How Brainwaves May Take Consumer Insights to Another Dimension

By Mark Stone, Contributor

We’ve read the stories about how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are transforming the way companies approach marketing. But what if the true game-changer in consumer insights will be driven by our own brainwaves? Although it may sound like science fiction, the technology has been around for several years, and some companies are finding ways to use brain data to drive product development and market research.

In fact, neuromarketing—which uses brain research to reveal a consumer’s subconscious decision-making processes—has been in use for more than a decade. In 2009, PepsiCo’s Cheetos used EEGs from the brain to measure consumer response to a “prank” type ad, and learned its focus group wasn’t quite forthcoming with its written responses. Other businesses jumping on the bandwagon at the time included Yahoo!, Microsoft, and PayPal. In another example, Canadian media giant Rogers even embarked on a marketing experiment in 2015 to learn how viewers would emotionally respond to its hockey programming.

The ramifications surrounding this specific technology are wide-ranging, and the topic is bound to provoke numerous discussions requiring careful consideration. But first, it’s important we understand what’s driving the technology harnessing our brainwaves and how it is used today.

Reading Brainwaves 101

Tan Le, founder and CEO of Emotiv—a leading bioinformatics developer of wearable EEG headsets, software and data products—has been in the space for a decade and has seen the technology evolve since starting her company in 2011. She explained that her mobile EEG headsets read brainwaves through non-invasive techniques that interpret analog signals from the brain and convert them into a digital signal. “We bridge that gap between the biological and the information systems that exist in the digital domain,” she says. “The hardware is a means to an end.”

According to Le, the headset works in tandem with the software, converting the electrical impulses from our brains into data. What started out looking like hairnets you’d see a surgeon wear in a hospital is now portable, wireless, and can be fitted within minutes.

“With the availability of AI, the two [headsets and software] merging together is a tremendous opportunity. If we can complement that, we will create a case of human plus machine—instead of us vs. them.”
—Tan Le, Founder and CEO, Emotiv

Le started Emotiv because she could foresee the rewards derived from studying people’s brains in more depth to benefit humankind. “With the availability of AI, the two [headsets and software] merging together is a tremendous opportunity,” she explains. “If we can complement that, we will create a case of human plus machine—instead of us vs. them.”

The reason the technology can work so well for consumer insights and marketing research is its ability to distinguish between what one is thinking and what one is saying.

Much like a lie detector test, which relies on decades-old technology, today’s neurotechnology scrutinizes physiological changes in the human body. But unlike the polygraph, companies like Emotiv use complex algorithms and deep learning to make more accurate predictions about what the consumer is thinking and feeling .

“Our physiological reaction is ornate,” Le says. “Maybe you’re watching a movie or an ad that touches you. If you’re at home, maybe you bawl your eyes out; if you’re out with your mates, you don’t want to look too sensitive, so you hold it in. Your brainwaves will show what you feel.”

It’s then the interpreter’s job, given the demographic statistics, to analyze how someone may act: Is that person behaving based on physiological response or operating against that response based on her own bias? In a consumer insights scenario, the marketer will look at what the customer is saying and what she’s feeling, identify the gap, and have the software ultimately build a predictive model based on the data. “Typically, this would be delivered by the service provider [a market research firm such as Ipsos or iMotions],” says Le. “The demographics are recorded by the software program but are dependent on the subject providing the requisite details.”

Still in the Early Stages

While this sounds promising, the idea of donning a headset to allow a company to read our thoughts is still rather unnatural; wearing a headset—even a wireless one without too many nodes—is invasive. As a society, we have a long way to go with the headsets before we see this technology in everyday life.

With plummeting hardware costs, however, Le believes that in the not-so-distant future, brain sensors will be embedded in other headgear like hats and glasses. “Whatever people are using in the periphery of their head can allow them to tap into the signals naturally emitting from the brain,” she says. However, according to Le, “the algorithms are the cornerstone of this technology.”

Alice Fournier, VP of digital insights for market research firm Kantar, has studied these more invasive technologies and agrees that we are still a few years away from seeing them adopted more widely.

She points out that in China there are already consumer initiatives like facial recognition, in which you can walk in a store and score more personalized service based on data the company extracts based on your identity. “Here, in North America, we’re not quite there yet, but these types of technologies are already being applied in retail in order to understand the state of your shoppers,” Fournier says.

This is not to say that facial recognition has yet to be embraced in North America. Think of Apple’s FaceID, the biometrics installed to streamline patients at New York’s largest healthcare provider, or the AI used by Royal Caribbean Cruises to speed up the check-in process, for example.

Whether it’s facial recognition or brainwaves, the upside for these new methods of “getting closer” to the consumer are obvious: Leveraging technology to delve deeper into how people genuinely feel verges on holy-grail territory for marketers.

Big Upsides Equals Significant Challenges

For any company considering this cutting-edge method of harnessing consumer insights, however, it’s going to boil down to one thing: return on investment (ROI).

In Fournier’s research, most companies will face some analytical roadblocks in their attempts to weigh out the pros and cons of going cutting-edge. “While these kinds of technologies will become interesting in that they can help create an edge in the retail and e-commerce landscape, in the short term, it’s very hard to nail down the kind of ROI they’re looking for,” she notes.

“As entrepreneurs and as business leaders, we have a responsibility to steward the technology that we create.” —Alice Fournier, VP of Digital Insights, Kantar

Another challenge ahead for companies hoping to harness neurotechnology—privacy being one of the top priorities. “I would argue that the same kinds of privacy hurdles need to be addressed when you think about putting devices on people and measuring brainwaves,” Fournier says. “I think many, many people would be hesitant to agree to that.”

Despite the challenges, the potential for what can be accomplished with the output will eventually win out, she adds. “As we get more comfortable with these types of new technologies, I think, eventually, we’ll get there.”

All the same, skepticism is necessary for visionaries like Le who thrive on innovation. “As entrepreneurs and as business leaders, we have a responsibility to steward the technology that we create,” she says. “It needs to reflect society’s values, and the dialogue is healthy.”