Neuroscience and Retailing: Who Needs Whom?

Roger Donbavand looks at what we’ve learned about the brain from neuroscience and how retailers can apply this.

Over the past 20 years, and particularly the last 10, our understanding of how the brain works and its relevance to market research has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Since using a particular application of neuroscience, I firmly believe it’s the way forward in qualitative research. In the past five years I have seen clients increasingly recognize its value and, importantly, the breakthroughs it has made for their business success.

In retailing, neuroscience is of particular value in understanding consumer decision-making and, therefore, helping clients make better decisions on in-store design and product promotion. More widely, neuroscience helps them understand the lens through which their shoppers view their stores and what they offer.

\"Neuroscience-retail\"We know that the brain craves simplification and that is how it is programmed. We think we are helping shoppers by giving them lot of choice.  In fact, in today’s time pressured world, this can  cause the shopper to disconnect and be left dissatisfied and confused by the in-store experience. The more we can create an in-store environment that is easy to process by the shopper’s brain immediately as they enter the store, the better the shopper engagement. For example, a supermarket retailer has introduced in-store advisers that accompany the shopper during their shopping experience to help not only simplify choices, but also to create positive memories for the shopper.

Such in-store advisers also meet another brain need – surprise. Advisers can introduce the shopper to new products and brands and explain more about them. One retailer has found that putting certain food products on small tables instead of shelves intrigued shoppers and resulted in more successful launches of their own brands in categories where they had not existed. This was successful because this simple change in physical presentation framed ‘own label’ into something that was intriguing rather than basic and ‘ordinary’.

Some of these examples may seem simple, even obvious, but retailers can often forget the obvious.

Another lesson from neuroscience is that the brain is drawn powerfully to human faces. I did a study for a retail bank, which featured strong faces, shot close up, in advertising posters. Through a neuroscience technique called ZMET, the only global patented research technique, we were able to show how customers co-created that ad to link themselves with the human faces that subtly buy online levaquin expressed success in life and ultimately the wealth creation that was the central pillar of that bank’s brand strategy.

The technique ZMET was developed at Harvard and uses ‘deep metaphors’, one of the most powerful discoveries of neuroscience, to help clients achieve ‘cut through’ in projects where conventional research has not delivered. It has been discovered that there are only 20 deep metaphors and they cut across global cultures. They are hard wired within us, and help us frame and understand our world, and crucially affect what we buy and how we respond to advertising and promotions. If you want to re-frame a brand, you need to understand which deep metaphors your target audience is referencing.

A major UK supermarket used ZMET to understand how their shopper segments were hard wired. It helped re-frame their shopper loyalty programs and also enable them to retrain staff to better connect with customers in-store.

Another global retail food brand, which was losing market share, found that the deep metaphor of ‘transformation’ helped them reframe their brand to reconnect to their core family customers. When customers visited their restaurants, they felt transformed into a different person as a result of the staff’s attitudes and the ambience. Conventional focus groups and depths had not revealed that this brand was non-judgmental in its approach to customers. Its staff were doing a great job in this respect, yet it did not promote them in its advertising. Instead, it heavily promoted its products on the back of tired advertising, which overlooked that its diners needed an ‘experience’ as much as food. In short, the advertising was playing in the wrong territory because it did not connect to the fundamental customer need of transformation. They created a new family campaign, which was all about the self-discovery of the customer, be they a parent or child, subtly facilitated by its staff.

While we all need to understand the rationale in purchasing behavior, we fundamentally need to uncover what consumers ‘don’t know that they know’. In other words, what lies in the subconscious mind, which guides 90 per cent of our decision-making. Discoveries in neuroscience can help us unlock these key insights, which will be crucial to retailers where ‘experience marketing’ is becoming a critical factor of success.


Roger Donbavand is managing director of BDRC Jones Donald, a market research consultancy specialising in strategic research, based in Sydney. BDRC is Australian licensee for ZMET.