Meet the Experts

Interview to Gaia Guarino: Neuromarketing

The Emotional Influence on Marketing

The first guest of our series is Gaia Guarino, a professional neuromarketer with a dynamic personality and a contagious spirit for life.  Neuromarketing is an approach to marketing that implements the latest brain reading technology in order to gain greater clarity on why people make the consumption choices they do. However, our conversation with Gaia showed us that the answer to this question is a lot simpler than it may seem at first glance. 

Can you tell us about your experience within the field of neuromarketing? 

Since graduating from Bocconi in 2011, I have been working in the field of marketing for ten years. I work as a marketing consultant and journalist and teach neuromarketing, which is something that I accidentally came across when doing my final thesis. At the time, my father suggested that I look at an article that showed the use of fMRI [n.d.r., functional magnetic resonance] in marketing, and my interest in the subject has grown ever since. What I can say about marketing now is that it all comes down to emotions. In the times that we live in, people rely on their emotions more than ever.

We are going beyond the idea of “I need that product” but rather “I feel that product and want to find myself in the product”, and my work has been to pick up on the emotion people attach to products.

How is neuromarketing research conducted?  

Images have been used for purely educational purposes, all rights reserved by sources

Neuromarketing research focuses on the identification and study of emotions. This breaks up the research process into two stages. In the first stage, as a marketer, you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the brand or product and then you identify the emotions which can be conveyed through the product. All the communications channels linked to the product – social media, advertising, website and the product itself – are then streamlined to do so.  

We then move on to the second stage of research where we study how successful we were in eliciting the desired emotions. The easiest – and cheapest – way to do so is through eye tracking. If you want to test the efficiency of a landing page or graphics for an advertisement, you need to insert a picture of the following into a software and then choose a relevant sample size to show the image to. If you find that you were not successful in getting people to look at what you intended to draw their attention to, then you know that something needs to be changed. Although eye tracking can tell you whether people did see what you wanted them to, it can’t tell you anything about the emotions people felt when looking at the image.  

To understand the emotions generated by the visual stimulus, techniques like EEG [n.d.r., electroencephalogram] and fMRI are used. The EEG is a method that tracks the signals the brain receives when a stimulus is presented, giving an idea of the parts of the brain that were activated when a product is shown.  Indeed, the EEG can accurately track unconscious reactions that the individual is not aware of, but it is effective if used in a silent environment. The fMRI is the more expensive alternative to EEG, but it offers total isolation and complete picture of brain activity. In Italy, as well as many other countries, the use of fMRI is however subject to a lot of restrictions.  

With traditional research methods, there is always a slight chance that responses could be skewed in a direction that reflects favorably on the respondent. Is this something that neuromarketing research methodology is immune to? 

I think it is natural for people to filter their responses in daily life. We do it on social media, where we live our lives with a filter on, and we do it when it comes to politics, as a lot of people are hesitant to disclose their true voting preferences. When it comes to sensitive topics, a social bias is present whenever people are aware of the public consensus on an issue and are afraid to show divergence. Interviews are most susceptible to this problem, because respondents are aware of any real time reactions from interviewers. Surveys face this problem to a lesser extent as respondents feel a distance between their responses and the possible judgement of the survey collector.  

Surveys are still important because we need the numbers and the quantitative evidence on whether the campaign is working. With neuromarketing, we take this further because, as important as the numbers are, we don’t sell to numbers but to people.  I always say that statistics is the profile of a face we use to create “buyer personas” in marketing. These personas all look the same, but with neuromarketing we add the eyes, nose, mouth, ears and we create the face of the specific customer to whom we sell.  

The practice of neuromarketing has grown a lot in the past few decades. What does neuromarketing bring to the table that other types of marketing-research don’t?  

Neuromarketing is a transversal discipline and the research we do can be used to improve the quality of all channels of marketing. I like to remind my students that everything we know about marketing now started from offline interactions with brands and products. Neuromarketing in fact places an even greater role in enriching offline channels of marketing where we can engage more of our senses. […] For example, let’s say you visit the webstore of a fashion company or the Apple store and the cookies that track your activity target advertisements of the products you were interested in. If you then happen to visit the offline store to pick up on these products you are in a more susceptible state of mind to buy more as you are now connected not only to advertising but to the atmosphere of the store itself.  

What are the ethical considerations that neuromarketers must keep in mind? How are they different from what is expected of regular marketers?  

We are dealing with a very sensitive topic here, which is that of emotions.

When you wish to touch the emotions of your consumers, it is like playing the violin. Done well, it’s a beautiful experience as people feel connected to their emotions and recall pleasant memories.  Done badly, it is a painful experience for everyone involved.

Emotions are delicate and fragile like glass: press on them too hard and you will see cracks. This is why any good marketer – neuromarketer or not – knows that there is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation.  

When you convince people to buy your product in a way that builds on their trust and is fair, that strengthens the relationship they have with the product or brand and creates a very nice foundation for a relationship between companies and consumers. However, similarly to friendship in real life, if you break that trust and manipulate the decisions of consumers, they are quick to pick up on this and may buy from you once, twice if you’re lucky, but never a third time.  

One experience that I remember was when I had to buy the bridesmaid dress for my best friend’s wedding in Vegas. Since the wedding was held internationally and all bridesmaids were living in different places, we had to buy our dresses through one online store. When I checked the website, there was a 50% discount on the bridesmaid dresses that was ending in 6 hours and informed all the girls to get as soon as possible. I received the dress after two weeks and it was the wrong size, so I went on the website to exchange it and what I found was that the “sale” timer was still on. Needless to say, I felt quite betrayed.  

Similar examples can be seen in and travel websites that create an artificial scarcity of flight seats and hotel bookings. Another instance would be the insanity that comes up during Black Friday in the USA, when people physically fight each other for discounts on things that they do not need simply because they don’t want the other person to have it.  

While it has been valuable to learn of the misuse of emotions in marketing, could you give us some examples on the positive use of neuromarketing research in marketing or advertising campaigns? 

There are many campaigns we can look to that have used neuromarketing research and these are the ones that distinguish themselves by creating a unique emotional experience for the consumers. Some of the examples off the top of my head are: 

  1. Abercrombie and Fitch store in Milan

The instore retail experience of Abercrombie in Milan was something which had people hoarded in lines outside. There was a particular emphasis on creating a beach effect with the visual display of the waves, dim peaceful lights, the smell of sea salt, and so on, that attracted people to the store more than the products themselves.  

  1. Scadinavian Airlines  
The Arrivals | SAS

Airports are places characterized by a range of emotional experiences. For some it’s a place of goodbyes, for others a place of welcome. Some are off to begin a new adventure, others are returning home. The Scandanavian Airlines captured this in an ad with the slogan, “you are not just buying a ticket, you are buying a piece of your life.” 

Health campaigns in UK and Iceland  

To encourage people to adopt better health habits, shock, disgust and horror are significant emotions to channel. In the UK, this was observed in an anti-smoking campaign displaying people being pulled by a hook attached to their mouths with the slogan “Get Unhooked (and contact the NHS)”. Similarly, in Iceland a campaign to encourage responsible drinking was created which showed three different emergency service vehicles and a car for funeral services (a metaphorical “final car”). The slogan alongside this was titled, “How do you want to go home tonight?”.  

  1. Jason Mamoa for Carhartt – “Canvas of my life” 
Jason Momoa | Canvas of My Life | Carhartt Handmade Films

 Carhartt created a short eight-minutes film giving a very intimate picture of actor Jason Momoa enjoying some time with his family, in which the apparel is mentioned just once. The whole advertisement is about his love and connection to nature, art, and his loved ones. The pants he wears are by Carhartt and in the film he expresses his wish to leave them behind with his kids as a reminder to them to keep exploring, creating and connecting with the sensations of nature. Carhatt’s presence is minimal and it’s almost if this is a standalone film.

What does the day-to-day in the life of Neuromarketer looks like?  

Working as a neuromarketer is like being in the movie “Inside Out”: just as the movie identified the five main human emotions as characters, when I am presented with a product, I must think about the range and amount of emotions I want to program into its marketing across all channels.  

To give you an example of this, I am working with a new entrant in the luxury bath market, producing soaps that are shaped as sweets. Since they are a new brand, I’ll be working on building their brand from the ground up. When I first visited their offices to see the product, I first of all looked at it from the perspective of a consumer to recognize the emotions that the product gave me. I was told that the company aims to position their product in luxury retail stores and to partner with hotels. Looking at the product, I was instantly reminded of the value of “me time”, “self-love”, slowing down and indulgence. From there, I have designed a range of captions for social media and other marketing content and, once it will have launched, I will be conducting more research into the effectiveness of the campaign through some trial and error.  

To work as a neuromarketer, what kind of academic/professional background are employers looking for?  

If I had told someone ten years ago that I am working as a neuromarketer, they would have thought I was some kind of witch prying into people’s minds. Now, the profession represents the present of marketing.   

There is no fixed path to becoming a neuromarketer, but those who are often best suited for this role are people with a degree in marketing or psychology. With a degree in marketing, you can take on the added task of reading more books on neuromarketing, attending seminars or joining associations for neuromarketing. Equipped with the knowledge, you can then start practicing what you learn in projects that you take up. With a degree in psychology, you have a good understanding of the human mind and then you can choose to narrow down the focus of this into marketing and read more about it. Of course, these are not the only two ways to enter the field. You can have a background in statistics, for example, and then study about the more humanistic side that accompanies the numbers and graphs. All in all, we live in an age in which there is so much information on the internet to learn from that, no matter what your background is, you can learn about principles of neuromarketing and apply them not just to professional projects but your daily life as well. 

You have said that neuromarketing is the present of marketing, so when it comes to the future, where do see the discipline heading towards?  

When it comes to the future, we are definitely looking at how biometric data can be studied and analyzed. However, this does present us with some issues about invasion of privacy and biased systems. If we take a facial recognition software, there could be the issue that someone who has to cover their head due to sensitive weather, religious, or cultural reasons might not be recognized by the system. This was for instance a problem encountered by Iberia Express. I visited their headquarters in the Barcelona in 2019 and they showed me that they are making improvements in accounting for this issue. Similarly, there is a switch underway to link loyalty cards in supermarkets to biometric data but, of course, we have to be very responsible in what we do because we have to respect the people in front of us. Before marketers, we are consumers just like everyone else and it will be interesting to see how the sensitivity of biometric data in neuromarketing is handled with. 

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