During the last 10 days, I have had several surprising brushes with a rather esoteric area of science that has begun impacting marketing — consumer neuroscience.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system, including the human brain, where its headquarters reside. Consumer neuroscience applies the principles of this science to understanding how the human brain responds to marketing stimuli, including advertising, packaging, point-of-sale material and product formulation.

Consumers and brainwaves The first of these recent encounters with neuroscience occurred when I was invited by the global information and measurement company Nielsen to deliver an address at the inauguration of its new, full-fledged neuro lab in Mumbai.

At this well-equipped laboratory, I saw technologically-advanced rigs where the science of EEG (Electroencephalography, or recording of electrical impulses along the scalp) is used to understand how a consumer reacts to a television advertisement. Unlike in conventional research, the consumer does not need to answer questions here. The consumer’s brainwaves, when seeing an advertisement or a pack design, are captured using a wired cap placed on the head. This cap reads brain pulses 500 times a second, and there is also a camera which tracks eye movements.

This data is then fed online to a computer which displays the consumer’s level of attention during every single second of watching the advertisement, as well as the areas where the consumer’s eyes were focused on. It was fascinating watching this happening.

At the same venue, I met up with Robert Knight, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a pioneer of this relatively nascent field. With great enthusiasm and a fatherly smile, he patiently explained to me how the neuro laboratory, using EEG, can pick up three critical measures: whether a viewer’s memory is being activated by the marketing stimulus, to what extent the person’s attention is engaged, and, most importantly, whether the viewer is drawn emotionally towards the stimulus or is repelled by it.

A senior official of Nielsen Neurofocus also took us through a wonderful example of how a few changes made in an advertisement for a social cause resulted in a more impactful and shorter TV commercial. These changes were based on pre-testing the advertisement in a neuro lab.

Subconscious brain Just a few days later, in Singapore, I met up with Gemma Calvert, a senior fellow at the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight. An internationally renowned cognitive neuroscientist, she is the founder of a firm called Neurosense.

She spoke to me about how neuroscience is rapidly unlocking the consumer brain and how strong scepticism of the early years has given way to growing acceptance of the findings of this powerful science. For instance, it is now acknowledged that around 90 per cent of our behaviour is driven by our subconscious brain — and our emotions, not our conscious thoughts, are largely responsible for the decisions we make. Imagine the impact of this on understanding consumer behaviour.

Reading up on this area later, I discovered interesting neurological research that suggests that happiness amongst consumers often provokes a need to share, whereas sadness can create a need for greater connection.

Similarly, Neurofocus research suggests that women consumers appear to respond far better to emotion-based visual images, rather than to facts and figures, and they also engage faster with human faces in advertising. Neuroscience-based insights such as these can be leveraged smartly and constructively by marketers.

Harry Potter in plot My third recent brush with neuroscience came because I am a keen Harry Potter fan. I was delighted to read last week about an interesting research study at Carnegie Mellon University. In this study, adult volunteers watched for nearly 45 minutes, as each word of Chapter 9 of the book “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was flashed onto a screen.

Their brains were scanned and scientists understood the neural activity within them, second by second.

They reportedly came to the conclusion that specific scenes of the story, such as Harry Potter flying around on his magic broom, or bravely facing up to the bully Draco Malfoy, were the perfect excerpts to give people, since these are the most engaging scenes. Apparently, these scenes activate the same regions of the brain that are used to pay intense attention to real people’s actions and intentions.

The fourth point at which I was reminded of neuroscience was, quite funnily, in a movie hall. Last weekend, my wife and I had gone out to watch Hindi movie “Happy Ending”. We liked the movie, it was light, refreshing and entertaining, in its own mindless way. But what stood out for me was Govinda’s masterful performance, which lifted the film hugely.

Therefore, when the second half of the film began dragging a lot, I began thinking to myself that the Director could have benefited from putting this movie through pre-screening in a neuro laboratory.

Perhaps he would then have decided on including a few more engaging scenes featuring Govinda and also cutting down the length of the film by at least 20 minutes. This may well have given the film a happier ending, with much better reviews and larger audiences, apart from savings in cost. Indeed, one of the immediate marketing applications of neuroscience is advertising compression — that is, reducing the length of advertising films by scientifically understanding which parts of these films work best with consumers; and then including only the most engaging scenes, to ensure that the advertisement works most impactfully.

Some of my colleagues in the Tata Group have recently begun using such neuroscience-based research for hugely successful brands such as Tata Sky, Zest cars and Tetley Green Tea. In each of these cases, the “neuro brain cap” and the brainwaves it captures have thrown up what works best with our target consumers.

These have been very good inputs to making the best possible decisions — including which versions of the advertisements to screen, which scenes to focus on and what to cut out, or how to reduce the advertisements to their optimal length. Earlier, these decisions would be based on applying experience and personal judgement, now the marketer also has a scientific tool to lean on. In a paper titled “Making Advertising more of a science than an art”, authors Joe Willke and Blake Burrus of Nielsen say, “Not all advertisements can be told in as little as 10 or 15 seconds, but our experience suggests that about 90% can.

Almost always, the precision offered by EEG analysis (neuroscience) can significantly lower the required investment for an advertising campaign without any loss of effectiveness. Often, it improves it.” Needless to say, reduction in the length of a television advertisement from 30 seconds to 15 seconds can reduce the cost of exposure by several lakhs or even crores of rupees, freeing up these funds for other marketing investments.

Packaging research Apart from advertising, I think the next big area where many Indian marketers will turn to neuroscience for help will be packaging. Particularly with the growth of modern retail stores and self-service supermarkets, consumers today can stop by at the shelf and choose the packs of toothpaste, tea or shampoo they wish to buy, rather than have the kirana storekeeper hand these over across the counter.

In this scenario, what kind of packaging format works best with consumers? What type of pack designs leap out and break the clutter? Is the consumer emotionally swayed by the pack design in a positive way, or is she put off?

Across traditional kirana stores and modern retail formats, does the pack reinforce intention to buy, when held in the consumer’s hand and viewed at close quarters? Scientific, online measurement of consumer response to packaging, using the techniques of neuroscience, may provide exact answers that can potentially create the next winning pack designs.

These encounters with neuroscience have made one thing clear to me. Here is an important emerging technology for marketers, but one that is not yet widely known or well understood in our community.

Therefore, each of us should understand exactly what neuroscience can do, and, equally importantly, what it cannot do, for our businesses — so that we make an informed choice about the modern tools we can use to shape our offerings to consumers. After all, we want happy beginnings for our brands and marketing campaigns, and none of us wants an unhappy ending either.

Harish Bhat is Member, Group Executive Council, Tata Sons. He is also author of “Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a

timeless Institution”. These are his personal views. He can be reached at bhatharish@hotmail.com