An idiot’s guide to neuromarketing – Mental shortcuts

We all know that for certain behaviours, our brain more or less switches to ‘autopilot’. When walking from A to B, you don’t constantly think about every single step that you take, or about how you have to hold up your head, breathe, and balance your body. Similarly, you might remember that the first few times you drove a car, you had to pay close attention to every single action involved in it, while you probably barely remember your last trip home from work.

These behaviours are often explained by saying that ‘your body remembers how to do these things’, or using words such as ‘muscle memory’. So while we understand these shortcuts with physical examples, we often forget that our mind functions in a similar way.


Our mental shortcuts influence how we see and perceive the world, how we think and reason, and how we make decisions.

Our behaviours, as well as concepts that have an impact on us, are represented by neural activity in our brains. Every time two behaviours occur at the same time, or two concepts are encountered together, our neural connection between them becomes stronger. This is often described with the sentence ‘cells that fire together, wire together’. In reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but it is true that the connections we make between behaviours and/or concepts are reflected in neural networks, and grow stronger the more we encounter these links. This is why you press the clutch pedal and change gears without having to think about linking these behaviours, but also why you associate the taste of an orange with the colour orange.


Associations like these get built and used constantly, without us necessarily being aware of them. Dan Ariely believes we are the sum of our early decisions – the product of what he calls an arbitrary coherence of choices that we made long ago (or were made for us). As a result, in many cases, we make decisions that are simply the reflection of our initial choices.

These initial decisions become anchors that take root and resonate throughout our later lives much more than we would like to acknowledge. Our associations help us learn new concepts and avoid dangerous situations (e.g. walking through a dark alleyway or touching a hob), but are also what makes us prejudiced and jump to conclusions. They do however also help us make choices, and that’s where it gets interesting for market research. The vast amount of visual as well as factual information available to us when making pretty much any purchase decision is overwhelming, and we use the connections we have already established to help us make our choice. This can be reflected in the use of heuristics and biases, but even if the decision seems pretty rational to us (and we might be able to come up with an explanation for our choice afterwards), our behaviour is strongly influenced by these links and associations. It might be something as simple as picking one bottle over another because the label colour reminds us of our childhood home.

What does this mean for market research?

Traditional ‘asking methods’ such as surveys and focus groups require people to reflect on their behaviour, opinions and decisions as well as predict how they would act in the future. However, most of the time we don’t understand the associations and connections that underlie the decision-making processes. We still try to come up with explanations for our behaviour when asked to reflect on it, but the reasons we give often have little to do with what really drove our decision. In order to understand what drives behaviour, we need to understand what connections between concepts and associations are common. This means exploring and quantifying what concepts are connected with a brand or an advert, and how communications can be used to strengthen positive associations as well as weaken undesirable ones. Because these (often emotional) connections are what can make or break a purchase decision, it is important to explore them, rather than relying solely on the post-rationalisations people come up with when asked about their decision.



The Scottish Referendum


Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



Effective Branding

Gaining strong brand equity is an important goal for every brand. If you want to make your brand as successful as it can be, it is important to understand your brand’s personality, its position in the marketplace and its potential for moving into new areas. These questions can be tricky to answer, even using market research. It requires an approach that is completely individual to your brand and a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve. There are however three key areas that market research should focus on to fully understand your current positioning, potentials and limitations:

Brand Identity

This refers to the personality of your brand, the nature of its products and what values you want people to associate with your brand. There is probably some visual imagery associated with your brand, and you should get your brand to strongly own this imagery. This is tremendously important, as your imagery can lead customers to feel positively about your brand, induce feelings of familiarity and communicate concepts that are desirable to you, such as quality and affordability. All of this can lead to strong brand equity. It is also important that your brand manages to differentiate itself from its competitors. Asking people how they feel about your brand can provide a good starting point, but you should not stop there: It is (arguably even more) important to find out how people truly and subconsciously feel about your brand, which imagery and messages are essential to your brand and which ones are not making people feel more positively about it.

Brand Space

Your brand does not exist in isolation, and you know this. To improve your brand, it is absolutely essential to understand where exactly it lies within its category and marketplace, and what sets it apart from competitors. People need to easily identify your brand as part of the category, but also see it as different enough to understand why they should buy your products, and not the competitors’. Understanding your positioning is essential when you are thinking of growing and expanding your brand, perhaps taking over new categories, or even if you just want to make people feel more positively about your brand and associate it with the right values. How people feel about your brand is largely driven by their subconscious, and measuring these subconscious feelings can help you carve out a unique space in the market and really stand out from the crowd.

Brand Behaviour

Apart from understanding your brand’s personality and its space in the market, you might also want to find out how flexible your brand is. You don’t want your brand to stagnate, but at the same time know it should stay true to its personality. How flexible your brand is will largely depend on its products and categories, but understanding its possibilities and limitations is essential to make your brand as successful as it can be. For addressing potential brand behaviour, an individually tailored approach is needed. It is important to assess how consumers will react to changes to your brand; reaching into new categories, creating new products, changing brand personality, or changing the focus of brand communications. It is also important to find out what consumers really want; are the planned changes to the brand, products or communications desirable to the consumer? At this stage, it is also worth taking your competitors into account. Can your brand react to your competitor’s changes quickly and efficiently? The way this is tested is similar to testing your brand identity and brand space, but you might be interested in monitoring changes over time as well. The three key areas for effective branding can of course be investigated using the traditional asking methods of market research, but this won’t paint the whole picture. A large proportion of the decisions we make is influenced by our subconscious, and it important to test how people truly feel about your brand using the most effective market research available.

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



Detecting emotions with EEG patterns

The holy grail of consumer research is to figure out how to accurately measure emotions. Emotions are complex, involving physiological, cognitive and social components that come together to create the subjective experience. Consumer decision making is driven by emotions (Schwartz, 2000) that signal us to approach or avoid things in our environment, based on how rewarding we think they will be (Damasio et al., 1996).

Common consumer research approaches to measuring emotion all have their weaknesses (self-reporting, autonomic measures, facial encoding, facial electromyography, fMRI).* Electroencephalography (EEG) is a promising tool, as it measures real-time changes in voltage caused by brain activity, has good temporal resolution, and is less invasive than fMRI. Frontal alpha asymmetries are a commonly used metric in EEG consumer research. Greater left than right frontal alpha asymmetry was originally thought to reflect positive valence in the brain (Davidson, 1992), but research on anger revealed it to be a measure of approach motivation rather than positivity (Harmon-Jones, 2007). However, this asymmetry is affected by trait factors as well as current emotional state (Coan & Allen, 2003), and it is unclear how accurate this measure is on a second-by-second basis.

We sought to use EEG pattern recognition to detect positive and negative emotional responses in the brain. The first challenge was eliciting real positive and negative emotions in a reliable and consistent way. We used several methods including presenting participants with emotive pictures, emotional face images and short video clips, mood induction statements,  emotive music and pure major, minor and dissonant tones. We created our own genuine facial emotional expression database for use in the study**. Participants viewed these stimuli while their EEG was measured. Then a classifier recognised which EEG features (power and coherence) corresponded to positive and negative emotions in each individual. We randomly selected 70% of each individual’s data from the positive and negative conditions, respectively, for each stimulus type. A pattern recognition algorithm learned how to classify the data into two separate categories (positive and negative). We then used the other 30% of the data to attempt to predict whether the participant was viewing or listening to positive or negative stimuli. The result is the percentage accuracy of this prediction. EEG power alone had very poor predictive power, hardly better than chance. In contrast, power and coherence together had excellent predictive power. The stimuli that produced the most accurate predictions were pure tones (95% accuracy); and the stimuli that produced the least accurate predictions were emotional images. This is unsurprising as tones are pure and unimpeded by ‘noise’, while images are varied in their content. The music was also highly predictive (93%); followed by the emotional faces (92%), the mood induction statements (91%) and finally the short video clips of emotional faces (87%).

Although this was a pilot study with a very small sample, this study showed that EEG pattern recognition is a promising method for measuring individuals’ emotional responses to visual and auditory stimuli. Its accuracy depends on the validity of the trained algorithms and its capability to perform on new datasets. Further research will focus on whether this powerful method can be used to accurately predict how people feel towards images and videos of products, people, brands and concepts.

* Self-reporting of emotion is a common approach with many pitfalls. Autonomic measures include heart rate and skin conductance, which are good for measuring the physiological intensity of emotion, but fail to specify whether the emotion is positive or negative. Facial encoding or facial electromyography (EMG) only capture the expression of emotion. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is extremely expensive, has poor temporal resolution, and has ecological validity issues, (participants are placed in a small tube in a noisy magnet and must keep still).

** Most emotional face databases are not available for commercial use, and they use acted emotional expressions. We used a variety of tasks to elicit Ekman’s (1971) six emotions (happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, anger and fear) while recording 20 participants’ emotional expressions. We chose still images and short clips of the participants showing genuine emotion and had 90 participants evaluate the images on valence and arousal to ensure they adequately represented the desired emotions. The innovative idea of creating short video clips capturing the most intense and convincing emotional responses was to ensure the highest possible level of ecological validity. The resulting database of still images and short clips was used to elicit emotions in the EEG study.



Coan, J.A., & Allen, J.J. (2003). Frontal EEG asymmetry and the behavioural activation and inhibition systems. Psychophysiology, 40, 106-114.

Damasio, A. R., Everitt, B. J., & Bishop, D. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond., 351(1346), 1413-1420.

Davidson, R.J. (1992). Anterior cerebral asymmetry and the nature of emotion. Brain and Cognition, 20, 125–151.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124-129.

Harmon-Jones, E. (2007). Trait anger predicts relative left frontal cortical activation to anger-inducing stimuli. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 66, 154-160.

Schwarz, N. (2000). Emotion, cognition, and decision making. Cognition and Emotion, 14, 433–440.



How to get people to recycle more


Why is there so much apathy towards recycling in the workplace and how can we drive behaviour change towards recycling?

To answer these questions we teamed up with Ceris Burns International who are specialists in Environmental PR.

The British recycle 43% of their household waste, a massive improvement on the average of 11% 14 years ago. This is still below the 50% EU target for 2020 and this rise in recycling has been slowing down in the past few years. Workplace recycling is even lower. We found that 22% of workplaces are not even providing recycling facilities. A whopping 52% are confused about what the can and can’t recycle.

Communications have a greater impact if they are emotive since emotions power decision making, but how exactly should these messages be presented in order to effectively change attitudes and behaviour?

We decided to find out whether threatening, negative messages or positive, hopeful messages about recycling had a greater impact on changing peoples’ attitudes about how important recycling is.

There is some reason to predict that negatively framed messages may have more of an impact on peoples’ attitudes. We automatically attend to threats in our environment as a survival mechanism, and we tend to give more weight to potential losses than potential gains. The impact of framing also depends on the situation and target audience. Negative messaging tends to be more effective when the outcome is risky or uncertain, and when the audience feels strongly involved in the issue. Under certain circumstances, positive messages can influence people more strongly than negative messages by reinforcing positive associations with the attitudes and behaviour. We have found this to be the case in previous research we have conducted.

We used an implicit association test (IAT) to measure implicit, subconscious attitudes towards the importance of recycling. Because recycling is a socially desirable behaviour, simply asking people about their intentions to recycle may not be an accurate prediction of future behaviour. Measuring subconscious associations bypasses people’s tendency to answer with what they think they are expected to say, allowing us to more accurately measure whether the communications have had an impact on attitudes towards recycling.

We questioned 200 UK adults about their current recycling behaviour and attitudes towards recycling; then viewed either positive or negative messages about recycling; followed by an implicit (IAT) test measuring how strongly they associate recycling with importance; and finally they answered questions regarding their intentions to recycle in the future.

We found that:

After seeing positive messages people subconsciously felt that recycling was more important, suggesting positive messages are more influential in this context than negative messages.

Importantly, this effect was significantly enhanced for people who thought recycling was less important, less effective and who reported less frequent recycling behaviour, suggesting that positive messaging should specifically target this group in order to change their attitudes and hopefully their future recycling behaviour.

In contrast to the implicit findings, the positive and negative messages did not lead to differences in self-reported intentions to recycle in the future, demonstrating the importance of the implicit measure in this study.

In summary, if you want your employees or colleagues to recycle more, highlight the benefits of recycling rather than trying to make them feel bad about not recycling. To avoid confusion over what can and can’t be recycled, ensure clearly labelled facilities are present where people generate waste. Make sustainability part of the company ethos and lead by example.

A copy of the best practice guide to recycling can be downloaded from the Ceris Burns PR website HERE.

An interview with Duncan Smith from Mindlab and Ceris Burns from Ceris Burns PR on this research can be seen on the Institute of Directors website HERE


Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



Why the subconscious matters


If you want to truly understand consumer behaviour, you need to not only look at people’s explicit responses (what they say they like), but to also take subconscious emotions and judgements into account. But why is it the case that subconscious processes influence our decisions? Surely we should make better judgements if we consciously thought about our decisions more and not let our gut feelings take over. In this blog post, I will look into how we use subconscious ‘thinking’ to make decisions and why this is actually a good strategy.

Coke cans and cars

It is often thought that we base our decisions primarily on conscious thinking when there is a lot at stake, for example when we buy expensive goods, choose a place to live or buy a car. In contrast, when shopping for cheaper or less important products, subconscious thought is often the main driver of our decisions (we will usually pick an item within seconds out of a range of competitors, without consciously weighing up all of their pros and cons, but rather trusting our intuition). This theory certainly makes sense when you think about subconscious thinking as fast and relatively easy, and conscious thought as a slow, more effortful process that can be used to override the subconscious and evaluate different aspects more carefully. But is there more to subconscious decision-making than is immediately obvious? If you are making an important decision (e.g. buying a house), your friends and family will encourage you to spend a good amount of time considering different options, sleep on the decision, write down advantages and disadvantages and discuss them with others. But research has shown that only trusting your conscious thoughts might not always be the best approach.

Spontaneity and happiness

We think that thinking hard and justifying decisions will lead to better outcomes, but this is not always the case. An experiment was conducted to test whether people would be happier with spontaneous decisions or ones they justified (Wilson et al., 1990). For this, participants were given the choice between several posters which they were allowed to keep after the experiment. Half of the participants had to just pick a poster and take it home, while the other half were asked to write down reasons for why they picked the poster. Both were told that the experimenter would not know which poster they picked, so that they would not feel judged for their decisions. Not only did the spontaneous group pick different posters than the deliberation group (posters that were ‘just pretty’ instead of ones with motivating slogans, etc.), when asked a few months later about their decisions, they were also much happier with the choice they made. But one might argue that picking a poster is not a particularly important decision, and that of course we can trust our subconscious to make this choice. However, the following example will show that we should use our gut feelings when making more important decisions as well.

Is our subconscious better at making important decisions?

In order to test whether we make better judgements using conscious or sub-conscious decision-making processes, a series of studies was carried out at the University of Amsterdam, looking at choosing apartments or potential roommates (Dijksterhuis, 2004). For this, participants were shown 12 pieces of information about each possible apartment (e.g. size, location) or roommate (e.g. tidy, fun). The way the information was presented ensured that there was always a hypothetical ‘best choice’ (one apartment was better than the others). After showing participants the information, they were either asked to pick their favourite straight away (control condition), were given 3 minutes to think about their decision and then choose (conscious thought) or were distracted with a difficult task for 3 minutes and then asked to decide (this discouraged conscious thought and was therefore seen as the subconscious decision). When looking at the choices they made, it turned out that the subconscious group made the best decisions (subjectively, as well as when individual importance of factors was taken into account – e.g. when someone said that location was more important than size, etc.).

How is this possible?

When thinking of conscious and subconscious thought as simply slow vs. fast or effortful vs. effortless, we miss one important aspect of these different ways of ‘thinking’: The amount of information that can be processed. Consciousness can only process a relatively small amount of information at once, while the processing capacity of the subconscious is much larger. Therefore, when we have to make a judgement and only take a few facts into account, conscious thought may lead to better results than the subconscious, while the subconscious appears to be better at forming overall impressions. When there are lots of factors to consider, conscious deliberation runs the risk of taking not all of the information into account, but basing the decision on just a few of the facts. Therefore, even when making complex, important decisions, it can often be better to listen to your gut feelings. And one of the pieces of advice your friends and family gave you earlier is actually based on this idea: Sleep on your decision. Often, being distracted for a while can help coming to a conclusion, and artists, authors and anyone else having to use their creativity will know that incubation (stepping away from a problem) can help tremendously in coming up with good solutions.

Overall, it can be said that not only simple, unimportant decisions are best made using the subconscious, but that even difficult and important decisions such as choosing a house are influenced greatly by our subconscious, because it provides a more global impression. This is why testing subconscious, implicit and automatic impressions is not only important when trying to predict the success of inexpensive items such as fast-moving consumer goods, but will also give a great deal of insight for more expensive goods (and related brands, advertising strategies and design).

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



Focus groups


If you have ever developed a new product, packaging design or advert, you will probably have at least considered using a focus group. And it seems to make sense, seeing that they give potential customers a chance to express their opinions in an open, non-constricted way. Or do they? Focus groups are sometimes criticised because important decisions are based on the voice of just a few, and some critics say they kill innovation. A lot of the time people express wanting for things that already exist, or to quote Henry ford,

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

But looking at it from a psychological perspective, there are other things that should make you reconsider using focus groups – They are likely to give you an answer, but not the one you need to hear! Here is why:

People don’t understand their own motivations

In focus groups, people are asked to engage with a product or an idea, express their opinions and tell you why exactly they feel this way. In real life, people will more often than not pick a product without really thinking too hard about why they are choosing it over the alternatives. If you ask them why they picked it, they will probably be able to come up with some reasons, but these ‘reasons’ are not what made them pick it in the first place. There are hundreds and thousands of factors influencing people’s purchasing decisions that they are not aware of, let alone able to explain to you. Tiny details such as font sizes, colour schemes, what they subconsciously associate with the imagery and even store lighting and music can steer people to be more likely to choose or reject a product. People also tend to be incredibly bad at predicting their future behaviour, which makes the question ‘Would you buy this product?’ borderline irrelevant. In order to find out what really makes a difference to people’s behaviour and what doesn’t, you might want to use other methods than focus groups. You could for example observe actual behaviour and see how small changes affect it. Or you can test what stands out to people and has an impact on their emotions at the point of sale. Both of these approaches will give you more accurate answers than focus groups.

Unnatural interactions

Focus groups interact with products for minutes, discuss them with others and focus on details they would have never noticed in a shop. To understand product selections (which for most things take place in seconds), it is not necessarily productive to force these long interactions, but you should rather focus on the emotional impact of the product. For this, either try to simulate purchase situations as close to real life as possible, or look at the subconscious opinions people form in (milli-) seconds, like they would if they were standing in front of a shelf. The actual environment of focus groups poses another problem: How often do you do your supermarket shopping sitting in a circle with a group of strangers? Speaking of which:

10 people – 1 opinion

Focus groups are based on the assumption that group discussions can provide many different points of view in a productive, straight-forward way. But this assumption completely underestimates the effect that people have on one another. Think about it: Group therapy sessions are built around the idea that interactions with others change you, but focus groups somehow assume that people don’t influence each other’s opinions?

There are plenty of ways people influence one another in focus groups. Social desirability gets individuals to conform to the group consensus, because we have the drive to appear likeable to others. You might not think that others strongly influence your behaviour, but think back to the style of clothing that you used to wear in the past. Would you still feel comfortable wearing the outfits you wore 10 years ago today? Similarly to society as a whole, focus groups can change your view on what is desirable and what isn’t, and our natural strive for harmony and avoidance of conflict lead us to try and come to a consensus decision, being unable to critically evaluate facts and ignoring minority viewpoints. It’s different if you have a really strong opinion on something, but new cereal flavours and slightly different packaging designs are usually not something people feel strongly enough about to be happy to get into an argument over. It’s not always the majority that sets the direction, either: Often, persuasive individuals voicing their opinion enough times can be just as influential as several people singing from the same hymn sheet.

Similarly, people in focus groups may make others aware of minor details that they wouldn’t have noticed themselves, and make them justify decisions and opinions they wouldn’t have chosen on their own. And just as persuasive members of the focus group can steer discussions into one direction, it can also be the discussion leader who influences the group’s responses by asking leading questions, guiding the focus to particular features and focusing on responses that confirm how he or she already feels about the product. This is not done deliberately, but something we are all guilty of (forming an opinion and then seeking evidence that supports it – confirmation bias). Interviewers also put a lot of effort into putting participants into a comfortable, happy frame of mind while discussing the products, which again can be seen as removed from real-life shopping experiences. This can have a strong influence on the responses participants give, as being in a positive mood will make them more likely to voice positive opinions (possibly leaving out criticism they might be expressing otherwise).

Additionally, groups have the natural tendency to overestimate how much the outside world agrees with the group consensus, which can lead to small focus groups voicing their opinions so certainly and convincingly that one might think they really are a good representation of the average buyer. This ‘groupthink’ mentality has in the past led to disastrous political decisions (such as the Pig Bay invasion), and means that groups do not always come to the right conclusion, but feel like they have.

Is it ever worth it using a focus group?

Asking people for their opinion is of course not a bad idea, it is just important to consider that their answers might not paint the whole picture. It Is also possible to reduce some of the focus group risks by using skilled psychologists as moderators and having several people (who have not been involved in the research process up to that point) interpret the group’s opinions and overall group dynamic.

There is no doubt that others influence our behaviour, and that our family and friends can have strong influences on what we like and what we don’t. Therefore, it may be worth looking at group behaviour when testing certain products, but this has to happen in a setting that’s closer to real life than what focus groups are able to provide. It may be beneficial to test real, already existing social groups in naturalistic settings to answer specific questions regarding how groups make purchase decisions. However, this insight might not help much when trying to find out which products individual people will go for when standing in a supermarket aisle.

In summary, focus groups are probably going to give you an answer to your question – but it is most likely not the answer you need to hear in order to make your product successful. To achieve this, start basing your decisions on insight that comes from looking at the actual drivers of consumer behaviour, instead of listening to rationalisations made up by a handful of people.

Juliane Schulz, Mindlab

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



4 Key Principles of Dynamic Advertising


What makes an advert outstanding?

How do you watch TV? Or more specifically, how do you watch TV adverts? Do you look forward to watching adverts, carefully watch them all and pay attention to all the different products and brands that you see? If you’re like most others in this respect, chances are you’re more likely to see adverts as a break from the programmes you actually want to watch. However, every now and again you will see an advert that really stands out from the crowd. An advert that draws you in, gets you to stop doing what you’re doing for a minute and really leaves an impression. But what differentiates this advert from all the other ones you see on a daily basis? There are 4 things that really make all the difference when it comes to dynamic advertising:

Capturing attention and engagement

When you saw the outstanding ad, could you reliable tell me which ad was shown before it? What brand the ad before was for, what the story line was? Would you be able to describe the characters in it? Probably not, seeing how bombarded you are with advertising every day. The outstanding ad, on the other hand, managed to grab your attention in the first few seconds and kept you engaged. Because of this, you could probably tell me about what was happening, importantly, what brand it was for and what the product was all about. What details you manage to recall, however, is not always the best way of testing whether an advert is engaging or not – in these experimental settings, people pay more attention than they normally would and almost expect to be tested, thereby making it look like the adverts were more exciting than they really are. Nevertheless, there are more effective ways of directly testing attention and engagement, especially when the adverts are presented in a more realistic context.

Fluency and ease of processing

There may have been other ads that managed to grab your attention, but you might have quickly completely zoned out again. The outstanding ad, however, kept you engaged, and this is partially because it was fluent and easy to process. Even if you were doing something else (e.g. playing a game), you still took in the plot and key messages because of the ad’s fluency. This ease of processing also makes you like the ad more and makes it feel more familiar to you.

Emotional impact

Do you have any idea what was so special about this advert you saw? Why it felt so different from others, and how it managed to keep you interested? Why you wouldn’t mind watching it again? One of the aspects was that it made you feel something. It conveyed emotions to you in a way that’s different from the boring ads you see all the time. And this emotional impact does not stop at the ad, you actually will now subconsciously associate the brand/product with the advert and feel more positive about it, or link the associations you had with the advert with the brand. In a way that’s how adverts have always worked: Link a product to something wonderful, and people will associate the product with this ‘something wonderful’. Emotional impact is a tricky one to test because people tend to not be aware of it (especially when abstracted out to the brand), and questionnaires/recall interviews might not be the best tools to test it. There are however different ways of measuring subconscious emotional impact that go beyond just asking how people feel.

Recognition and familiarity

Next time you see the product that was being advertised in the outstanding ad, you will experience a certain feeling of familiarity, whether you are actively remembering the advert or not. And this is one of the key ways in which the advert will make you buy this product over one of the competitors. Familiarity increase linking which in turn increases trust. A lot of the time, this kind of recognition will be subconscious, which is why simply asking you what aspects of the ad you remember will not paint the full picture. Rather, it can be beneficial to test if you subconsciously remember it, as this kind of memory will most likely influence your decision at the point of sale. When faced with confusing options we tend to make a default choice which is invariably the familiar brand.

The outstanding ad achieved quite a lot then, didn’t it? It stood out to you, was easy to process, had an emotional impact on you and made you remember the brand at the point of sale. Not a lot of adverts manage to achieve all this effectively, but luckily every single important aspect listed here can be tested in advance by using the most effective, scientifically validated market research available to look at emotional and automatic drivers of consumer behaviour.

Juliane Schulz, Mindlab

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



Three key principles of effective packaging design

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How often do you go shopping with the intention to buy something, but walk home with something completely different? We impulse-buy all the time. Sometimes we grab things we don’t actually need and feel a bit guilty about them afterwards, but sometimes it’s just that the brand we usually buy was sold out, another product caught our attention, or we just felt like trying something new. In all of these situations, there is no doubt that packaging has a strong influence on our purchases. But what makes for good packaging design? Which aspects of packaging are worth testing to get a better idea of if they’ll be able to boost sales, or make a new product successful?

To think about what’s important, it can help to think back to the last time you spontaneously bought a product. Imagine this situation: You’re in town and are starting to feel a bit thirsty, but you forgot to bring a drink with you. You’re not 100% sure what you’re after, but feel like some sort of juice would be nice. You walk into a shop, go to the drinks aisle and find the juice section. One of the brands stands out to you, you scan which different flavours are on offer and end up feeling drawn towards the apple juice. One more quick look at the label, and you’re ready to go to the tills.

Do you know how exactly you picked which drink you wanted? You might be able to come up with some reasons now, but really, it was a spontaneous decision that you probably did not put too much effort into. While you might not be able to point out exactly which aspects are important to you, the apple juice you picked had some sort of impact on you, both at a distance and up closer. It might seem difficult to pinpoint exactly what made you buy this product, but there are three key principles that certainly played a role in it: You saw the product (packaging), you understood the information on it, and it had some form of emotional impact on you.

Capturing visual attention

When you picked your apple juice, did you walk up to the aisle and look at every single juice-related product, examining them all closely and making a mental list of all the pros and cons of buying one over the other? Unless you tend to have way too much time on your hands, I think it’s safe to say that you didn’t put quite this much effort into the decision. And this is exactly why it is important for a product to catch our gaze and stand out from the clutter of competitors. In a way, capturing attention is the most important feature of packaging: Had you not seen the apple juice, you wouldn’t have bought it.

When the product overall has managed to grab your attention, it is also important that its key elements and messages stand out. Would you have bought the juice if it had taken a few seconds of searching the packaging to find out what flavour it is? I know I wouldn’t have. But how is it possible to test which product stand out from the competition, and which ones fade into the background? Asking people to interact with the product and point out key elements is often done, and can certainly give some insight. However, seeing that we often make purchasing decisions much faster than surveys and focus groups would allow, it has proven much better to either simulate naturalistic purchase environments and look at people’s behaviour, or show people products for very short durations, surrounded by other brands, and see what they automatically pay attention to.

Emotional impact

This is a tricky one to investigate, because we’re not usually aware of the emotional impact packaging and products have on us. But remember when I said that you ‘felt drawn towards the apple juice’? This is what I’m talking about. You don’t know exactly what it was, but something made you feel good about that bottle. Maybe the colours? Maybe a sense of familiarity? Did it maybe remind you of something else?

If you were asked what emotional impact that apple juice had on you, you probably wouldn’t be able to give a correct answer (or might just think ‘What the hell is she talking about?’). It’s because this impact happens automatically and you are not consciously aware of it. In this case, asking will not provide a lot of insight, but it is possible to test the emotional impact of the packaging as a whole, individual elements and key messages and what you associate with your apple juice bottle by using tests that measure your gut feelings and subconscious emotions. In fact, it should definitely be done, because this emotional impact is one of the key factors that made you buy the juice in the first place.

Fluency and easy understanding

Even if the juice bottle had grabbed your attention and made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside (you wouldn’t admit it, but we know it did) – had it looked like a carton of milk, you wouldn’t have bought it. Similarly, you would have probably not picked the apple juice if the labelling was ambiguous, it wouldn’t have been clear how to open it or the design made the overall message confusing. You probably picked your apple juice because it was easy to understand what it is, clear and got its message across to you successfully. Again, the fluency and ease of understanding are best tested by only briefly showing people the product and then testing their understanding, instead of letting them interact with it for a long time ruminating in an artificial setting such as a focus group.

These three principles significantly increased your decision to buy your apple juice, even though you might not have consciously thought about them.

Ignore these principles at your peril. Our decisions are heavily influenced by things that we are not always consciously aware of. Implicit packaging research, or in other words measuring these implicit emotion reactions which power decision making will give you a better understanding of how people are likely to behave.


Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.




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We all occasionally say things better left unsaid. Blurt out an indiscretion, let slip some embarrassing home truth or unwittingly cause offence by a thoughtless remark.

American author Edgar Allan Poe blamed such carless utterances on “the imp of the perverse” (1) while Sigmund ascribed them to the “counter will.” (2) The French call such gaffes a ‘faux pas’ – literally a ‘false step’. This expression dates from the days of Louis XIV, a period when etiquette demanded everyone must dance perfectly. Making a ‘false step’ during one of the Royal balls was to risk expulsion from court.

To understand why faux pas occur, try this challenge.  For as long as you can try not to think about a pink elephant.

While this may sound easy it is, as you will soon discover, very hard to do.

I’ll explain in a moment what it reveals about why we sometimes open our mouth only to put our foot in it.

But I’ll start by telling you the rather sad story of one of my students. For several months this young man, I’ll call him Martin, had been going out with a girl from a very wealthy upper class family. One winter’s day, her parents invited him to tea in their country mansion. It was a cold afternoon and a fire blazed in the grate. His girlfriend’s mother and father sipped their tea and eyed an increasingly embarrassed Martin with icy disapproval. From the moment he had met them, both had made it clear he was not the kind of young man their daughter should be dating.

As tea was coming to its tense conclusion the family’s Golden Retriever, who had been sleeping before the fire, woke up and, as dogs will, started to lick his nether regions.  Suddenly Martin heard himself saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do that?”

There was a stunned silence. Then the mother remarked, in a tone so glacial it could have frozen oceans.

“Give him a lump of sugar and perhaps he’ll let you.”

Martin was never invited back and, shortly after, the girl under pressure from her parents dumped him.

“I still have no idea what made me say it”, Martin said sadly as he recounted his story. “But I was dreadfully anxious and the words just came out”.

Which brings us back to the challenge of not thinking about a pink elephant or, indeed, anything else you’d sooner block from your mind. However determined you are not to think of something you are likely to find that notion popping into your thoughts frequently and perhaps over a period of several days.

Ironic Process Theory

It’s a paradox. You struggle to delete from your thoughts something you are thinking about now while, at the same time and at some level, remembering not to think about it later!

Ironic process theory suggests that we achieve this trick by means of two processes.

First we seek to banish the thought from our consciousness through distraction. By focusing our attention on other matters.
Second we subconsciously monitor our thoughts to alert us should the one we want to suppress arise.

Which is what makes the process ironic. We are actively engaged in watching out for the very thought we want to forget.

Because suppressing unwanted thoughts consumes energy and since there is only a finite amount available, we are especially at risk of allowing the suppressed thought to break through when stressed, anxious or engaged in an intellectually demanding task.  In Martin’s case the anxiety of struggling to make a good impression on his girlfriend’s frosty parents led to him blurting out the previously suppressed thought.

In one study, participants were instructed not to think about a particular word and then to respond rapidly during a word association task. Under these circumstances they were more likely to blurt out the prohibited word than if they had been specifically told to attend on it. (3)

People told to stop thinking about sex exhibit higher levels of arousal then those asked to stop thinking about a more neutral subject. Indeed, arousal increases during the suppression of sexual thoughts to the same degree as when subjects are instructed to focus exclusively on erotic thoughts. (4)

In a study I conducted, a dozen heterosexual males were invited to watch a video of a stripper. They were wired to monitor stress levels and instructed to keep their eyes firmly on the lady’s face. Using eye tracking we were able record where they were looking. All but one was failed to keep his eyes averted do so for more than around 15 seconds. The struggle to suppress a desire to glance down at her naked body resulted in high levels of stress.

But the stress level of the sole male whose gaze never descended below the lady’s chin was off the scale.
So the next time you commit a faux pas don’t feel too embarrassed by your impulsive gaffe. Given the difficulty of keeping unwanted thoughts to ourselves, it’s a wonder we don’t commit many more faux pas than we do.

David Lewis, Mindlab

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


(1) Poe, E.A. (1845) ‘The Imp of the perverse’ Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine (July), vol. 28, 1–3.
(2) Freud, S. (1950) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological   Works of Sigmund Freud, (J. Strachey, Ed) Vol. 1, 115–128. Hogarth: London.
(3) Wegner, D.M. & Erber, R. (1992) The Hyperaccessibility of Suppressed Thoughts Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 63 (6) 903 – 912.
(4) Wegner, D.M. , Shortt, J.W., Blake, A.W. & Page, M.S. (1990) The Suppression of Exciting Thoughts, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 58 (3) 409-418