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Dominic Mills 

The appliance of (neuro) science...to beer

The appliance of (neuro) science...to beer

In the face of falling market share, Budweiser employed neuroscientists to help it fine-tune its TV advertising and make it more emotionally engaging. The insights it revealed are fascinating - but did it work? Dominic Mills finds out.

Beer is just beer...isn't it? Well, no. Not if you're a beer company, or not if you're Dr Carl Marci, a Harvard psychiatrist who also happens to peddle a fascinating line in the use of neuroscience to help advertisers.

And nor if you're Joe Cocker, who lost a shed-load of cash as a result of seeing one of his songs dropped from a beer ad thanks to Dr Marci and his Innerscope research company.

Last week I saw a compelling presentation from Marci. I was expecting the good doc to be a physical cross between Einstein and, say, Hugh Laurie's Dr Gregory House. What we got instead was more Don Draper - looks-wise, at any rate.

But while Draper is all silky manipulation and, metaphorically, sleight of hand, Marci is cool, rational and an astute observer of human emotion and its relationship to advertising or, these days, what everyone calls System 1 thinking, as in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow book.

Which is where beer comes in. Neither the average beer drinker nor I tend to give our purchase process much thought beyond the superficially rational or functional.

I'm tired/thirsty...I'll have a beer; I'm with my mates...I'll have a beer; I saw that new Cobra ad...and I'm having a curry...I'll try one of those.

But behind that choice lies a complex web of emotions, ranging from the desire for comradeship, to reward, self-expression or plain old pleasure.

And it was mostly these areas that Budweiser's advertising was under-performing. The result - undoubtedly for other reasons too - was that between 2000 and 2012 Bud had been gradually dropping market share: about 4% according to some estimates.

Enter Dr Marci and his bio-metric belt which, when wired up to viewers, allows him to see how they respond emotionally to ads: really respond, not as in twisting the Millward Brown dial, a joystick or telling a focus group moderator, but as in measuring skin conductance, breathing, heart rate and motion. Combine all these, and you have the consumer's real, unconscious, unmediated, reaction.

Bud's problem, in a nutshell, was that its ads were simply failing to sufficiently engage the emotions. There's a biological definition of engagement which I'm too stupid to understand, but the simplified version is something like this: "engagement is attention to something that emotionally affects you."

The brief, therefore, was really a dream: be more emotional. And the two particular emotions that Bud wanted to associate with were anticipation and celebration.

I can't show you the 'before' animatic versions that were tested by Innerscope, but you can see the end results in two commercials from 2012/2013, 'Epic Toast' and 'Coming Home'.

But I can tell you what changed.

In 'Epic Toast', above, which features scenes both anticipatory and celebratory at a wedding, funeral, class reunion and so on, there were three key shifts:

- The camera was pulled back so viewers could see more of the audiences or crowds;

- a scene featuring a team that looked suspiciously like the New York Yankees was dropped because everyone else, their fans apart, hates the Yankees;

- and to combat a dip in intensity in the middle, editing was faster.

These changes are insignificant, you might say, and superficially that is right. But emotions are complex things, and it is interesting how apparently minor changes can affect them.

In 'Coming Home', which features a soldier's return from Afghanistan and his family's preparations for a homecoming party, the changes are more fundamental:

- Opening shots, in Afghanistan, were dropped because a) they were in Afghanistan and America has had enough of war and b) they did not make his impending return sufficiently explicit - thus diminishing the anticipation factor.

- To extend the anticipation (i.e. a bit more foreplay, as a sex manual might put it) and delay the celebratory climax, the ad was stretched from 30 seconds to 60. This is a big deal in any terms, but all the more so given that this was a Superbowl ad - i.e. costing a few million extra in production and media costs.

- And last, Joe Cocker's 'With a Little Help from My Friends' was dumped in favour of a slower, more downbeat, more contemplative piece of music, Black Key's vocalist Dan Auerbach's Goin' Home. That must have hurt Joe in his pocket.

It worked on me, at any rate (although I would have been happy if they'd kept Joe Cocker) because I certainly felt a shiver or two down my spine. In other words, I engaged emotionally.

But emotions are complex, because I also despised myself for the fact that I was so easily (and cheesily) engaged - and by extension Budweiser for inflicting this emotion on me.

This takes us into an interesting area if advertisers start using neuroscience to turn up the dial on emotion.

On the one hand, I am all in favour of less rational and more emotional advertising. I don't want to be hit over the head with a million rational reasons why I need product X. I like to be entertained and stimulated. And ads that are more emotionally orientated are likely to do that.

On the other, I don't like to have my emotions manipulated, or to feel as though they are being manipulated - one reason why I am less keen on John Lewis' christmas advertising than 99.9% of the population.

Thus, I am as liable to be turned off a brand by emotion as I am to be turned on.

And there are certain categories where I absolutely hate (and hate myself too) to be emotionally manipulated: banks and financial services, supermarkets (like the new Co-op ad) spring to mind, categories that for me are more about functionality.

The other area that bothers me is this: in the search for emotional levers, brands may congregate around the same areas. Alcoholic drinks, for example, will all focus on anticipation, celebration, comradeship and self-actualisation (or variants thereof).

This not only makes for more category mush and sameness, but also forces brands to over-reach themselves in the drive for distinctiveness.

And while we're talking of stuff to despise, did you notice the end-line on 'Coming Home'?

'Proudly serving those who serve'. A shameful effort by Bud to associate itself with the military.

Still, we may not have to worry too much, about Bud at least: in the nine months to September 2013, total Bud US sales to retailers fell 3.3% and its top marketer has paid the ultimate price.

I wonder which emotions he's feeling.

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jeremy swinfen green, managing partner, mosoco on 19 Mar 2014
“The fact that you undertook this (excellent) analysis of the advertisements may well have contributed to your feeling of being manipulated. Most viewers will obviously know the ads are designed to sell beer but are unlikely to probe their emotional state in any depth: they will be too busy going to the fridge!”
Mike Baker, CEO, Outdoor Media Centre on 17 Mar 2014
“Good piece Dominic. You nailed it for me. On the one hand you definitely appreciate the craft skills, the imagery, the music, the narrative, the explicit intention to engage the audience emotionally. But you also regard it all with a certain skeptical distance, asking eg how come all the labels are faced at their most readable angle to camera, and are we really willing to buy the story lock stock and barrel (or in this case bottle). Of course, if you are right and 99.9% of consumers do buy it, that's great justification. But I suspect the number is quite a way smaller than that”
kevin hurdwell, managing partner, acumen media partners LLP on 17 Mar 2014
“Constructing effective "mise en scene" or brand narrative, is a creative skill.

Some are better at it than others, some commercials are better than others.

The introduction of neuroscience into the process is simply a creative act, not a scientific solution in itself.

Understanding consumers and their motivations can never be a science.

Scientific theory aims for a generality that eludes the understanding of people. Understanding human behaviour is the key to creating effective advertising, and this means to know when people mean what they say, to determine intent, to know why actions are determined and what the value of repetition is.

The application of science can undoubtedly play a role in getting towards solutions, making a contribution to evaluative judgements, but it is not the only factor.

In marketing and advertising, science alone has no role for providing fail safe solutions in the world of semantics, perception and created realities.