December 2017 | 

Where Science Meets Business: New Tools for Marketers

Where Science Meets Business

“The tools most businesses are using to understand consumer preferences and behaviors are fundamentally flawed,” says Michael Platt, director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative. “When people know they are being studied in an artificial environment like a focus group, they often tell you what they think you want to hear. Even worse, when they don’t have an answer they make something up.”

About a decade ago, these research strategies were reportedly on the way out — “focus groups are dead” was a common rallying cry. At the same time, neuroscience research was imagining the brain as a highly reliable source of information about the interests and desires of individual consumers.

Platt says today the knowledge of and applications for brain science are relatively mature. “We are confident about the science, and are using the brain as a source of real data. It’s much more reliable than self-reporting: the best neuroscience data can out-predict what people say by 10 to 15 percent, and there is the potential to go much further.”

Marketers and other business leaders now have the opportunity to learn from Wharton neuroscientists in a new program, Leveraging Neuroscience for Business Impact. Participants will come away with three key learnings, says Platt. “First, the science is real. I can endorse it as a process you can add to what you’re already doing to be more effective. Second, they will learn how it works and what the latest tools are. And third, they will become discriminating consumers, because there is some bad science out there. They’ll understand what distinguishes the good from the bad.”

Learning about new tools and how they work is critical, because many companies are simply jumping in and collecting data without developing the ability to interpret it. For example, they can purchase or rent eye-tracking devices relatively inexpensively. But, says Platt, if you don’t know how the brain controls eye movement, or exactly what your subjects were looking at, it’s easy to make mistakes.

“Interpreting the data requires more than understanding how to plug in a device,” he notes. “Without the knowledge of what the new data really is, you won’t be able to do anything with it. It takes skill and expertise to derive a clean signal that provides you with actionable information.”

Program participants will also be exposed to the latest neuroscience research. At Wharton, Emily Falk is studying how the wording of public service announcements can predict whether an audience will then head to a website for more information. Other research is identifying what is most effective in terms of imagery in ads.

A reverse-engineering study that came out earlier this year moved beyond static text and images to actual commercials. Researchers made sales predictions and then ran an analysis by wiring an audience with EEGs and heart rate monitors, which provided a physical readout of engagement and attention while they watched a series of movie trailers. The data led to specific recommendations, including when to insert actors’ close-ups for maximum audience engagement.

Platt says that even though the science is mature, and companies like Nielsen are creating neuroscience divisions, it’s not easy to refine techniques and apply the data most effectively within organizations. “Wharton and Penn are partnering with companies to help them make the best use of neuroscience for their specific applications. We have the expertise and talent, the expensive equipment, and access to a large subject pool. We are in a position to take the science further.”