How neuroscience reshapes marketing strategies in India

by margretcaron

Elon Musk’s N1 implant, introduced to facilitate operating devices by just intending it in the brain, has jolted many into realising how far seemingly exotic neuroscience has been put to practical, commercial use. While the implant may be the outlier in neuroscience, what’s common and par for the course today is mapping the brain to understand and predict human responses with data and real insight. This is being used in India to solve business problems from why life insurance buyers typically stop paying premiums after the first two years to whether an online ad can be made to ensure the consumer hits the “buy” button.

Neuroscientific techniques provide a scientific or objective understanding of the brain-behaviour relationship, says Tanusree Dutta, faculty at IIM Ranchi. “Advertisements, product design, aesthetics, store layout, use of music, colour to attract attention, nudges and so on can all be tested with the use of neuroscientific tools to ensure their effectiveness before being launched,” she adds.

Anil Pillai, CEO of Tarragni Consulting that specialises in neuroscience, says that questionnaire-based surveys have limitations since the responses are filtered and affected by cognitive biases. Neuromarketing says impressions and therefore decisions are made at the emotional, instinctive and unconscious levels of the human mind.

The Implicit Association Test would be a simple demonstration of plumbing the unconscious mind for deeply held beliefs and biases that may be filtered out by participants in a questionnaire-based survey. The rapid-fire type tests give little time for considered responses that can otherwise filter out biases.

Neuroscience-based market research can give reliable hard data, says Mr. Pillai. Instead of questionnaires, neuroscience employs a range of instruments to directly get information on how the brain is being impacted and what decisions it will take.

Neuroscience had a breakthrough more than 15 years ago in the U.S. when Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that ads evoking 9/11 attacks triggered fear among voters but the brain activity was different among Republican versus Democratic voters. Neuromarketing experts say that opinion polls in India can be more accurate and probe voter minds better in today’s highly polarised, ideological politics by using the FACS (Facial Action Coding System). The FMRI would be prohibitively expensive in India, says Mr. Pillai.

Enabling devices

An enabler of neuroscience in India and across the world is the rapid strides in bio instruments, making some of them cheaper and easier to use. Today wearable watches can deliver much health information. The eyeball tracker, the classic neuroscience tool, is available on Amazon today, says Puneet Garg, co-founder, Story Prediction.

The typical neuromarketing tool is an adaptation of an instrument originally intended for medical diagnostics. They can be broadly divided into those that measure the electrical impulses of the brain and those that generate heat maps through other means. The former set includes Electro Encephalo Gram (EEG), Quantitative Electro Encephalo Graphy (QEEG) and so on.

An eye tracking device helps to measure attention, attention span, and shift in attention. What catches the attention in the mind gets processed further. Eye trackers generate heat maps depending on where the eyeballs are focusing. Heatmaps for webpages, for instance, are otherwise generated by mouse movements. Mouse movements can, however, be also used for scrolling and not everyone paying attention to what interests them clicks there. Therefore such heatmaps can be inaccurate. With a jewellery video ad with a timestamp, eye trackers can tell precisely where the interest is going — the product, the model, the discount, or the Purchase button. With this feedback, the vendor can tweak the ad to ensure consumers are drawn towards hitting the purchase button more.

A thermal imaging camera helps to capture temperature changes when a person is interacting with any situation or stimulus. EEGs were intended to measure health parameters such as detecting brain tumour and whether the medicine to treat them is working or not. Wearable EEG senses 21 points in the brain such as pleasure point, fear point, pain point and so on. It measures brain waves, typically beta waves while filtering alpha, gamma and others.

The reptile brain is the seat of pleasure, fear and other emotions. Arousal here can be tracked by the EEG. If the EEG detects that the ad a person is watching has touched his or her pleasure point, then neuro marketers conclude that the ad has impacted the subconscious mind favourable to the product. Neuroscience tells us that such impacts influence decision making on buying a product.

Skin conductance measurement devices originally used in myography applications in physical therapy and sports training are applied in marketing to detect emotional arousal by gauging skin secretions.

Skin conductance devices are probably the least expensive but also the least efficient. Eyeball trackers are more efficient whereas EEGs can have efficiencies of up to 75%. The more sophisticated an instrument is, the more expensive it is. Experts can come up with optimum choices and sample sizes so that the confidence level of the results is above 95%. Sometimes a combination of devices is used.

The neuroscience scene in India features progressive digital companies including multinationals that use these tools for their business decisions, market research consultants who specialise in the subject, and institutions such as the IITs and IIMs that provide research support. It’s still a “rarefied” world featuring forward thinking businesses but with a bright future, says Mr. Pillai.

While neuromarketing may push the boundaries, cost is an issue. Devi Prasanna, AVP digital marketing at Loan Tap, says big companies that are large consumers of TV spots use neuromarketing in advertising. For others, there are a range of tools that offer similar or higher returns and are cheaper too. In the digital space, for instance, insights on ad effectiveness can be tracked by tools such as YouTube’s brand lift surveys. While neuromarketing is a predictive model, today there are ads on Connected TVs that place QR codes with UTM to track who took an action, he adds.

The immediate application of neuroscience in India was in advertising and marketing although the problem there was that the application was after the fact and provided feedback for the future, says Mr. Garg. His company is developing an AI-based product that uses large language model (LLM) to predict whether an ad or even a film can be a hit by assessing the script for its power and potential to sustain emotional engagement with the viewer.

Mr. Pillai does acknowledge the cost factor. But he adds that the application of neuroscience is far wider than just advertising and marketing. It can help to solve tough business problems that require hard, highly reliable data and where the returns are substantial.

Indian consumer behaviour

While neuromarketing is several decades old in the west, in India, the activity has picked up in the last ten years, says Ms. Dutta. And in this time, neuroscience has revealed many facets of Indian consumer behaviour at their visceral level.

A study by the consultancy Final Mile that specialises in behavioural science showed that most fatalities of trespassers crossing railway tracks in Mumbai were that of young men, not old people or even women. Further, the fatalities were high in between stations, not at stations, and happened mostly during the day. The study concluded that this was a case of male bravado and that honking by train drivers didn’t help. Further, the human mind typically estimates the speed of incoming large objects to be 40% less so the trespassers underestimated the dangers. The solution that Final Mile implemented with success included posting photographs of the bodies of actual men who had died trespassing to push trespassers’ fear buttons. The second part of the solution was that the honking by train drivers didn’t consist of one long blast but two staccato sounds since the brain’s awareness is known to be heightened during the silence between two musical notes. The third part was to put yellow paint on the ties of the tracks so that they would disappear quickly in the case of an incoming train and the brain would rapidly correct the error in gauging the speed of the train.

Ms. Dutta talks about how Indian consumers respond more to typically Indian themes in ads. Neuroscience has shown that an ad that shows the protagonist achieving something through jugaad resonates in India, for instance, she adds.

Mr. Pillai cites a business problem that his firm helped solve for a life insurance provider. It is now received wisdom that the Indian market is price sensitive, so the cheapest product will succeed if it’s good enough. The average Indian consumer should then be a cold computer driven by money alone. But, Pillai says neuroscience surveys have shown that “friction” is often the driving factor in India.

Living in India is marked by procedures and systems that is needing much effort to understand and act upon. And at the end of it the intended outcome is not guaranteed.

Anyone who has attempted to navigate through the government provident fund system would testify to it.

Mr. Pillai talks about functional friction that matters more to the semi-urban and rural population due to higher ego depletion. Functional friction is the frictional barrier that prevents one from achieving the base objective they had embarked upon. In this particular case, the base objective is choosing an optimal insurance product, paying for it and acquiring it.

Customers looking for insurance with no external pressure to buy require higher sensitivity and empathy from insurance providers due to the heightened physical, cognitive, and time friction they face. “There is an emerging, young and aspirational segment in Tier 2/3 that has Tier 1 as their benchmark. These customers seek similar levels of service and sophistication from insurance providers, necessitating tailored solutions to meet their expectations. What’s often the case in India is that family members, co-beneficiaries, and particularly women of the house play a significant role in decision-making within Tier 2/3,” Mr. Pillai says, adding that all these insights come from high component of neuroscience based non-conscious validated by other methods like depth conversations and data.

Ethical concerns

Meanwhile, Mr. Musk’s Neuralink has indeed drawn up scary scenarios on neuroscience applications. Mr. Garg raises concerns about the possible misuse of Neuralink data to manipulate consumer responses. Some wonder if the implants would make the implanted susceptible to suggestions from outside. Less exotic, more mundane applications of neuroscience have raised some concerns too. Besides these, the surveys are under the scanner. The Neuromarketing Science and Business Association (NMSBA) has introduced the first neuromarketing code of ethics. It covers areas such as privacy, consent and transparency. The Advertising Standards Council of India, replying to an email, said they have issued no guidelines on neuromarketing. The key issue is informed consent of survey participants — whether they are aware of all the implications of their participation and whether they are being exploited. Using young people below 18 years as survey participants adds another layer of concern. The informed consent of their parent or guardian would be needed, notes NMSBA.

  • Neuroscience-based market research can give reliable hard data
  • Neuroscience employs a range of instruments to directly get information on how the brain is being impacted and what decisions it will take
  • Neuromarketing experts say that opinion polls in India can be more accurate and probe voter minds better in today’s highly polarised, ideological politics 

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