How Big Brands Leverage Neuroscience to Improve Branding and Ad Performance

From Youtube Pre-rolls to the OOH, advertising is present all around us. Over the past 20 years, the use of personal technology has become an integral part of the buyer-seller relationship. The advertising industry had to adapt to the modern world.

Why did brands start to use neuroscience?

Brands started using neuroscience when they realized that it could impact consumer behavior. They discovered they just needed to form a positive web of associations and memories.

Neuroscience and branding tap into what Daniel Kahneman’s research refers to as the two thinking systems. System 1 is automatic and fast, requiring little effort. Whereas system 2 is slow and deliberate, requiring much more thought. Brands which tap into the first system are able to familiarize their brand and establish a connection with the consumer.

The evolution of Eye Tracking and Instant Attention

In 1879, Louis Javal observed that people do not read smoothly across a page but instead pause or vary the speed of their reading. In 1931, Earl, James, and Carl Taylor proved this hypothesis by inventing a device that measured the eyes’ movement while reading. The Opthalmograph and Metronoscope also recorded the hops and pauses from the eye. 

The device was originally used for educational and medical research purposes only. But, in the 1980s, this rapidly transitioned into a marketing tool. First used for print magazines, it replaced the use of galvanic skin response and voice stress analysis.

In the early 90s, the technology evolved to on-screen use. One of the most prominent users was Gallup Applied Science. They used their tech to analyze how analyst Joe Theismann and several football fans watched NFL games. This way, they were able to detect what parts of the game were most missed by the audience. 

In the late 90s, EURO RSGC, a large marketing firm, began to use eye-tracking technology for web design. Nowadays, eye-tracking technology is standard in marketing practices but comes at a high cost to most. 

The next step: Cognitive Science

Consumer neuroscience, aka Neuromarketing, studies the brain to predict and potentially even manipulate consumer behaviour and decision-making. This area of research took off in the mid-2000s once researchers realized the monumental financial impact neuroscience could have on advertising (Abbott). 

One of the most common research methods for neuroscience is using the EEG (electroencephalogram). The EEG is a test that measures electrical activity in the brain using small metal discs (electrodes) attached to the scalp.

In 2004, Emory University ran a study where they served Coca-Cola and Pepsi to subjects in an fMRI machine. The findings brought to light the essential framework for the emerging neuromarketing industry. The participants had a neutral neural response when the drinks weren’t identified. However, once they recognized the beverage brands Coca-Cola and Pepsi, certain areas of the brain (such as the ones associated with emotions, memories, and unconscious processing) showed enhanced activity (McClure et al., 2004). This core finding introduced a tangible link between the brand and the brain, paving the way for further research. 

Frito-Lay has been at the forefront of the neuromarketing field. A notable instance includes a testing group for their new Cheetos ad. They used both focus groups and EEG combined, which was quite astounding. The advertisement featured “a woman performing a prank on another person by putting orange snacks in a dryer full of white clothes” (Lindquist).  Participants in the focus group stated they disliked the prank and the commercial. The EEG study showed that the same participants displayed positive brain activity, loving the ad. They didn’t want to appear “mean-spirited” in front of the other group members. This example highlights a gap in current advertising practices that was filled by the exciting advancements in neuroscience research. 

In 2017, Smashbox cosmetics partnered with the AR MAKEUP app and tested Modiface’s eye-tracking technology. This allowed the company to learn where the consumers’ eyes focused and for how long, allowing them to understand what users are most interested in. This allowed them to further market certain products that eyes lingered on more. If the user doesn’t buy a product that was lingered on, it can be highlighted in future communications with the user. 

Additionally, the company used eye-tracking technology to test the placement of its call-to-action buttons. The marketing group behind this controlled experiment split 8,819 users into two groups, one with the call-to-action button placed permanently on the top and the other only appearing after consumers had interacted with a particular product. The change in the second group resulted in a conversion rate from 6.2% to 7.9%. This shift shows the real-time use of technology and its impact on the company’s sales. 

How can brands of all sizes use neuroscience in their marketing?

Despite promising results, eye-tracking software can be expensive, and many marketers are reluctant to use EEG and other technologies due to their great cost. Although affordable for large corporations, smaller companies and individuals have yet to reap the benefits of this booming industry. That is, until Hippoc. Hippoc, a Montreal-based startup, has designed an artificial intelligence software that combines a variety of technologies mentioned above, such as eye-tracking & standard memory tests, to mimic the human brain processing functions. With this software, everyday people possess the same power as Lays or Coca-Cola; able to understand what elements of their ads consumers are drawn to within a matter of seconds.


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