Short courses


How UCL helped BrainJuicer learn the truth behind neuromarketing

One attendee shares their experience of a UCL short course which explores and assesses the scientific worth behind the recent trend of neuromarketing, sometimes referred to as 'consumer neuroscience'.

15 May 2017

Will Headley, from System1 Group (previously called BrainJuicer) shares his experience of attending Consumer Neuroscience, a two-day course run by UCL's Faculty of Brain Sciences. System 1 are a global market research company specialising in behavioural science.

What motivated you to do this course, and what did you hope to gain from it?

Our company's aim is to reinvent market research and move from very traditional surveys to more intuitive models and methods, whether that's better surveys, facial coding or aspects of neuroscience. My team is responsible for tracking and trying out new methodologies in research so we had an interest in neuromarketing. 

Neuro has been a hot topic of recent years - we get asked about it a lot, especially with the name of our company. People sometimes assume we're a neuroscience company and want our point of view on it. We tend to hear about it from agencies who maybe exaggerate what they can do in this field.

We’re not using neuroscience techniques routinely so we don’t know it well and had some interest in it, and some concerns. We were keen to get an expert point of view from someone with authority on it: academics who actually have some high-tech kit like an fMRI scanner.

Our goal was to find out if it’s something we should get involved in, and to get help fine-tuning our advice to clients and spotting the misleading claims and methodologies out there.

What was your favourite aspect of the course?

We all really loved the variety of the course: we had a nice mix of classroom time with presentation and discussion and some hands-on practical aspects. It was very exciting and a real treat to be able to put one of our colleagues in the fMRI scanner and look at his brain!

Being able to see and experience equipment such as a fMRI scanner in use gave us a real insight into what is and isn’t possible with this kind of research. It gave us a real understanding seeing experts like Dr Joe Devlin and John Hogan (the scientists who run the course) in action: UCL knows what it’s talking about and has the right equipment, which isn’t the case with a lot of the neuro start-ups we come across.  

What did you find challenging?

Something that’s hard to get is the science of how the fMRI works: there was some high-end science for the geniuses out there, but I don’t think that really mattered. Actually seeing the image of the brain brings it to life and that's what's important. 

What surprised you?

I was pleasantly surprised about how open and honest it was. Our clients, and other people, can be wowed by neuroscience and neuromarketing. It’s a very powerful technology and clients often want to 'do some neuro' because its glamorous, exciting and interesting. But as a tool for prediction it's still at early stages, incredibly complicated and expensive to do properly. Standing next to the fMRI kit you understand why it’s so expensive, hard and slow: it’s not an easy thing to do and you don’t know exactly what the participants are thinking or feeling as it’s very complicated.

Joe and John were totally open about the limitations and complexities of this kind of science: you can look at a person’s brain and see there is activity but what that actually means they're thinking, feeling and what they'll do in the future, is much harder to interpret. I think they were very honest about these limitations whereas some neuroscience companies would claim that 'this bit of the brain lit up so we know X is going to happen or they are feeling Y' which is just not the case - it's unfortunately not that simple. It's very complicated - that's the challenge but also the truth of it.

It’s useful to know that it’s not that simple: part of the brain might light up but you don’t necessarily know why. We see from some marketing material that 'that part of the brain lit up so that means our advertisement is great or our brand is brilliant and loved'. It might mean that, but it might mean one of a hundred other things as well. That was essential for us to understand so we can comment on these things and have a point of view for our clients. Some of it's more theatre than science but the theatre can be very seductive and can be very useful for marketing regardless.

It was also surprising to hear how little you can get from the Electroencephalography (EEG). This is a methodology that's been hyped a lot in market research because it's relatively scalable, but I hadn’t realised how limited it was. We hear some big claims about what EEG can measure and it can measure something that might sometimes be useful, but I don’t think it goes as deep or is as predictive as is sometimes claimed. That was surprising and very useful to know. 

What impact has this training had on your business?

We have a point of view on various scientific methods out there, like facial coding. Since attending this short course, we’ve been refining our point of view and how we can advise our clients on neuroscience in marketing. 

The knowledge we gained from this course has given us more confidence in the advice we give and eliminated the doubts we had. It has reinforced some of our previous knowledge and reassured us on some aspects, but also revealed some things we didn’t know. 

I’ve already referenced UCL and some of the things we learned on the course in our client discussions and webinars and it adds credibility to our point of view: that UCL says EEG can’t measure that but an fMRI can; that that agency can’t deliver what you want because the science isn’t sound etc. It's definitely added to our confidence and credibility and to be able to reference UCL expertise has been central to that. I think a lot of our clients would benefit from coming on this course so they understand the methods properly and what neuromarketing can or can't do for them (as well as listening to our advice!).

Find out more

Read more about the neuromarketing workshop.