Most importantly, it helped to remind us that change isn’t always a bad thing…


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Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012, December). Making health habitual: The psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Kumar, V., & Modalavalasa, R. P. (2020, August 16). 5 lasting changes from the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Lichfield, G. (2020, April 10). We’re not going back to normal. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Oaklander, M. (2020, May 27). COVID-19 Killed the Handshake. What Will Replace It? Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Schmid, M. (2016, July 08). How video consultations can benefit patients and the NHS. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from

Tigar, L. (2020, May 22). 6 Things We Predict Will Never Go Back to “Normal” After Coronavirus. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from

Fight Back or Stand Back: The Fight-or-Flight Response

Stress and the Body’s Call to Action

For high anxiety situations, the human body has a natural defense to optimize the body and ward off anticipated attack. This alarm reaction known as the fight-or-flight response occurs in response to the threat of imminent danger and refers to a physiological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something that is, put simply, terrifying (Sterling & Frings, 2016). The fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either fight, to take on the threat, or flight, to run away to safety and avoid an encounter with the threat.

The term in itself represents the choices that our ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment, such as a wild animal. Going with the situation where the threat was a dangerous animal, the individual could either choose to fight or flee from this animal. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger. A chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help to mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances (Cherry, 2019). These same types of reactions still take place today, but in response to less threatening, low alarm events. The fight-or-flight response is now activated in everyday situations where threat is perceived, such as dodging an unexpected ball from the neighbor’s kickball game or watching a scary movie.

This physiological reaction also is very relevant today in the marketing world, as it is important for market researchers to communicate appropriate messages for specific stimuli. Being aware of the stress response of the consumer during the product or communication experience helps to determine the object’s viability. Market research companies may work with advertisers to produce a TV, magazine, or even bus-stop advertisement to ensure the right response is stimulated. By conducting market research to measure the stress response, companies receive feedback about the impact of their product to make sure it is meeting the mark.

Stress is Never Good…Or Is It?

Stress is a form of psychological or physiological arousal that drives behavior by influencing our decision-making. Although stress is mainly viewed in a negative light, it does have benefits. To paint it in a more positive light, stress can be seen as a burst of energy that advises us. Next time you are stressed out, think of these benefits to motivate you-literally!

  1. Inspires Productivity: Stress brings about an increased sense of urgency, which allows you to achieve your goals by making you more alert and focused on one topic or task (Brandon, 2016). No matter how menial the situation, stress makes you more aware of it and sharpens your decision-making to take the best course of action.
  2. Fuels More Energy: All of this extra energy can motivate you and make you work harder. If you are stressed about something, it highlights your attentiveness and dedication to the task at hand, such as a market research presentation, which shows your company that you value the outcome of your hard work (Brandon, 2016).
  3. Gets Creative Juices Flowing: Next time you make a wrong turn on the way home from work, remember that it is stress motivating you to find an alternate route. This also applies to the business world where the surge of adrenaline sharpens your decision-making and enables you to work to find the right answer to a unique problem. Stress can actually make you productive by helping you find a quick solution.

What separates “good stress” from “bad stress” is the concern or fear of threat. The fight-or-flight response can be categorized as both good and bad stress. It exists as a way to protect us from dangerous situations by making us more alert and prepared to make a decision, which would be to fight or flight. The fight-or-flight response does not always have to be activated by a major crises or catastrophe—it can actually occur as a reaction to common, petty stressors like reacting to the car in front of you stopping short. But regardless of the degree of fear of a situation, how exactly does this response work?

What Happens During the Fight-or-Flight Response?

Physiologically, fight-or-flight has a number of common effects, the majority being governed by the hypothalamus, the region of the brain tasked with activating the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s defense mechanism. When a stress response is triggered, this area of the brain activates the production of adrenaline to initiate the fight-or-flight response. After the hypothalamus is prompted by a stressor, our body undergoes three stages of stress:

  1. Alarm/Stress Response: Here, our sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones, which then stimulates the adrenal glands.
  2. Resistance: The threat continues, and now the body must activate at a higher operating level and optimize resources. The adrenal glands trigger the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, stress hormones associated with the fight-or-flight reaction to stress. Adrenaline increases heart rate and perspiration, activates the production of cortisol, constricts the blood vessels, and dilates the pupils to allow additional light into the eyes. This results in better vision of the surroundings, slows digestion, and suppresses the immune response. Both adrenaline and noradrenaline dilate the coronary arteries so that the heart pumps faster and certain blood vessels constrict, causing the blood pressure to rise. Rapid heart rate and breathing provide the body with the energy and oxygen needed to fuel a rapid response to danger.
  3. Exhaustion/Fatigue: At this stage, the body has now been faced with prolonged exposure to the threat and has just about depleted its resources (Burgess, 2017). This strains the body, resulting in a tired feeling that lowers activity levels. The stages of stress result in the inevitable behavior response, which explains why runners or spectators may jump at the sound of a gun at the start of a race.

The Mechanism and Anatomy of the Stress Response

It is crucial to explore not only the generated fear response, but also what happens on the microscale to produce this response. Specifically, what happens internally to trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Let’s dive in to get a better understanding of the body’s reactions. 

Capping the two kidneys are the adrenal glands; hormones of the adrenal gland help the body deal with stress. The inner layer of this gland, the medulla, releases hormones that handle sudden stress, and the outer layer of this gland, the cortex, releases hormones to help the body handle long term stress. The adrenal medulla secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine, or adrenaline and noradrenaline respectively, the two hormones responsible for the fight or flight response (Schraer, 1993). They are secreted in response to sudden stresses, such as fear, anger, pain, or physical exertion. Epinephrine increases the rate of metabolism and the release of glucose by the liver and the rate and strength of the heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing rate, blood clotting rate, and sweating. The major hormone of the adrenal cortex is cortisol, the hormone we automatically associate with stress. Cortisol affects the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and regulates the glucose level in the blood. This enhances the availability of substances that can be used to repair tissues in stressful situations (Schraer, 1993). Whether it be walking past a growling dog or watching the “…” for a highly anticipated text message, the fight-or-flight response can occur at any point in our lives. Yet, these reactions are all dependent on how we perceive a threat. Since threats of varying levels can occur in all different types of situations, it is important to consider the magnitude of the response and how it compares to other reactions. This is where physiological markers are useful to monitor individual responses to different types of stimuli.

How Can We Measure a Stress Response?

Measuring stress response can be very beneficial for market researchers as a way to better understand if their stimulus properly communicates the intended message. There are many techniques in use to accurately assess a stress response.

Biometrics are useful indicators of a person’s psychophysiological reactions, specifically stress and attention. Analyzing changes to heart rate and heart rate variability to pinpoint the fight-or-flight response is one type of biometric measure when exploring consumer response. A study from Rowntree (2016) exposed viewers to a horror film to analyze their responses. A total of 15 fight-or-flight responses had been triggered during tense scenes, suggested by the recorded changes in heart rate, skin moisture, movement, and audible reactions during traumatic scenes. Reviewing all of the physiological reactions within the context of the research environment helps to determine the emotional response of participants, but other measures may also add some insight into why the response occurs. 

Eye tracking is a great measure to complement biometrics when assessing stress response. Since eye tracking is used as a measure of visual attention, it allows researchers to analyze the duration of fixation and see where viewers focus on a stimulus. Using this measure in combination with surveys or self-reports allows marketers to understand what grabbedviewer’s attention and how the stimulus was perceived. From there, the developers can adjust the stimulus to include visual cues to best direct the consumer only to the most important content as well as identify which information is most appropriate to keep the viewer’s attention.

Biometrics, eye tracking, and traditional surveys are great for evaluating an overall experience. Yet, if you are trying to review the onset of a stressor, it may be helpful to compare it to a stressor purposefully induced. For example, the Stroop Color test induces mental stress to evaluate the participant’s selective attention response. This test acts as a mental stressor due to its ability to activate all parts of a person’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s reflexive response to stress, such as increased heart rate and dilated pupils (Boutcher, 2006). This phenomenon, referred to as the Stroop Effect, illustrates the interference in the reaction time of a task. Participants are asked to acknowledge the text color as opposed to the word written. For example, the word “red” may have a text color in blue. When the name of a color is printed in a different color, a setback occurs as a person tries to process the word’s color. This causes stress, as indicated by the participants’ elevated heart rate and epinephrine levels (Boutcher, 2006). This type of test is helpful and important for marketers looking to understand the driving forces that create the underlying emotions that influence consumer behavior. A 2004 study (Warrenburg) utilized the Stroop test to first induce stress in participants and then used relaxing fragrances to reduce that stress, revealing that relaxing, aromatic fragrances also serve as stress-relievers in that they produce a muscle-relaxing effect.

Proceed With Caution… Understanding the Stress Response for Market Research

The fight-or-flight response can be triggered by both threatening and non-threatening events. This stress response is essential in that it primes the body to be better prepared when it must perform under pressure for any event. Something that does not pose any imminent danger, such as a dance recital, can cause a fight-or-flight reaction even if the event in itself is innocent. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat, enabling you to perform optimally.

Although uncommon, in such cases where a threat is dangerous, the fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response occurs to help you survive the danger. Similarly, the body responds to everyday threats to ensure safety. Understanding the effects of this stress response can help improve advertisements, product designs, or communications to get across their message. For example, a campaign against drunk driving can create a context where anticipation creates a stress response to make an impact on viewers. By conducting market research to get a better understanding of consumers’ responses, the messages may be better received when the advertisement is launched.

Fear-Based Advertising

Emotions are one of the many things that drive behavior. Fear-based advertisements use the stress response as a tool to evoke a certain emotion in the target audience. Based on how information is shared or displayed, it can discourage or encourage a certain behavior using fearful images, messages, or music. Fear appeals, thus “shock” advertising, which causes viewers to feel tense (Algie & Rossiter, 2008). Fear-based advertising has been seen in smoking, drug, and even sunscreen ads. A study by Leshner, Clayton, Bolls, and Bhandari (2017) has shown that using deceptive and disgusting messages in smoking ads can cause viewers to exhibit an array of defensive responses. For example, to encourage people to apply sunscreen before a day at the beach, an advertisement may include images of sunburns, wrinkles, sun blisters, or cuts. It gives a narrative of what could happen if you do or do not use the product. This marketing strategy has proven effective, as consumers prefer stories and images over statistics (Gorbatch, 2019). Having an in-depth understanding of the target audience, through surveys, interviews, or other forms of market research, allows marketers to better develop content to successfully trigger the viewer’s fight-or-flight response within the appropriate context (Crolley, 2020).  

Takeaway Message

Exploring the fight-or-flight response and how it impacts our decisions reveals what motivates us to pursue certain courses of action. Understanding the fight-or-flight response within different contexts gives market researchers the opportunity to understand why consumers respond the way they do, and in turn, improve the stimuli to meet the consumer expectation. Hopefully by reviewing one of the body’s ways to respond to stress, the fight-or-flight response acts as a testament to the amazing machine we call the human body.


Algie, J., & Rossiter, J. R. (2008). Fear Patterns: A New Approach to Designing Road Safety Advertisements. Retrieved January 25, 2021, from

Brandon, J. (2016, June 07). 4 Ways Stress Can Motivate You (and 1 Way It Can’t). Retrieved January 19, 2021, from

Boutcher, Y. N., & Boutcher, S. (2006, November). Cardiovascular response to Stroop: Effect of verbal response and task difficulty. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.04.005

Burgess, L. (2017, November 28). General adaptation syndrome: What it is, stages, and examples. Retrieved January 25, 2021, from

Cherry, K. (2019, August 18). The Fight-or-Flight Response Prepares Your Body to Take Action. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from

Crolley, F. (2020, June 29). Does Fear Sell? Pros & Cons of Using Fear-Based Marketing for Your MSP Business. Retrieved January 21, 2021, from

Gorbatch, A. (2019, March 05). Does fear-based marketing work? Retrieved January 19, 2021, from

Leshner, G., Clayton, R. B., Bolls, P. D., & Bhandari, M. (2018). Deceived, disgusted, and defensive: motivated processing of anti-tobacco advertisements. Health Communication33(10), 1223–1232.

Schraer, W. D. (1993). Biology: The study of life. Needham, MA: Prentice Hall.

Sterling, C. M., & Frings, D. (2016). Psychology squared: 100 concepts you should know. London: Apple Press.

Warrenburg, S.. (2004, May 26). Using fragrance as a stress-relief agent. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 26. 169-169.

Norms, Metrics, & Media Madness: Webinar Panel Recap

By Allison Gutkowski & Kristopher Woung-Fallon

Marketers and advertising agencies have always conducted research. For decades, they have also tapped into the methodology and concepts from academic psychology. Traditional marketing research aims at answering questions related to branding, product development, advertising, or evaluating potential new markets. Basically, ask the people in that market what they think, which inherently had its issues. Then, in the 1990s, brain imaging (fMRI) and other neuroscience tools (EEG, etc.) made it possible to visualize the workings of the human brain. With an objective window into the mind (in theory), marketers soon hoped to bypass many of the problems associated with asking subjects overt questions with these tools.

There’s been a lot of chatter since then surrounding the use of neuro-measures in media with the use of metrics and norms for predictive purposes. It begs questions like, are norms a measure of mediocrity? What is a norm during times of global crisis? And, how does the industry’s need for metrics & norms align with neuroscientific output? Or does it?

In the webinar Norms, Metrics, & Media Madness: A Frank Discussion on Norms, Metrics, Neuroscience & Media Testing, we dive into these ideas and more with a panel of experts. Below, we cover several highlights of the live session on this engaging topic within the consumer research industry…

VP of Research & Innovation at HCD Research, Michelle Niedziela, PhD kicks off our panel discussion establishing an understanding of how normative databases are typically applied and defining some of the issues that can come up with their application here:

In this clip, Michelle explains how normative databases are typically used to understand what the general public is currently thinking compared to what they were thinking previously, and how the potential issues highlighted in this clip could drive the consumer experience, meaning that the database may not be as relevant if changes occur within the market.

Norms are somewhat of a “moving target.” Due to these constant changes in the market, there should be an established value in updating them as they evolve versus debating whether they are good or bad.

Watch Raymond Petit, Executive Director of the Masters of Science in Business Analytics at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, explains this further when calling on the industry to define what a norm truly is scientifically and then upholding normative databases to that standard:

Many companies provide their own metrics and norms that are supposed to be generalized measures. What has been found is that there can be some form of bias. They may not be reflective of the general population or a “true norm.”

Anna Wexler, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania speaks to this point in our panel discussion here:

In this clip, Anna raises the point of potential limitations in consumer neuroscience technology that could exclude specific segments in a given population if not considered, such as hair texture or length within varying demographics.

With neuroscientific measures, it is important to have relative baselines, or comparisons within subject, built into the research design.

Watch Vinod Venkatramann, PhD, Associate Professor in Marketing & Director of the Center for Applied Research in Decision Making at the Fox School of Business, Temple University, explain the value for reference in consumer neuroscience here:

In the context of ad testing, Vinod advises finding what the best reference could be for the kind of test that you are conducting and including those ads into your test, so you have both, how the new category is performing and how the reference fits within the past norms.

Vinod goes further to explain how when doing this you are correcting the individual differences at the physiological level and then looking at the relative change across different ads to see how they compare.

Whether it is pre-pandemic or in today’s new world, we should stop and think about how relevant the norms and metrics we rely on are. What goes into them? How is the data collected? Are they relevant to my product category? Are we seeing the full story?

It is important to critique any norm or metric in this way as many go/no-go decisions are often based on simple scores or comparisons to norms. Understanding potential strengths and limitations of not only the norms and metrics but also the way by which the data is collected, such as the number of electrodes on an EEG headset, will be vital to pressure testing how a norm or metric will work for you and your specific research question. If you are interested in connecting with Team HCD to discuss this trending topic further, please contact Allison Gutkowski (

Student Voices Series

Given the challenges of the current pandemic, students have been limited in immersive experiences globally due to the restrictions placed on in-person interaction. HCD Research sought to host a current student through virtual and project-based experiential learning activities to aid in this need. During the 2021 winter term, we are excited to welcome Alyssa Rotondo, a Muhlenberg College student, as a Scientific Communications Intern!

By supporting students to develop transferable skills and gain knowledge about Applied Consumer Neuroscience, future leaders- like Alyssa- will be well-equipped to find innovative solutions for challenging questions.

Meet Alyssa!

Alyssa Rotondo is a first-year student at Muhlenberg College majoring in Neuroscience on the Pre-Med track. She is originally from New York City but now resides in Holmdel, NJ. With great confidence, she describes herself as a people person and is intrigued by other people’s outlooks and stories. She is especially interested in experiences with people from uncommon backgrounds and environments to gain new and useful perspectives. Her personal passions include a great love of animals, humanity, and nature. 

She chose to pursue the medical field, in particular neuroscience, due to an experience that occurred recently when her grandmother fell victim to Alzheimer’s Dementia. She aspires to utilize ingenuity to confront this affliction, hoping to eradicate, or at least, alleviate this trauma. Through her time spent volunteering for organizations, she has gained insights and discovered that people stand to benefit much when offered comfort. Undoubtedly, Alyssa considers herself a STEM student, and holds in high regard similar disciplines as they provide balance, insight, and purpose as the broad challenges our world faces today demand fresh, bold outlooks. This is why she chose to engage in interdisciplinary studies which require a strong background in the liberal arts and believes that societies will witness true advancements in the future from the merging of contrasting fields from which we will draw upon repeatedly.

In the upcoming weeks, keep an eye out for Alyssa’s contributions to HCD’s “Student Voices” blog posts where she will be covering a variety of topics in the consumer research industry as well as her experience working with our team!

HCD’s 2021 New Year’s Resolution: Prove it

We did it. 2020 is behind us, and 2021 will be all about moving forward.

And at HCD, we plan to kick ass and take names in 2021.

In hindsight (it was 2020 after all), we did really well last year. Our research expanded with new products and new segments (and new clients). We had several new publications (including peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters). We presented to many different audiences via virtual webinars and conferences (including our own NeuroU).

But we also realize that there is a lot of work to be done moving forward with some new trends developing from changes driven in 2020.

  • There is an increase in need for remote consumer testing.
    • As such, we have increased our efforts in online testing of all sorts, including (but not limited to) online facial coding, online implicit testing, online qual research, smart speaker assisted research.
    • We will be expanding into DIY and On-Demand services, including implicit testing and other survey-based online tools for faster, cheaper research.
    • Remote testing has also brought to light some major issues with remote measures that we will continue to warn about and contend with:
      • Limitations of tools such as facial coding
      • Environmental distractions in participants’ homes

  • With several research providers struggling or certain services disappearing altogether, we will be expanding our media testing services. We will be promoting and expanding our AdverTest program and updating it with new and improved EEG capabilities.
    • We will be addressing major concerns around use of consumer neuroscience in prediction.
    • We also intend to address the issue of consumer neuroscience and blackbox metrics and norms.

So, this year we resolve to: PROVE IT

  • Prove that integrated methodologies provide a complete understanding of consumer response to products and communications.
  • Prove that accepting normative data from one methodology…neuroscience or surveys or other methods, is a measure of mediocrity and a flawed strategy.
  • Prove that market research is not defined by one method; it is defined as an amalgamation of tools that provide an answer that reflects reality.

So, stay tuned for more on our 2021: Prove It campaign!

Holiday Shopping in 2020: a behavioral science perspective

It’s been… a year.

Amid a U.S. presidential election and global pandemic, we’re entering the most unusual holiday season any of us have experienced before.

There’s been a lot of talk about all of the unprecedented this and adapting to that happening to consumers. And no time is this more evident of real behavioral changes than the holiday shopping season.

With the pandemic serving as a sort of catalyst to online purchasing and more digital services, the typical shopping habit cycles have been interrupted.

But what are habits? The habit loop is a tripart cyclical pattern consisting of cues, routines and rewards which strongly influence decision making by minimizing the cognitive effort. Your memory links the habit to specific contexts such as people, places, items, or times typically present during the overall repeated experience to sort of earmark when and how to do what needs to be done. The things that make up a habit include cues, routines, and rewards.

  • Cues: Kicks the brain into automatic mode telling it which habit to use
  • Routines: Physical, mental, or emotional response
  • Rewards: Prize telling your brain “this loop is worth remembering for the future”

Repeating the loop builds the strength of the habit to the point where it becomes part of our lifestyle. Consumer decision making relies on heuristics to help us decide which routines are most appropriate to get our desired outcomes. When it comes to shopping, certain cues from advertising, or layout of the products in the stores, or maybe special sales initiate the purchasing routine. Consumers are creatures of habit.

Breaking these habit cycles, our consumer lifestyles, can be challenging to say the very least.

According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, there are over 30,000 new products introduced every year, and 80 percent fail (2016). Christensen, widely regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth and author of the theory of disruptive innovation, suggested that companies often fail in introducing new products because they study the wrong product and consumer data, leading them to unwittingly design innovation processes that “churn out mediocrity.”

When it comes to holiday shopping in 2020, the typical routine had to change. The 2020 holidays have truly tested retailers’ flexibility and adaptability.  With limited indoor everything, retailers adjusted sales from Black Friday (which became Black Friday Week) to Amazon Prime day being shifted earlier. An increased focus on health and safety, combined with financial concerns, has resulted in a shift in the way consumers spend their holiday budget.

More consumers are shopping online, a move that arguably would have happened despite COVID. For consumers, the movement toward digital has shown them the benefits and ease of online shopping, particularly in categories they previously might not have considered before the pandemic, such as groceries and household essentials. But also in planning, planning for seasonal changes and holiday gift buying.

2020 has also affected marketing plans. Advertisers, tasked with getting ahead of these adjusted habits, where shopping has started earlier and earlier, have had to find new ways to target consumers given their newfound buying behaviors. As more consumers spend time with digital content, advertisers have had to compete for screen space. Visibility will become more and more crucial for brands for a successful holiday season, and beyond. With the season starting earlier than ever, the annual spike in demand has lasted even longer than usual, making it that much more challenging (and important) to stand out amongst the crowd.

What can marketers do?

Make it easy:

It will be most important to provide an optimized, seamless digital consumer experience to meet consumers’ new expectations and needs. Innovations in e-commerce and advanced technology are getting better at creating a frictionless experience for online shoppers, which is especially important given consumers’ concerns about their health and safety. Retailers need to focus on addressing the customer service issues that will inevitably arise with the shopping season, particularly with the spike in online shopping. Improvements to e-commerce or mobile capabilities, as well as curbside pickup and returns, could help attract shoppers.

Watch your tone:

Given the uncertainty that the pandemic (and everything else with 2020) has brought, the tone of messaging of advertisements is more important than ever. Consumers want reassurance from brands they trust. Advertisers will need to double down on feel-good campaigns and end-of-year sales to make up for lost revenue and foot traffic during mandatory stay-at-home orders.  Providing authentic, personalized experiences, optimized content, and advanced audience targeting are key, but winning consumer hearts will require reaching them in the first place (and holding their attention long enough to make a meaningful connection). With many holiday shoppers avoiding physical stores to some degree, advertisers will need to look to meet consumer needs by focusing their marketing efforts on placing contextually relevant digital ads in safe and suitable environments. As always, context is key and awareness of this will be paramount in constructing marketing plans.

As always, HCD is happy to help with all of this with customized approaches to brand harmony and identifying consumer need-gaps. Our behavioral approach, combining psychology and neuroscience, has proven to be a winning way to better understand and meet consumers’ changing needs amid all the chaos of this past year.

As always, we’d love to hear from you, so please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or thoughts.


The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Christensen, C.M., Hall T., Dillon, K., Duncan, D.S. (2016). Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.