Neuroscience and retailing: who needs whom?

06/10/2016 By Georgina Woodley

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 substantially.  In the past 5 years we have seen clients increasingly recognise its value, and more 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.

We know that the brain craves simplification.  Retailers often think they 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 retailers 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 whilst explaining them in more detail. 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 ‘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. A study for a retail bank featured strong faces photographed up close in advertising posters.  Through a neuroscience technique called ZMET, we were able to uncover how customers co-created that ad to link themselves with the human faces that subtly expressed success in life, and ultimately the wealth creation that was the central pillar of that bank’s brand strategy.

A global retail food brand, which was losing market share, found through ZMET that the essence of their brand was ‘transformation’ and this 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, or that their diners needed an ‘experience’ as much as food.  As a result, they continued to heavily promote their products on the back of tired advertising, playing in the wrong territory, and not connecting to the fundamental customer need of ‘transformation’. In the end, 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 behaviour, we fundamentally also need to uncover what consumers ‘don’t know that they know’ and 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 and guide retailers where ‘experience marketing’ is becoming a critical factor of success.