Oh Brave New World (of neurological focus groups)!

I like Martin Lindstrom. He’s an out there kind of guy, which is clearly demonstrated in his newish book, Buy.ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. Maybe it’s because he shares my skepticism about traditional market research techniques, especially focus groups. Maybe because he understands how to build a good case for what is essentially scientific mind-reading. ( Lindstrom is a pioneer in the development of a technique that measures electrical activity in the brain in reaction to a stimulus, gathered through means of a sensory transmitter that looks like a swimming cap. It’s not what you SAY, he believes, but WHAT YOUR NEURONS DO that matters. 

In brief, Lindstrom’s thesis is that when it comes to brands and marketing:

  1. Emotion is stronger than logic. Yup, proven time and again
  2. Consumers, consciously or un-consciously, mis-state their opinions in market research studies. Uh huh. 8 out of 10 new products fail. See my post on Tropicana. 
  3. The way forward is to focus on what does or does not light up consumers’ prefrontal cortex.  Hmmmm.

Although he fears that the reader might connect all this to an Orwellian world of mind control, my fertile brain went straight to Aldous Huxley, specifically Brave New World. Follow me on this one. In Brave New World, humans spend a lot of time blissed out on a legal substance known as soma. Lindstrom paves a logical and thought-provoking path to the importance of somatic markers. Somatic markers are “a…bookmark or shortcut in our brain [that] shepherd us toward a decision that we know will yield the best, least painful outcome.”

If you follow Lindstrom’s thesis, then branding and related marketing activities are about triggering the most “blissful” response (or at least not a negative one) in the mind of the consumer, thus leading to purchase and preference. I personally buy into this. How many of us, through endless focus groups or one on one interviews or blindness inducing quantitative data analysis, are trying to find the holy grail of the ultimate brand “delighter” or “preference driver”? 

There is much, much more in buy.ology that I don’t have time or patience to cover in this post. Lindstrom can be a little grandiose, and in a few instances seemingly self-contradictory, but mostly he had me in general agreement with his concepts.   And lest you think this neurology stuff is all theory, apparently Frito-Lay is a believer–they have developed an ad campaign and snack food repackaging based on validation from neurological testing.

I question, though, whether brain scans will become so very commonplace. It’s great if you are a mass marketer with the budget and patience to develop prototype ads as stimuli. It’s a lot harder at the brand strategy or product innovation level when you are dealing in abstract concepts or the unknown. 

For someone like me, who is so lopsidedly right brained, it’s always sweet to see proof of the power of emotion and intuition over formula and algorithm. And until there is a real-world soma, then I’m happy to be blissed out by brands.



Filed under Brand strategy, Market Research

2 responses to “Oh Brave New World (of neurological focus groups)!

  1. Great blog featuring important issues. But I take exception to the focus group bashing.

    Focus groups are too easy to malign, simply because too many marketers misuse or mismanage them.

    Focus groups are invaluable in defining the opportunity, identifying options and eliminating the dead ends. Problem is too many companies only use them to find the “holy grail”, “silver bullet” or fully packaged solution on a silver platter. Breakthroughs are not a yes or no answer.
    They require insights and the strategic patience to craft a creative solution the addresses the consumers unmet needs with our capabilities.

    It’s true 8 out of 10 new products fail. In fact, the failure rate is actually much higher for the companies that are most successful in launching new products that meet or exceed all the business objectives. One reason among many is they use focus groups to eliminate all the dead wood ideas.
    And the kicker is they learn more from what doesn’t work, than what is.

    Too many marketers rush to focus groups to have the panelists rate their ideas. Often the company’s agenda is the only agenda, never really asking how the consumer views anything but their specific ideas. I have usually found customers will define the opportunity, or the brand, or its market or competition differently than the manufacturer. Sadly this perspective, which invariably leads to the breakthrough ideas that redefine the paradigm for an industry, is usually dismissed out of hand as off topic.

    The marketing industry is focused at speed to market and always searching for the Next Big Thing or Idea to help get us there faster. That’s a laudable and much needed goal. Maybe Lindstrom’s brain neuron meter will prove to be a key research tool to help us identify the most marketable concepts with greater precision and less time.

    But successful new products ideas are too complex on rational, sensory, emotional and other levels to build without face-to-face, heart-to-heart feedback with the potential where they can see, touch and live with our ideas. Used properly as the first step in the development process to focus actionable direction, I don’t see anything that comes close to focus groups with the exception of similar qualitative techniques with an ethnographic or experiential focus.

  2. carolparish

    You make excellent points here. Focus groups definitely play an important role in the research mix, and can provide superior results to sterile quantitative data. They are particularly valuable in product testing, where you can observe actual usage of a product or prototype.

    However, I continue to push back against clients who use focus groups because they are cheap and fast and then refer to the summary as if it is quantitative. And so many things can skew the discussion–poor recruiting, the knowledge and skill of the moderator, badly structured discussion guide, etc.

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