Mind Over Matter

NEW YORK Can neuroscience and biometric research really help advertisers craft better ads? While marketers have debated that question for years, the costly and cumbersome nature of the research (e.g., MRI machines, electrodes attached to scalps) means they’ve relied instead on second-hand information such as surveys to help decide what does and doesn’t work.

Over the last year, however, several high-tech firms, including EmSense, NeuroFocus, and OTX Research and Innerscope, have introduced portable, less intrusive and more affordable measurement devices to track and measure both brain waves and biologic data. Not surprisingly, a growing number of marketers and agencies are taking note, experimenting with the new devices in hopes that the resulting metrics will provide insights on ads appearing on any and all platforms.

EmSense, a privately held San Francisco company that recently hired ad industry veteran Tim Arnold as evp, business development, counts Yahoo co-founder Tim Koogle and Patrick Meyer, CEO of brand marketing consultancy Now Inc., among its board members and investors.

“This is the kind of innovation we scout for,” said Meyer, a former senior manager at Coca-Cola and Gillette, who helped bring Virgin Mobile USA, Nintendo, Coke and Miller Brewing on board as clients.

Coke became a client of EmSense late last year to help it decide which two TV ads to place in the Super Bowl. (It was the first time the company used brainwave and biometric data to help select and edit its Super Bowl ads.) In the weeks leading up to the game, the client produced about a dozen new ads for possible placement. The Coke marketing team was counting on EmSense to help it make the right choices.

The EmSense device, shaped like a thin, plastic headband, reads brain waves and monitors the breathing, heart rate, blinking and skin temperatures of consumers who preview ads to measure their emotional and cognitive responses.

According to Katie Bayne, CMO of Coca-Cola North America, the device not only helped whittle down the list of spots, but also aided in editing the two ads chosen to air — “It’s Mine,” in which parade balloons vie for a bottle of Coke, and the “Jinx” ad with James Carville and former Senator Bill Frist. For example, she says, the music in “It’s Mine” was adjusted in the days leading up to the game to build to more of a crescendo than in the original version of the spot.

“It provides you with more natural and unedited responses than you get when you force people through the cognitive loop of having to annunciate how they feel,” Bayne said. “It’s a great new tool.”

According to Bayne and others, such techniques help marketers more accurately decipher consumers’ feelings because they measure physical and emotional responses as they occur, as opposed to having people remember or interpret their feelings after the fact when doing things like surveys and focus groups.

The EmSense gizmo, developed by a group of MIT grads, combines EEG technology used to measure brain-wave activity and biometric measurements with proprietary algorithms. It produces data that spell out how a consumer is reacting both emotionally and cognitively to marketing messages, and can be used to measure such responses across a variety of ad platforms.

The algorithms calculate average results over hundreds of consumer test subjects. Second-by-second results are offered for dozens of different metrics. But three measures stand out, said Elissa Moses, chief analytics officer at EmSense and a former strategic planner at Grey Worldwide, Royal Philips Electronics and Gillette, where she worked with Meyer: how quickly consumers pay attention to an ad (speed of engagement); how their emotions track positively and negatively throughout the course of the ad; and how they respond to specific branding.

“If viewers don’t engage, they aren’t going to remember anything,” said Moses. “And if they don’t engage fairly quickly, it’s like walking into the middle of a movie.”

The emotional tracking that EmSense captures is frequently a roller coaster of positive and negative feelings “as suspense mounts and drama unfolds in a good story or a funny joke,” she added. “The objective is to leave the audience at a higher positive emotional point at the end of the commercial than when they started and to evoke a positive emotional reaction to the product.” That makes intuitive sense, she said, but “until now marketers and agencies have not had a tool like this to prove it out.”

Although marketers have pondered for years how much time, energy and resources they should devote to measuring emotional responses to their ad messages, recent research suggests they should take the leap. A March 2007 report from a joint task force of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Advertising Research Foundation concluded that the traditional “think-feel-do model of how advertising works is incorrect,” given new insights about the human brain’s decision-making processes. “Emotional reactions not only come first, they facilitate memory and influence actions,” the report said.

Chip Walker, head of planning at StrawberryFrog, said such research is gaining traction because agencies and clients are increasingly frustrated with traditional forms of testing. “You get a lot of modern rationalizations in the traditional feedback,” said Walker, who brought a packaged-goods client to EmSense last year when he was with BBDO. “We’ve seen a lot of situations where ads don’t test well [with traditional techniques], but sales go up when you put them on the air. Conversely, some ads test well, but nothing much happens.”

Virgin hooked up with EmSense last year shortly after it launched its new “You rule” ad campaign for contract-free cell phone service, said Joel Kades, vp, strategic planning and consumer insights at Virgin Mobile USA. Virgin had EmSense compare the new ads with its historical work, as well as the work of competitors, said Kades.

Based on the results of the EmSense research, Virgin learned that in moving forward it needs to continue to “build suspense and grab people at the beginning [of a spot] and keep them in to deliver the product message,” said Kades. The EmSense method, he added, “helps eliminate a lot of debate you would traditionally have over the results” of verbal responses and how to interpret them.

Jeff Jones, president of Havas’ McKinney, which worked with EmSense on evaluating ads for Virgin Mobile USA, said widespread acceptance of the EmSense technique and others like it may depend on how they’re positioned in the marketplace.

“This is not a panacea that should replace all the other research,” such as focus groups, online surveys and other methods, said Jones. “Rather it should be used as a supplement to other techniques that may also be appropriate, given your problem and category.”

Coke’s Bayne agreed. “It’s another tool in the arsenal that helps us learn a little bit more. But it’s not a replacement for the traditional approach,” she said, noting that the beverage maker continues to do most of its ad testing with research firm Millward Brown, a unit of WPP. That said, Coke is exploring ways to work more with EmSense in the future. A Millward rep said the firm is examining ways to incorporate biometrics techniques into its testing (work being coordinated in its U.K. office). Company officials declined to elaborate further.

Los Angeles-based OTX Research, partly owed by Zelnick Media, and Boston-based Innerscope, which has biometric testing technology, teamed together a year ago to develop and offer biometric research services to marketers and media companies.

David Brandt, managing director, marketing insights at OTX, said in addition to ads, they monitor film and TV programs for TV and movie companies. Innerscope has embedded its technology into a vest instead of a headband, and measures heart rates, breathing and other biometrics, but not brain waves, Brandt said. “Our point of view is the EEG doesn’t add a lot more,” in terms of data about how consumers respond,” he noted.

Just two weeks ago, Neuro- Focus, which also analyzes films and TV shows, and Adweek parent The Nielsen Co. announced a joint effort to work together to develop new forms of measurement and metrics based on neuroscience. Its device is headgear resembling a baseball cap.

NeuroFocus CEO A.K Pradeep said his company has tested “a few hundred ads” for clients in the packaged-goods, financial, food, beverage and auto categories.

Neither Brandt nor Pradeep would discuss specific work or identify any of their clients.

“All of this is sort of based on the presumption that emotion trumps logic” in the marketing of brands, said McKinney’s Jones. “We believe emotion and creating emotional connections for brands is paramount. It’s not in place of transactional connections — you have to do both.”