Time to Measure Up: Brand Communication Research Measures

In mid-October, I had the opportunity to present at an Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) Thought Leader Session sponsored by HCD Research in New York.  Each time I speak with a group of industry professionals, I come away from the experience intellectually energized, and this was no exception. Before I share a few ideas sparked by this session I want to thank those of you who attended the event. I deeply appreciate your curiousity and the fact that you took time out of your busy day to participate.

The discussion that occurred during the session generated many thoughts about biometrics in marketing communications research, and has shaped my current approach. This blog presents my latest ideas generated by the session in essence, my “measuring up” of brand communication measures.

The ARF session in New York began with me talking about a brand image problem as well as the promise(s) associated with neuromarketing research.  I believe the brand image problem is a result of researchers taking liberties with the extent to which basic science validates biometric measures as indicators of consumer responses to brand communications. This can lead to researchers overpromising holistic brand communication insights purely from biometric data. And the promise(s) is the huge potential for gaining insight into less conscious emotional processes that as brain science has showed, play an important role in consumer decision making and behavior.

I had the opportunity to speak with Horst Stipp, executive vice president of global business strategy at the ARF, and the leader of the organization’s effort to develop standards for neuromarketing research. I have a lot of respect for this effort, and Dr. Stipp stated that the companies that participated in the first phase of this effort have made strides in addressing the issue of over promising results. I do not know the specifics but I felt the need to report that statement.

Dr. Stipp went on to make an even more important point. He said the real issue with neuromarketing research is that companies lack the knowledge of exactly what the research is actually measuring in terms of human mental experience, how measures relate to traditional marketing research measures, and ultimately, how this all relates to consumer decision making and behavior, which is of course what every brand communication effort hopes to effect.  I completely agree with this assessment. 

The second phase of the ARF Neuromarketing project is apparently trying to address this issue by focusing on how neuromarketing measures predict consumer decision making and behavior after exposure to brand messages. I look forward to seeing the results of this effort! It will be exciting and extremely valuable to see how neuromarketing measures perform at predicting behavioral indicators of advertising effectiveness. However, we can’t overlook the more fundamental issue of the serious lack of understanding of what is actually being measured.

The cause of this more troubling issue, in my opinion, is that researchers are neglecting to completely ground their knowledge and methodology in the academic discipline that is engaged in the science of identifying the psychological meaning of the patterns of nervous system activity — Psychophysiology. Neuromarketing measures are nothing more than measures that record variation in human nervous system activity.

However, the only way the measures become useful in marketing communication research is when the psychological meaning of specific patterns of nervous system activity is validated. PSYCHOPHYSIOLOGY…not neuroscience, is THE discipline in charge of this task. I argue that Neuromarketing should only be viewed as a narrowly defined, specific branch of Psychophysiology that is targeted at understanding how consumers interact with and respond to brand messages.

Psychophysiology is actually more than an academic discipline. It is a research paradigm that provides assumptions about the human brain/mind as well as guidelines for applying psychophysiological measures — which is what every neuromarketing measure is actually doing – to study the human mental experience and behavior.

Psychophysiology, because it’s a research paradigm that defines the very nature of human cognition and emotion, provides general conceptual definitions of not only biometric measures but also the entire set of traditional marketing research tools. In other words, it provides a method for answering one of the questions Dr. Stipp posed — what do these neuromarketing measures actually measure?

Robert Potter, from Indiana University, and I provide a review of Psychophysiology as a research paradigm and discuss what psychophysiological measures actually measure in our book Psychophysiological Measurement and Meaning: Cognitive and Emotional Processing of Media. We specifically provide what I believe is a simple and useful way to view what the measures actually measure (Chapter 7 for those of you who might have the book).

Psychophysiological (Biometric) measures, which encompass every tool unique to neuromarketing, index the less conscious, embodied, instant-by-instant cognitive and emotional experience of interacting with and responding to brand messages. This embodied experience reflects the on-going functioning of attention, emotions, attitudes, memory and behavioral response — concepts which are critical to effective brand communication. For example, with a simple biometric measure like heart rate, I can assess the extent to which attention is being focused outwardly on encoding details of message or internally on memory processes related to information retrieval and storage.  Other biometric measures reflect the embodied experience of emotions and attitudes. 

The critical step in assessing specifically what biometric/neuromarketing research actually measure is understanding how processes related to attention, emotions, attitudes, memory, and behavioral responses that are engaged by exposure to brand messages (or any media content) are embodied in observable patterns of human nervous system activity. 

I believe the neuromarketing enterprise desperately needs scientists who have graduate level training specifically in the area of media psychophysiology.  This is the academic discipline that validates biometric measures in media research and uses them to produce general knowledge of how the brain processes all forms of media content. This is also one of the points that I made during my presentation at the ARF session, when I encouraged attendees to seek out research vendors that have access to experts with specific training in media psychophysiology.

So, how about traditional tools, such as self-report surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews? These tools measure thoughts or responses that emerge from on-going embodied cognitive and emotional experience reflecting conscious interpretation of experience with a brand. For example, data obtained in an in-depth interview reflects conscious thoughts that emerge from the embodied experience of processing whatever messages are being tested, like how the participant consciously feels about a brand based on exposure to a certain message.

The experience of processing a brand message and ultimately behaviorally responding to it (the golden egg of marketing research) is completely nested in embodied experiences. Simply put, these are experiences occurring through the physical action of our bodies which includes our brain and entire nervous system. In essence, every experience throughout our lives is embodied. Biometrics index the raw nervous system activity unfolding on an instant-by-instant level underlying embodied experiences that brand communication evokes. This nervous system activity reflects variations in attention, emotions, attitudes, memory and behavior.

Traditional research tools index conscious responses emerging from the embodied experiences that brand communication evokes. At a general level, it really is that straightforward.  That is one of the benefits of grounding research in a strong scientific paradigm like Psychophysiology. It provides a straightforward way of defining what you are actually measuring and a framework for data analysis. Both elements are critical to conducting research that is capable of delivering business insight that can be used to optimize brand communication. 

I’ve addressed the first current issue with Neuromarketing that Dr. Stipp brought up in our conversation, which is that companies lack of knowledge of exactly what neuromarketing research is actually measuring and how biometric measures relate to traditional marketing research measures. My next blog will address the issue of connecting biometric data to consumer decision making and behavior, and bringing in the thorny issue of norms.  This was also a particularly exciting point of discussion in the HCD Research/ARF Thought Leader session in October.  I look forward to sharing those thoughts in my upcoming blog!