In the world of science, the development of the MRI scanner over the past decade has allowed a whole range of research that was previously impossible. Meanwhile, watching from the worlds of marketing, research, and advertising, people like Wendy Gordon (1) and Robert Heath (2) among others have been talking about the implications of neuroscience for some years.

Only now, however, has the topic gained critical mass. A couple of years ago, a search for 'neuroscience' on WARC's website would uncover barely a handful of articles. Today, there are almost a hundred and the list is growing with every publication, while Baroness Greenfield's books on the brain (3,4) are bestsellers. Claims are being made and there are dark mutterings about the effect of this on traditional research.

So what is neuroscience really all about? Is it a threat to the world of qualitative research? Or is it just a fad that will disappear from the scene as quickly as it arrived?


There's some confusion about what neuroscience really is. It deserves a definition: essentially, it's the science of how our brains work.

Neuropsychology is the application of this to psychological issues like memory, personality and cognition. And neuromarketing currently means the use of brain scanning, or electrodes, for marketing purposes.

These days, scanning technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) lets us understand how the brain works as never before. For a good introduction to brain science, try Rita Carter's book, Mapping the Mind (5).

Different areas of the brain can now been isolated - we know that there is a 'reward centre' which responds to the mention of sex and chocolate, while another part of the brain reacts to visual stimuli, another to audio, and so on. The industry of neuromarketing has developed directly from this thinking. Early on, some American researchers famously compared Coca-Cola with Pepsi6. In a blind tasting, those preferring Pepsi showed a far stronger response in one of the brain's reward centres than those who chose Coke. But once the volunteers knew which drink they were tasting, the re-scan results were completely different. Companies like Camelot and Daimler Chrysler are also experimenting with brain scanning technology.

But neuromarketing is not neuropsychology or neuroscience. Neuromarketing, via brain scans or electrodes, has limitations, many of which have been documented by qualitative researchers and marketers. We are clearly not all going to replace our tape recorders with MRI scanners. Far more interesting to most researchers is the application of learning from studies of the brain to our everyday qualitative jobs.

Given some thought, there are clear ideas that can be applied across the process - to recruitment, interviewing, analysis and interpretation. The focus of this paper is to show that neuroscience is not about electrodes on heads or whether fMRI scanning will jeopardise our jobs, but how we can use the latest findings in neuroscience constructively to understand people more effectively and deliver this understanding to our clients.

What lurks beneath the surface?

Recent findings in neuropsychology have really been a rude awakening for marketers. It is now estimated that up to 95% of what goes on in our brains is below the level of consciousness. The existence of the unconscious and its effect on human behaviour is absolutely irrefutable (7).

As Wendy Gordon says (1), people remain inexplicable and unpredictable. What they say is not what they do, feel or think and never will be. People continue to struggle to articulate how they think and feel about brands. No matter what we discover, nothing will change this.

But we do have some useful models now to help us deal with this unpredictability. Let's take brand associations. The brain has immense capacity, and this capacity applies to brands as well as everything else. An experiment carried out in the 1970s by Lionel Standing (8) shows that the brain can store and recognise up to ten thousand brands with an alarming degree of accuracy.

But these brand associations are not stored fully-formed in one part of the brain - the brand is broken into thousands of tiny shards of information that are stored and processed in different areas. Brains are made up of trillions of cells, called neurons. Each one has a series of dendrites, finger-like tendrils growing out of it.

There is a small gap, a synapse, between the dendrites of one cell and those of another. As one neuron is stimulated it fires up. There is a chemical reaction across one synapse to the next neuron, which stimulates the next neuron along, which in turn stimulates the next, and so on. A memory - and a brand association - consists of a whole interconnected series of firings.

So what are the implications of this kind of knowledge? What are the key facts we can draw from neuroscience and apply to our everyday work? Here are four useful "NeuroFacts".

NeuroFact 1: The Brand Engram

Giep Franzen and Margot Bouwman (8) call the representation of the brand in the brain a brand engram. We can think of it as a mind map with hundreds of different associations - or shards of information - connected together in associative networks. But the brain is elastic and changes constantly as connections die or are made stronger through repetition.

This has implications for how we think and talk about brands and for how static we see them being. Rather than being concrete things like neat pyramids or onions with layers as traditional marketers would have them, neuromarketers say that brands are more like dynamic metaphors. That is, they are constantly changing as different connections 'fire' in the brain and, because they are part of an almost infinite network of associations, rely on individual unique experience and interpretation.

This gives us an alternative - more dynamic and flexible - way to think about and describe the nature of brands as experienced and to connect them to other parts of consumers' lives.

NeuroFact 2: Hardwiring

This NeuroFact will explain the age-old and very annoying conundrum - why, for certain familiar brands, people still talk about advertising campaigns from ten years ago. Or why there was such an outcry recently when KitKat changed its tagline 'Have a break, have a KitKat', first coined in 1957. Or why we still remember 'a Mars a day' even though it was succeeded by a new campaign at least three years ago.

Neuroscience has shown us that it takes a long time to create connections. But with repetition and over time, cells that fire together repeatedly become literally physically soldered together. Neuroscientists say 'cells that fire together are wired together'. This process takes at least two years and is known as hardwiring. Little wonder then, that so many modern day campaigns don't 'stick' when budgets are routinely slashed part-way through the marketing year, and the average brand manager moves jobs every 18 months.

Think of it as a fresh field of that you walk through every day. It is only after several months that a pathway will be visible. But once the path is created, it takes even longer to disappear. The brain is similar - connections can take years to form, but even longer to forget.

Franzen (8 p71), tells us that 'Brand associations that are already consolidated in long-term memory cannot be broken off. The only way this can change is by developing new associations and not activating old ones any more. The chances of success depend on the intensity of the old associations and the power with which the new ones are developed.'

Hardwiring has clear implications for marketing. Brand owners have to make a choice if they are lucky enough to be working on a hardwired brand - to build on the existing wiring, or to disrupt it and over-ride it with something else.

The Halifax is a brand building on existing hardwiring - its 'Howard' campaign takes the associations that a building society is approachable and friendly, transfering these to 'Halifax the bank'.

McDonald's, on the other hand, is trying to override its existing wiring. It takes considerable money, commitment and time to change or fight hardwiring, and the brand's recent efforts to promote 'healthy' salads and breakfasts have received massive marketing support. Can it ever change its 'fast food' associations? Perhaps for the next generation of teens who are growing up with this version of McDonald's, but for the rest of us..?

The key in research is to understand whether or not a brand has hard-wired associations, what they are, and then how to work with them rather than fight them. Often it is far more effective to contemporise hardwiring, rather than to try and radically change it.

NeuroFact 3: Emotional Anchoring

In his book Consciousness Explained (9) Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher, argued that the human mind works like a machine - logical, rational and systematised. But Antonio Damasio, a neurology professor, argued for the fundamental interconnectedness of feelings and reason (10).

It has, in fact, become accepted in the world of neuroscience that emotions occupy a powerful position (and Dennett himself has changed his stance). As Franzen says: 'The emotional brain, which reacts immediately to sensory input, is also much faster than the rational brain. Emotions constitute an integrated element of the seemingly most rational decision making. Whenever thinking conflicts with emotions, emotions win' (8 p.33). In a sense in qualitative research we have often worked with this idea - it's interesting to see it gain scientific respectability.

We can again extend this idea to brands through 'emotional anchoring' (1). Gut level emotional reactions to any stimuli are called 'somatic markers' (from 'soma' or 'of the body'). This happens at a very fundamental level. If as a child I don't look before I cross the road, and have a near escape, this provokes a physical reaction (chemical, electrical or hormonal) - my heart beats fast and I break out into a sweat. As an adult, every time I hear the screech of brakes, my palms become sweaty and my heart begins to race.

In branding too, past experiences play a big role though realistically there are few brands with the power to provoke a physical reaction. Examples do exist in some categories, such as alcohol. Many people are not able to drink tequila or rum in adulthood - after experimenting and getting sick in their teens, now the mere smell of it makes them feel sick. Comfort foods are a similar but more positive experience - having always eaten Cadbury's Dairy Milk as a Sunday afternoon treat with my parents, whenever I see, eat or smell chocolate now, I feel good.

While the response to a brand might not be as extreme as a somatic marker, all brands evoke some sort of gut response in us - we can say whether we like them or don't but not necessarily why. In many cases, the feeling isn't even this strong - it is more of a slight warm feeling or cool feeling to a brand. Brands are emotionally anchored in our brains, which again has implications for the world of research: feeling warm to a brand increases openness to its communications, while being cool tends to increase the likelihood of noticing negatives or blocking it out completely.

Knowing whether your audience is warm or cool towards a brand will give valuable clues as to the in-going mindset of the target - and therefore the scale of the objective, as well as how much investment in time and money, needs to be put behind it to achieve that objective.

This challenges traditional marketing thinking which defines audiences by dimensions like usage and not by slight positive or negative feelings. But these are potentially highly relevant: I am warm to Macs but I have a PC because it's lighter. I am therefore likely to be open to messages from Mac and represent a good potential target.

NeuroFact 4: Low Attention Processing

Low attention processing is a well-documented theory developed from neuroscientific ideas by advertising researcher Heath and best covered in his book The Hidden Power of Advertising (2). He picks up on a theory that was offered by Herbert Krugman in the 1960s.

High attention processing is activated at will and is called 'active/explicit' learning in the world of brain science (11). It is the way in which we learnt at school. High attention processing might be used to evaluate price - how much, how does it compare to other products, what is the benefit of buying the cheaper one, etc. We pay attention and make a judgement about whether the product is worth the price.

Low attention processing, according to Heath, is a mixture of conscious and semi-conscious activity. Much of it involves 'implicit' learning - learning that takes place without conscious knowledge. Heath picks up on Krugman's experiments which showed, using EEG technology, that TV is a low involvement medium compared to print. That is, when watching TV, our brains operate on a slower than normal wave pattern and, with each subsequent showing of an ad, the pattern slows further.

Information on TV isn't actively digested as a book would be, where the reader controls the speed of processing and amount of information read.

Significantly, it is now commonly understood by neuroscientists that information entering the memory implicitly (e.g. through TV) has a far greater chance of being retained in long-term memory. It is, therefore, a highly effective way of increasing a set of brand associations.

This has caused a considerable disturbance in the world of advertising testing, which is founded on recall (many ad testing methods such as Millward Brown's Link include recall as a key measure). The problem with recall is that it assumes that the message/memory is taken in explicitly, i.e. consciously.

But if conscious recall isn't as relevant as everyone thought it was, how should we measure communications? Millward Brown's Erik du Plessis has taken Heath on in public about this as it questions the company's advertising testing models. Du Plessis' recent book12 formally addresses the debate - significantly he, too, draws on neuroscientific findings to show how emotions influence memory of advertising. The debate rages on.

Meanwhile, knowing about how the brain processes information does give us guidance on the types of messages that 'work' more effectively than others as well as the media that are suited to each. High involvement messaging is usually required to put across rational, logical or time-sensitive information that needs immediate attention. Typically, print, internet and to a lesser degree radio, are effective (see The Newspaper Marketing Association's new advertising campaign, 'The Attention Channel').Low involvement processing is not active or conscious but can be extremely effective in building long-term associations for a brand. TV is typically processed at low levels of involvement, thus it is well suited to thematic or brand messages that don't require an instant call-to-action.

So what does this all add up to?

In the worlds of research and marketing, brain science gives us valuable instruments for thinking about the research process. It won't provide the answers on a plate because the answers don't exist. Just as our jobs are about interrogating and interpreting findings, we must apply the same rigorous analysis to these scientific developments and find the notions that can be tapped into across our familiar processes, from recruitment to interpretation. Many ideas and questions arise even from the handful of 'NeuroFacts' I have outlined here:

  • Can the brand engram be used to understand and leverage all of a brand's associations? Should it replace pyramid or onion diagrams? Does it offer different 'ways in' to think about a brand?

  • Hardwiring - understanding a brand's hardwiring allows one to understand realistically which associations are here to stay, which can be evolved and which can be changed.

  • Emotional anchoring - can this be used as a tool for recruitment? Or segmentation? Or analysing data from different audience segments?

  • Low attention processing - how can we find the answers to our questions using implicit techniques rather than explicit ones that rely on conscious awareness? Should we think about the different media in terms of their ability to communicate either explicitly or implicitly?

And so on...

It's also true that brain science gives us a way of talking convincingly and 'rationally' about emotions to our clients. Where necessary it has the credibility to stand up in the board room and shows that emotion can be scientifically proven, helping underpin the qualitative cause.

Thinking of neuroscience in this way takes us beyond traditional ways of thinking - and is certainly far more useful than worrying about the outputs from an MRI scan.


1: Gordon, W and Ford Hutchison, S (January 2002), Brains and Brands: Rethinking the Consumer, Admap

2: Heath, R (July 2001), The Hidden Power of Advertising, Monograph No.7, Admap

3: Greenfield, S (2000), The Private Life of the Brain, Penguin

4: Greenfield, S (1997), The Human Brain, Phoenix

5: Carter, R (1998), Mapping the Mind, Orion Publishing Group

6: Burne, J (27 November 2003), A Probe Inside the Mind of the Shopper, The Financial Times

7: Pert, C (1997), Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-body Medicine, Simon & Schuster

8: Franzen, G and Bouwman. M (2001), The Mental World of Brands, World Advertising Research Centre

9: Dennett, D (October 1991), Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown and Company

10: Damasio, A (November 1995), Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Quill

11: Solms, M and Turnbull, O (2004), <i>The Brain and the Inner World -
An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience, Karnac</i>

12: Du Plessis, E (2005), The Advertised Mind, Kogan Page