Head space

Benign growth in the temporal lobe

The temporal lobe.  it's the blue bit, as any brain surgeon can tell you

The temporal lobe. it’s the blue bit, as any brain surgeon can tell you

Last night I became emotionally drawn watching two 24 Hours in A&E back to back.  How do the staff cope with binging on 10 episodes whenever they come to work?

One of the more worrying cases concerned a 62 year-old man injured in a car crash.  He could speak, but there was concern that he may have suffered fatal head injuries.  Thankfully he was OK, but it happens: patients can speak normally for a while despite something profound having happened inside their head with catastrophic consequences.

In ‘Do No Harm’, Henry Marsh’s terrific memoir of his life as a brain surgeon, he describes a 40 year-old cyclist who had been admitted after an accident, and quotes a member of staff:

‘The police said he was talking when they found him but when he was admitted to the local hospital he started fitting….I know he was talking at first and in theory might make a good recovery, but sometimes you get delayed intraparenchymal bleeding like this and the scan shows catastrophic brain damage’

Marsh often carries our brain surgery under local anaesthetic:

the brain cannot feel pain since pain is a phenomenon produced within the brain.  If my patients’ brains could feel me touching them they would need a second brain somewhere to register the sensation..

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm, p.187

Why am I saying all this? Because these brain issues are relevant for understanding how to conduct research and how to market to consumers.

The medical profession has given the various tumours names like glioblastoma, meningioma or (my favourite, and it’s normally benign) the haemangioblastoma.  Some are fatal, some aren’t, some grow quickly and others not, and treatments vary.  But we haven’t found a language for the various ways in which advertising impacts on our brain – what’s a benign version of ‘trauma’?  People might talk about low attention processing, or System 1 and 2, but we need a decent lexicon to describe the long and short term effects.  Because without it, we are forced to rely on what people say – the people whose brains are being affected.  And that’s one of the least reliable signs, like asking the cyclist above to explain how the accident would affect his future commuting.

The popularity of tracking real-time responses misses the long-term impact of what is going on inside the brain.  So on the one-hand we can track online responses like never before.  On the other we are learning more every day from people like Kahneman (Marsh is a fan), and from case studies of effective marketing that some effects take longer to work.

The first rule of brain surgery, and research

The first rule of brain surgery, and research

Les Binet and Peter Field have explained how the skill required to sell a product there and then is different from the skill required to win over a consumer.  Buying is about short-term activation – a rational call to action such as a new promotion –  but brand building is about creating mental space, and is best achieved through creative and sustained marketing.  Profit comes from the latter.

Binet and Field recently repeated some of these points in work for the Direct Mail people.  (Click here to watch a terrific presentation.  There will be buffering – if you scroll to 29:00 you can get the best 10 minutes).

And many in the market research industry understand this, but chuck it out in favour of the latest gimmick.  So in the current General Election 2015 we’ve seen party leader debates in which viewers have been entertained by voters giving running scores – a worm along the screen.  And from snap polls immediately after.  But it’s likely that our initial response will be different from our considered one. We might have been distracted by how the candidate looked or sounded, while deeper resonances were taking place at a deeper level.

For those of us in market research, the most compelling part of Binet and Field’s analysis compares the relative value of pretesting advertising versus brand tracking:

psychological theory suggests that implicit responses to advertising (where the emotional impact of the campaign is measured by comparing associated brand ratings before, and some time after, the campaign has been seen) are better measures of emotional impact than explicit communication scores (where consumers are asked what emotional impressions the campaign had upon them). 

Response rates to on and offline advertising are likely to be predictive of short-term sales only. Worryingly these kinds of metrics are often regarded as complete success metrics:
it should by now be clear how dangerous this belief is. Even more worrying is the drive to develop real-time campaign management systems driven by these short-term response metrics: unless such systems are heavily counter-balanced by long-term metrics and activity, they could prove to be a death-sentence for brands. 

Binet/ Field, The Long and the Short p72.

Binet and Field. Sometimes you need two brains

Binet and Field. Sometimes you need two brains

Well, it’s not a death sentence of the type Henry Marsh discloses to unlucky patients, but still…

You can see what happens: the creative team conjures up a brilliant commercial to make audiences remember a brand. The advert is subjected to pre-testing in which respondents give their immediate response.  So the advert is canned or changed – its emotional power stripped out – to make it more persuasive in the short-term.

OR, the campaign runs, and is evaluated in terms of immediate sales and not long-term impact.

This is sacrificing long-term success for temporary buzz, and is hopeless.

Just as a patient might appear normal while their brain is dying, a consumer might have been affected deeply by advertising while unaware that it’s happened.

And just as brains cannot sense themselves, it requires another brain, ours, to interpret what is happening inside the heads of the audiences we are seeking to understand. And we need to recognise that what happens there and then, is not the end of it.

The best television programmes and the best marketing doesn’t always work instantly – it stays with you and releases its magic for weeks or months.

This is NOT brain surgery, but it is about engaging our brains, and paying proper respect to temporal issues.

Having said all that.  Some things work instantly AND over a long time. Two years on, and my price elasticity for Robinson’s squash remains very low…



Post Script: While I was writing this (it takes me longer than you might think) I heard that a beloved friend and former colleague in TV audience, had suffered a stroke.  A reminder that the brain is a robust but also vulnerable organ.  I wish her a speedy recovery though as with everything else, these things can take time.