Glenn Kessler, President of HCD Research's Blog on how the company survived the pandemic.

Neuromarketing During COVID: Flexibility, Agility, and Surviving a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on global economies and has hit small businesses particularly hard. The woes of the restaurant industry in struggling to stay afloat, for example, are particularly well known. For the research community, especially those reliant on in-person research, business essentially came to a halt during the peak of the pandemic lockdown. Some research companies were able to survive the storm better than others, revealing key advantages and disadvantages to different business approaches, particularly for the neuromarketing field.

Businesses Shut Down by the Covid 19 Pandemic

Neuromarketing, according to Wikipedia, is “a commercial marketing communication field that applies neuropsychology to market research, studying consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective responses to marketing stimuli.” Some neuromarketing methodologies, like EEG or other physiological measures, require in-person participation at a research facility. Other methodologies, like facial coding, can be done remotely at the participant’s home; however, the reliability and validity of those methods can be shakier.

As in-person research dramatically slowed, client research did not stop entirely. End clients needed to find new ways to market their products, develop new products to address changing needs and, ultimately, develop better, more COVID-cautious means to do it all. Many shifted to virtual methodologies, such as on-line qual, or included more in-home research.

Facing the challenges of the pandemic (lockdowns, social distancing, etc.), two camps of neuromarketing companies became evident, and their very different approaches to research drove their ability to succeed in the rapidly changing environment:

  1. One-Trick Ponies: Research providers that positioned themselves before COVID as purely neuromarketing companies, promoting the concept of measuring the unconscious using neuro-tools, such as EEG and biometrics, as the answer to most consumer marketing research problems and challenges. These companies often tout neuro-measures as replacements for surveys (a research red flag).
  2. Renaissance Researchers: Research providers that use an integrated approach to research design with a combination of tools from neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics and traditional market and consumer research. These companies tend to rely on customized research designs dependent on the client’s research question and goals.

How Did Neuromarketing Companies Fair During Lockdown?

Working from home during the pandemic

According to Forbes Magazine in September 2020, Nielsen Neuroscience, a market leader in the neuromarketing space, drastically cut personnel and locations in response to the pandemic. They were not alone; many companies struggled, and the recovery has been slow. Seeing these responses had me wondering: Were there differences in the types of companies that were able to whether the storm and keep research going?

I’ve always thought that being diversified in methodologies (the Renaissance Researchers) AND in research sectors is necessary for success. And I hypothesize that having flexibility, agility and an integrated approach directly impacted these companyies’ ability to survive in times of crisis, such as a pandemic. And I think this is particularly the case for neuromarketing companies compared to traditional market research companies.

Why? Lockdown negatively impacted central location market research. One-Trick Ponies that positioned their one tool (such as EEG) requiring in-person, central location measurement as the primary method to solve all marketing research challenges faced a major obstacle: They could not run research until in-person returned. From protecting employees and participants from potential COVID exposure to problems in recruiting, as well as changes in client policy regarding in-person research, conducting central location testing and market research became extremely challenging.

Being Agile & Flexible Saved HCD

I believe a strong argument can be made for approaching market research challenges with multiple methodologies. At HCD, we have always pushed that a multi-faceted approach is important to ensure you are using the right tool for the right question, combining neuroscience, psychology, and traditional marketing research for more accurate and comprehensive insights to consumer perceptions and reactions. There is no one tool that measures all research questions. Each tool has advantages and limitations, including requiring in-person measurement or not. As we always say at HCD, “Use the right tool for the right question.” And the COVID pandemic revealed that not having the flexibility of alternative tools impacted One-Trick Ponies more than Renaissance Researchers.

My hypothesis is that flexibility, agility, and an integrated approach is not only a better means of doing any research but also has a direct impact on a company’s ability to survive in times of crisis and change, such as during a pandemic.

What does agility mean in market research? Being agile is certainly a buzzword, and as with most buzzwords, it can be interpreted in different ways. The Agile Movement is a method of project management usually involving software and concepts like minimum viable product, sprints, and scrums. In this case, being agile in research can also mean the ability to be responsive and flexible, which is really what the Agile Movement is built upon.

The advantage of flexibility and being agile as a market research provider means our structure allows us to change methodologies based on situational needs, from project goals to budget or timing constraints, including location or participant limitations or needs. And in the case of COVID lockdown, being an agile, flexible research partner allowed us to respond to specific research challenges and significant environmental changes with relative ease and success, adapting to new market situations and conditions.

Coworkers collaborating on a project

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, market research had swung from in-person or phone-based research into a digital or internet-based research paradigm. We know this because we were there as one of the first companies to move research online. But then, with the advent of neuromarketing, this pendulum swung back towards in-person research, with neuromarketing tools requiring “wiring up” of participants. Once again, HCD was there as one of the early adopters of psycho-physiological tools. Since its inception, neuromarketing tools have mostly been employed to study the impact of advertising and media concepts, such as broadcast, print, and digital communications, as well as movie trailers and entertainment pilots. As a result, many marketing and media researchers began to rely heavily on this research method.

However, with the constraints of central location research during COVID, the research pendulum swung again from the one-on-one interactions back to more traditional online methods, but with a “neuro” twist. Clients began to push for more virtual or digital methodologies, such as implicit reaction testing, online eye tracking, and online facial coding.

As a result of this push towards virtual and digital methods, insights may have been lost relying only on cognitive response paired with widely criticized online versions of facial coding and eye tracking. Due to the necessity of “no contact” data collection methods, these methods overtook other well-tested neuroscience methods. But production in this space also appeared to slow down. However, one market did not slow down…

The product development process requires in-person experience with product concepts. R&D projects are on strict time schedules, and even pandemics don’t freeze the development timeline. Once again, we were already there, already established as a reliable and expert player in product and consumer research. With our agility in methodology and diversity in markets, we have not only survived, but we have also flourished during these times. The consumer product segment has increased our volume for traditional, psychological and neuroscience methods over the past 2 years.

I’m so proud of HCD and its flexibility and agility, as well as its consistent drive to operate on the premise that market research is not defined by one methodology but rather by integration of multiple tools to provide answers for varying consumer research challenges and client needs.