Why marketing effectiveness ought to undergo a revolution


We often don’t recognise a true revolution until after the event; the gift of hindsight and the lessons of history tell us a great deal.

Similarly, for many years, effectiveness evaluation has been retrospective and based on members of a target audience’s “rational” post-analysis of what worked and what didn’t. 

But the world has moved on, more radically than many realise, and now new tools and techniques are available, thanks to insights gleaned through neuroscience.  

So, at the start of the IPA’s EffWeek 2019 events – designed to celebrate the latest marketing effectiveness learnings and, as it says on the IPA’s website, “break down new brand behaviours and dissect all things marketing effectiveness” – it will interesting to see how much, or how little, focus there is on the new wave of techniques that can be used to get to the bottom of effectiveness; namely, the burgeoning world of neuroscience.  

The crux of the matter is, there is often a vast schism between what consumers say and what they actually do. For instance, over the past few weeks, many of us have probably seen Extinction Rebellion protestors eating McDonald’s and using their Chinese-made iPhones. 

And do you remember Coke Life, Coca-Cola’s stab at a healthy, natural cola? Back in April 2015, I wrote a piece explaining how the line was doomed to fail. Within two years, I had been proven right; because the product launch was likely predicated on the insight that consumers were increasingly saying they care about health when, in reality, they still like their sugary treats perhaps a little too much. 

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Academic research has consistently shown that there is in fact a fairly weak correlation between attitudes and behaviour. This is because the conscious brain is like the explaining and justifying press office more than the deciding and executing Oval Office. 

What’s more, experiments have shown that conscious processing of an action may occur after the action begins; what we think is conscious intention may actually be post-rationalisation. The implication is that asking people something outright will tell you what they think they think, or what they’d like to think they think, but not what they actually think.

When it comes to ad effectiveness, one study found that traditional, self-reported measures, such as comprehension or understanding, were actually negative predictors of in-market performance.

Similarly, a study of neuroscience techniques by Mars found that the effectiveness evaluation method with the best prediction of in-market performance was functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI – a technique for measuring brain activity. Self-reporting came in at last place, with the best predicting measures found to be memory and emotion.

This study, however, was conducted almost 10 years ago – when the practicality of neuroscientific research for real business challenges was limited.  

Fortunately, the world has experienced a data revolution since then. Today, marketers generally recognise that we shouldn’t rely on explicit self-report in primary research. But we are now approaching an epoch when we may not need to do any primary research at all. Passive data collection is the future. If we have access to the entire browsing history of a consumer, we can know everything we need to about them, including how they are likely to respond to an ad, while an automated psychological analysis of clicks and comments will tell us how effective it is. Content analysis of an individual’s tweets about an ad, as well as their browsing behaviour after seeing it, will tell us how well it is resonating and if it will be remembered. 

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And, while big data leaves behavioural cues that offer highly predictive “thin slices” of ad effectiveness, biometrics provide a more direct route into the consumer’s brain. Take Apple’s latest software update, which has drawn a lot of attention, particularly for its “memojis”, which use facial coding to mirror the user’s expressions. The unspoken implication is that iPhones can now record the user’s emotional state whenever they’re facing the screen.

Similarly, advancements in consumer-grade EEG, and Elon Musk’s plans for Neuralink, point to a future where even brain activity signals will be made available. Brands will be able to literally read the market’s mind, in real time. 

In this new world of marketing effectiveness, Coca-Cola would have been able to evaluate the effectiveness of the Coke Life proposition by posting just one tweet about it and analysing its response, rather than wasting two years and countless millions in a costly experiment doomed to failure. Hindsight is not always a great thing.

Patrick Fagan is co-founder at behaviour science consultancy Capuchin



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