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Are traditional market research methods obsolete?

Published under Research Methods
Written by Tim Bacon

For the growing field of neuromarketing the answer to the question would arguably be yes. Why? Because contrary to the idea that our conscious rational brain makes our decisions, it subscribes to the theory that our decisions are made by unconscious processes. This raises an important question for traditional market research methods– if we want to know why consumers behave the way they do then should we really be asking them direct questions about it?

Neuromarketing has often led to particularly eye-catching headlines. One such example is Martin Lindstrom’s “You Love Your iPhone. Literally.” (The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2011). However as mentors in the past have often told me, if results look particularly unusual then something is probably wrong. Taking the above study as an example, the headline stems from finding that a brain region called the insula – linked to love and compassion- was activated when people looked at videos of ringing iPhones. What the researchers failed to mention was that the insula is also involved with memory, language, attention, anger, disgust and pain. So, other interpretations could be that we actually hate our iPhone. What we need to remember when looking at subconscious processes is that regions of the brain rarely, if ever, only do one thing and so neuromarketing can rarely provide us with simple explanations to understand the consumer.

Not only should we be wary of how neuromarketing findings are interpreted, but we should be cautious of the types of methods it uses. A recent study demonstrated that of 8 methods (including traditional surveys; implicit measures; eye tracking; heart rate; skin conductance; breathing; brain activity, fMRI; and EEG) only fMRI  significantly improved the predictive power of traditional surveys. Therefore it’s important to keep in mind that used alone neuromarketing may not be much more valuable than traditional market research.

It would be easier to understand human behaviour if we could simply say that we only ever think, feel then act or that we feel, act and then think.

However in reality it rather depends on the situation. There will always be times where our unconsciousness guides our actions and we can be grateful for that – jumping out of the way of a moving car is quite useful. However, if we couldn’t override our unconscious and automatic processes with rational thought then we would be equally in trouble. For example, take walking across a glass bottomed bridge atop a tall building. Our automatic unconscious reaction may at first be to run a mile. However, rational thought prevails, which hopefully allows us to safely walk across the bridge. Given that our brain has complex feedback methods it is not logical to subscribe to one method which only explores unconscious processes.

Being an advocate for the use of neuroscientific methods in the field of market research I am by no means suggesting that neuromarketing is simply neuro-baloney – after all, evidence points to 95% of the brain’s activity being below conscious awareness. What I am suggesting is that we should respect the complexity of the human brain and behaviour and the limitations that neuromarketing currently has. As with any good research, I prefer an integrated approach to understand the complications of consumer behaviour and it is because of this that traditional question and answer methods are still necessary in market research.