A Neuromarketing Pioneer

What better way to learn about Neuromarketing than to speak with a pioneer within the field? Thomas Zoëgas Ramsøy is considered one of the leading experts on Neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience. He is also an innovator by heart. With Master level training in economics and neuropsychology, he also holds a PhD in neurobiology and neuroimaging from the University of Copenhagen.

I asked him a few questions for you to enjoy.

You are one of the pioneers within Neuromarketing. How would you describe it for a novice?

 I believe there are many versions that are “right”, some more boring than others. I tend to begin by talking about the obvious things that people find interesting and funny: sex, money, the unconscious, and the brain. But at the core of what I always talk about – be it the novice or the expert – is how technology and science now allows us to study human responses that would otherwise be seen as impossible. Then, amidst what can easily become a mini-“hype cycle” I also trash the idea…saying that without scientific expertise, there is really no straightforward way to “just test and see what happens”. I guess these conversations may be an emotional rollercoaster to those I talk to, come to think of it…

When did you start working with this and how has Neuromarketing developed during this time?

My own interest started while I was doing my PhD in neurobiology and neuroimaging (mostly doing fMRI and structural MRI, but also experimental psychology, TMS and EEG). I was already trained in economics, and had just worked several years in neuropsychology. At this time, there was a lot of emerging interest in how neuroscience could be used in a variety of situations, ranging from detecting conscious in otherwise unconscious patients, to law making, politics and marketing & management. I soon discovered that there was an enormous hype cycle where there was an incredible amount of over-promising and under-delivering, especially in neuromarketing, and I got interested in the ethical debates concerning this.

At the end of my PhD I was contacted by the Copenhagen Business School and was offered a position there. Since 2008 I have built my own lab – the Center for Decision Neuroscience – where we study the brain bases of many human behaviours, including consumer behaviour, managerial decisions and creativity. At the same time, we have built a curriculum in neuromarketing, neuroeconomics, behavioural economics and a lot of related disciplines, and we have produced about a hundred MA theses, three PhD dissertations (and four more coming).

A few years ago I was contacted by a representative from a large US company who wanted to build neuromarketing (or, applied neuroscience) solution from scratch. Wisely enough, he did not trust most of the companies out there who were working with proprietary solutions and black boxes (and over-promising and under-delivering). So I helped them develop solutions that are ultimately now used around the world for testing consumer behaviours, including responses to ads, in-store settings and communication, gaming, computers and UX, and much more. What started as a single project has ended with the company Neurons Inc, which mission is to enable companies to employ the insights and tools from neuroscience to improve their business. The name of my company was even suggested by the same original client. The focus has always been on open protocols, and full data availability and transparence for clients.

The way I see the evolution of neuromarketing is more or less as a parallel to my own development within this field. What was initially a crazy hyped-up business opportunity has now seen a re-emergence of scientifically valid methods, a more careful and meaningful delivery of actionable insights, and even great initiatives such as the NMSBA, in trying to establish standards and a community for neuromarketing.

You recently held a web-based Neuromarketing Course at Copenhagen Business School, how many students where they and what did the course include?

We have built a full curriculum for applied neuroscience – even a Minor in Economics, Psychology and Neuroscience – which includes courses such as neuromarketing, neuroeconomics, behavioural economics, neuroscience of management & leadership, NeuroDesign and much more. We have also been included in Master programs such as Brand Communication Management, as well as the MBA education at CBS. All in all, I think we have something like 500 students through our courses each year.

People might perceive Neuromarketing as hard to conceptualize, how do your clients use Neuromarketing in their everyday work?

I think the largest challenge is that people BELIVE that neuroscience should be hard. But really, it isn’t. We should NOT focus on talking too much about the “brain stuff”, because it rarely gives any added value or insights. For example, does it really help you understand knowing what dopamine is, where the amygdala is, or what this newly-rediscovered brain structure called the habenula actually is? Of course, if you really dive deep into the actual nature and meaning of neurotransmission, of the approach-avoidance of the limbic structures and the role of the habenula in driving and controlling emotional expressions, there may be hidden gems in there. But that is more an academic exersize rather than something clients can use.

Instead, we need to start with clients and their needs. If there is anything that applied neuroscience can do, it is to convey the hidden drivers of actual behaviours. Business people are pragmatic: if a new method better predicts and explains consumer behaviour, they will gravitate towards this, regardless of fancy talks.

I firmly believe that the goal for neuromarketing and other applied neuroscience disciplines is to produce added value on predicting, understanding and affecting customers. It really does not matter if brain structure X is active or not: it is relevant whether it actually drives behavioural change.

So when Greg Berns found that nucleus accumbens activity was a better predictor of music hits than self-reports, THAT was a great insight and tool. When Dmochowsky and colleagues last summer showed that the coherency of brain responses in only 16 people predicted tweets and Nielsen ratings to ads and TV drama, THAT was a valuable insight and a new tool.

Similarly, we have shown and reported that in sex ads such as Carl’s Jr, ad liking is very low, but ad performance (ad memory, brand memory, purchasing behaviour) is extremely high. Self-reports did not predict this, but neuroimaging measures of arousal and motivation (and cognitive load) predicted this very accurately. This is what we need, not another round of fancy brain talk. Recently, we have found that combining EEG measures with facial coding produces an extremely predictive model of ad performance. This is something we need to demonstrate to clients, not hide our solutions by black box algorithms or proprietary solutions. The science is already out, there is no sense in claiming that you have invented the wheel. To me, it’s all about being good at doing the science, and at explaining it. That’s the winning combination and the only future for neuromarketing.