Brainsights with Kevin Keane

Brainsights’ CEO Kevin Keane discusses leveraging consumer brain data for creative effectiveness and optimizing brand integrations through salience, storytelling, and support. Based on consumer research, Kevin also reveals new data on the power of audio branding and explains how brands can imbue fresh meaning with the strategic use of sonic assets to support memory activation. We also discuss the roles of extrinsic and intrinsic attention and the future of insights and data.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS: 

Kevin Keane: Think about attention as a visual and an auditory mechanism; both need to be considered in order for creative to be effective.

Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising. Produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been examining some of the ways brand managers and agencies can leverage learnings from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, the world’s largest center for research into marketing. Now, a few weeks ago, Professor Jenni Romaniuk joined us on this podcast and explained some of the laws that underpin brand growth and the role that distinctive brand assets play in creating category buyer memories. Our guest this week applies those principles to evaluative research, helping clients assess and optimize creative effectiveness by measuring moment-by-moment consumers’ unconscious brain responses to brands in the context of TV advertising, placements, and sponsorships. Making a return visit to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Kevin Keane is the founder and CEO of Brainsights, an insights platform and consulting company that leverages neurotechnology to reveal the drivers that motivate consumer behavior. Today, Brainsights has amassed one of the world’s largest databases of commercial neuroscience data with hundreds of brands, tens of thousands of ads, and more than 150,000 hours of video content analyzed against more than 30,000 respondents’ brains. With this data, Brainsights advises brands and creators on crafting more effective and inclusive content to deliver business growth. Prior to founding Brainsights, Kevin held leadership positions at Havas Media and MediaCom, where he set up its business science practice, delivering big data management, econometric modeling, and technology solutions. Kevin’s pioneering neuromarketing work at Brainsights has been recognized and featured in Canadian national newspapers, broadcasters CBC and BNN, plus prominent tech blogs. To discuss a unique approach that combines Ehrenberg-Bass principles with neuro-based research, I’m delighted that Kevin is joining us today from Toronto, Canada. Kevin, welcome back to IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Kevin Keane: Thanks for having me. 

Adrian Tennant: Kevin, you were a guest on this podcast back in 2021. For anyone who didn’t catch that episode, could you give us an overview of Brainsights’ approach to evaluative research and how it differs from traditional methods?

Kevin Keane: Sure. Using a custom-built neuro measurement platform, we measure people’s brain wave activity as they consume content, media, advertising, experiences, and as such, what we do is we bypass many of the biases that are introduced via self-report mechanisms and understand the unconscious drivers of decision making.

Adrian Tennant: What are some of the principles drawn from Ehrenberg-Bass’s research that you’ve integrated into Brainsights’ methods?

Kevin Keane: Sure, so first and foremost, from an E-B perspective, it’s really the primacy of memory and recall in buyer situations, the portrayal of buyer situations and customer needs. And advertising is great, but how much memory encoding is occurring in those moments? That’s something that our measurement platform can evaluate quite precisely. And then furthermore, you know, there’s obviously principles of distinctive brand assets. We’ve been exploring the optimal ways to present these to activate memory stores most efficiently and effectively. And also, through our research and metadata analysis across a range of different brands, categories, and assets, we’re trying to get a read on if all distinctive brand assets are created equal, really to put a measure on that. You know, what we’re doing is measuring the passive, automatic, and unconscious response of consumers at very granular intervals, so we can help brands understand whether those assets are being presented in the optimal way and how they can optimize based on what the consumer brain activity response is telling us.

Adrian Tennant: Well, you’ve recently published a couple of white papers about brand integrations. First, Kevin, could you define what an integration is? 

Kevin Keane: Sure. It’s the embedding of branding and products into entertainment content. So think of it like, you know, anything from product placement to brand entertainment, aural mentions of brands and products, pay for reviews, these kinds of things.

Adrian Tennant: And in your experience, what typically prompts brands to consider integrations versus regular TV spots or other forms of advertising?

Kevin Keane: There are a few reasons why brands would pursue this. Ad avoidance, ad skipping is sort of chief among those, but more sophisticated brands are realizing that, more or less, all media nowadays is basically skippable. So they’re building entertainment divisions in that knowledge that in order to build connections with consumers first you really need to appeal, attract, entertain, educate, otherwise add value to them so that you’re attracting them in, instead of interrupting.

Adrian Tennant: Your reports reflect consumer brain data collected with Brainsights’ IntegrationEQ. Can you explain what it is, and how you use it to measure the effectiveness of brand integrations? 

Kevin Keane: Yeah, so I mean, listeners can think of IntegrationEQ as a neuroscience-brand lift report, right? So you’re combining a brand lift with neuro measurement to understand both that high-level impact of exposure on key brand metrics, as well as the underlying mechanisms driving that response through the Brainsights measurement of attention, emotional connection, and encoding to memory. One of the issues that we found in looking at brand integration, was that there was always kind of a tug of war between the brand and agency and the publisher, right? Things like, “Oh, there’s not enough brand, there’s not enough branding in this. Like, I want my brand to be on screen for, you know, 5, 6, 7 seconds,” or whatever it happened to be, right? And so you get this kind of tug of war. “Well, no, that’s gonna alienate our audiences.” But actually, what we’ve found is that time on screen doesn’t have a lot to do with effectiveness. It, more so, is about how that time is spent on screen, whether or not you’re telling a meaningful story, whether or not you’re activating that. And so we built a framework around how brands can ensure that their integrations are effective.

Adrian Tennant: Well, reflecting Brainsights’ data, one of your white papers is The Three S’s Of Successful Brand Integrations. Now for this report, you undertook a meta-analysis across 18 consumer categories with 40 brands, and over 200 individual brand elements, with brain data captured from over 1,400 consumers, resulting in over 20 billion data points. A key takeaway from the report is that just one out of every six brand integrations achieves what you define as high or top performance, that is, delivering objective brand and business results. So Kevin, what are the three S’s, and to what extent do they reflect Ehrenberg-Bass’s laws of brand growth?

Kevin Keane: Yeah, so the three S’s refer to salience, storytelling, and support. And you know, salience is really, prime among this, right? And, this is really the reflection of E-B laws of brand growth. It’s really about ensuring that the brand integration is branded, and it reflects a key buying occasion or customer problem. And this is where, you know, some clever storytelling will come in because you do need to balance that entertainment aspect with the commercial aspect. But, I think we’ve seen successful integrations where brands play the hero of the story they’re solving: the customer need, the customer problem. They’re thoroughly branded, and, you know, they’re enjoyable. And that’s where the storytelling piece comes in. Support really reflects how that is activated in the same kind of way that a sponsorship requires media support activation so that people understand that the sponsorship actually exists so that those memory associations are being established and refreshed. This is what we mean by the three S’s and how they reflect the Ehrenberg-Bass principles.

Adrian Tennant: If only 17 percent of integrations resulted in favorable business outcomes, what should brand managers consider doing differently to ensure their executions are effective? 

Kevin Keane: Yeah. So, you know, one of the challenges of brand integrations is how do you ensure that it stands out without alienating people, without people thinking that, “Oh, man, I didn’t tune into this show for a commercial in the show. You know, I’m skipping those things. I’m going, and, you know, making some tea when the ad pod comes on,” or whatever. So it’s really about nailing those three things, right? You need that brand salience, but you also need to understand that people are tuning in for the storytelling. They’re tuning in to be educated or entertained or informed. And so, if you’re not satisfying those key media or entertainment customer needs, you’re gonna fall on your face. And so, I think this is where brand managers need to consider, just as partners and publishers need to consider, the other partner in this. Which is, you know, fundamentally the audience. And really look to those three S’s to manage that tug of war that I mentioned previously about, you know, brand on screen, no brand on screen, how long is it on screen? It’s about salient storytelling and support and understanding that there are three parties to this relationship.

Adrian Tennant: Well, you’ve also published a couple of papers discussing brand lift and the advantages of measuring implicit and neural data. What are the generally applicable rules that Brainsights’ work suggests for effective branding?

Kevin Keane: In terms of general rules, in so far as how they relate, specifically say to advertising, we bring them back to our three metrics: attention, emotional connection, and encoding to memory. Attention is really about how are you drawing people in? A lot of the chatter, I think, in the industry is about what you might call extrinsic attention. So attention as it relates to media, which is obviously important, and critical even to get eyeballs and ears on advertising. But there’s also intrinsic attention, the type of attention that is generated by the creative itself. The hook, specifically, if we’re talking about, you know, video or audio, the hook of an ad is absolutely critical. And there are attention windows that we educate our customers on. And those attention windows really relate to the things that you need to do in the opening few frames, the opening two seconds, five seconds, fifteen seconds in order to hook and maintain that attention. And then obviously, too, there’s the relationship that attention has, for example, to emotional connection, right? So, you know, we tend to pay attention to the things that we care about, the things that resonate with us, the things that activate that our memory stores. There’s a relationship that occurs between those two things. Some of that can be solved by paying attention to the extrinsic attention associated with media, but a lot of that also has to be the onus of the brand manager, the advertising agency, to really craft stories that are engaging people and carrying them through. So as that then, kind of coming back to effective branding, there’s a probability focus, I think, that we also take to advertising and branding in advertising. Some brands want to focus more on the story and less on the branding. Our position on that is, well, you know, let’s say you have 30 seconds, and three seconds of those are branded. Well, then you’re really relying on people to be really tuned in and really remembering those three of the 30 seconds. And, if you’re using one out of 10 of those seconds as branded seconds, the odds just aren’t in your favor, right? So, but if you were using, say, 27 or 30 of those seconds as fully branded, or even partially branded through the use of colors or, you know, other types of cues and mnemonics, then you’re in much better shape. Your odds are just a lot better in consumers taking something away from that. So, I think what we do here is introduce really strong principles of storytelling, looking at how attention, emotional resonance, and memory store activation work together, but also play on data and probability and saying, “Look, you know, you’re better off branding as many of those moments as possible in a meaningful way, than you are gambling, rolling the dice, and hoping that your final three seconds or whatever it happens to be, is your payoff and your branded moment.”

Adrian Tennant: So think about ways to integrate distinctive brand assets throughout a spot, reinforcing colors or a fluent device if there is one, that would be the way to go?

Kevin Keane: Absolutely.

Adrian Tennant: Are there any other How Brands Grow-related findings that you want to share with us?

Kevin Keane: Gosh. I mean, you know, one thing – I mean, this is less specifically How Brands Grow, on the Byron Sharp side, more Jenny Romaniuk, like distinctive brand asset side – but we’ve been doing a lot of research into the role of sonic branding, and comparing the power, for example, of jingles in activating memory stores versus other branding assets: distinctive brand characters, logos, voices, colors, that kind of thing. And you know, just the portability of a jingle and the earworm ability of a jingle, I think, is just – it’s such an underutilized but very, very powerful, mechanism to brand sound. And I think that it’s underexplored. I think that we’re now seeing a little bit more of a renewed interest in that space with the over, call it over-screenification or over-visualization of media. There’s a growing consciousness or awareness around the power of sound. And if you can nail, one of those earwormy jingles like Burger King with the Whopper Whopper, for example, very recently. But if you can nail that and own that, then it’s a very powerful place to be for a brand.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message. 

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Kevin Keane, the founder, and CEO of Brainsights, a Toronto-based consumer neuroscience platform and insights consultancy. Kevin, last time you were a guest on this podcast, we talked about sonic elements and Brainsights’ finding that audio has the ability to cut through in a media landscape saturated with video content. Now, since then, you’ve collected more consumer brain data that offers new clues about how to optimize sonic elements as part of a brand’s distinctive assets. Could you share some key takeaways?

Kevin Keane: I mean, one surprising takeaway for me was when we looked at peak memory store activation when different assets were on screen – and really peak memory store activation is what is the max level that consumer segments are hitting in terms of memory store activation in the brain – we compared that across different assets. We noticed that jingles were outperforming distinctive brand assets, and we’re looking at dozens of these things on both sides. Everything from, the M and M characters, to the Geico Gecko, to Percy The Penguin – a distinctive brand character of a bank up here in Canada – and then, you know, comparing that to very common jingles in Canadian brands, but also, Whopper Whopper also, you know, Juicy Fruit, from the eighties and nineties. What we noticed was that, if you’re looking at mental availability and you’re looking at that being underpinned by memory, by instant recall, by the power that a brand asset has in activating memory stores, jingles is kind of the top of the pop, right? Like it outperforms distinctive brand characters more often than not. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that, you know, that means that you should dump a whole bunch of money into jingles and kick your distinctive brand characters to the curb. That’s not at all what I’m saying. I’m just saying that I think because of that earworm potential, the portability in your brain of a jingle that might just pop in, it basically becomes free space in your mind – something that you might say over and over. I’m not sure if it’s the same in the US, but “Love that chicken,” from Popeye’s, right? Like, is one of those really, easy to recall jingles that just kind of pops into your brain, like, you know, and then boom, all of a sudden it’s like, “Yeah, I should go to Popeye’s for my chicken sandwich,” or whatever happens to be. One of the other key takeaways, and one of the ones that I just loved learning about, was how brands can imbue fresh meaning and significance into their sonic assets. So, there are a couple of really interesting examples here. The famous ba-da ba ba ba from McDonald’s, we studied that quite a bit, looking at how consumer brain activity responded to that sting. And the McDonald’s team did something really interesting with that during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, they engaged, I think, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to redo that sting in their style, and we screened that for consumers, and we measured their brain activity as that was happening. And we saw just huge levels of memory store activation, and emotional connection in those moments. And it was such an incredible example of how a brand could take a cultural moment and approach it creatively to imbue and refresh fresh meaning into a sonic asset like that, which I thought was like really amazing. There’s another example that I’ll just share real quick. It was on Intel Inside. They did an ad, you know, ba-ba, ba-ba, like that is their sting. And they anthropomorphized the sting, and they did it by visualizing energy inside of things. So that could be a toaster oven, right? Like as you’re waiting for your grilled cheese to grill or whatever, and the person waiting for the grilled cheese to grill. I don’t even know if this was a scene. This might be the next iteration of this ad. But like, you know, the person waiting for the thing to grill would be like ba-ba, ba-ba. The one that was definitely in it was an ultrasound, right? So you have a baby inside a belly and is like ba-ba, ba-ba, maybe the dad is like looking at this and does that to himself, right? And I just think it was such a beautiful way to take that sting and the tagline and bring new meaning to it. And when you looked at people’s brain activity as this was happening, you just saw, like you know, incredible levels of emotional connection and memory store activation concurrently happening, which to us suggested that new meaning was being imbued and the existing associations being refreshed. So, you know, something that is often considered to be like an add-on at the end of an ad, you know, to kind of aurally extend branding can actually take center stage as well, and agencies and brands can get creative with that. Like obviously, they want to maintain the integrity of the mnemonic, but there are ways that you can imbue fresh meaning into the sting, through those types of creative methods. So, I just got really excited about it, and I thought it was like a really beautiful creative way to bring like fresh thinking to something that, I think, for a lot of people, it might be an afterthought, you know?

Adrian Tennant: Brainsights’ key metrics are collected every two milliseconds in response to communications, and tagged with over 150 content metadata variables. Your measures are also incredibly granular, including focus, cognitive load, persuasiveness, encoding, connection, and, as you’ve mentioned, attention. Now, since we last spoke, attention has become a hot topic thanks in part to the work of former Ehrenberg-Bass professor, Karen Nelson-Field, who went on to found Amplified Intelligence. Kevin, what’s the role of attention in creative effectiveness? 

Kevin Keane: A fundamental, fundamental role in creative effectiveness. And this kind of comes back to what I was saying before about extrinsic and intrinsic. So extrinsic would, in my mind, the way that I would think about it would be, relating to media, does the media that consumers are viewing, or consuming, or listening to, is there a high attention, or low attention to it? Oftentimes, attention in media circles relates to visual attention. The other piece I think that needs to be coming off of a discussion with sonic branding has to be auditory as well. Because, obviously, there are ways that you can pay attention. Ways that attention can be hooked in that are auditory in nature. So that needs to be considered as well. So extrinsic relating to media attention is fundamental in creative effectiveness. The other pieces are about creating hooks in the ad itself that are native to the environment that the ad is placed. A TikTok on TikTok, a tv ad on tv, that are considering the attention environment and creating hooks that are drawing people into the story, and retaining people and drawing them through, so that a brand message can be delivered. So, this is a really long way to answer your question, Adrian. But the role of attention and creative effectiveness, I would say, consider both extrinsic, i.e. media, and intrinsic, i.e. that which can be achieved with the creative and the message itself. And also, you know, think about attention as a visual and an auditory mechanism that both need to be considered in order for creative to be effective.

Adrian Tennant: A couple of weeks ago, Connie Braams, the Chief Digital and Commercial Officer at CPG giant Unilever shared that the majority of its growth is coming from long-term brand-building efforts. She also talked about incorporating performance marketing in a creative commerce revolution, saying quote, “If we apply creativity throughout the end-to-end consumer journey, we know we can bridge the gap between performance and brand, and we will have found a way to be first in mind, first to find, and first to cart,” end quote. Kevin, Connie seems to acknowledge Ehrenberg-Bass’s mental and physical availability model in her comment, but what’s your take on the long-term brand versus short-term performance media debate?

Kevin Keane: So I have a couple of thoughts on it. The first is that I feel like it’s a false dichotomy oftentimes. I feel that brand versus direct response, it’s to me almost as if the direct response message has or carries no branding in it, or, you know, there’s no direct response that may result from a branding message. So I think that it’s oftentimes positioned as this or that, when I think it can be both. There’s this concept from James Hurman, another effectiveness guru, about future demand. Now future demand could be five years in the future, it could be five minutes in the future, right? And I think that it’s important to do brand building, obviously, and building out salience in buying occasions, meeting specific customer needs, and ensuring that you own those buying occasions so that when a buyer finds themselves in that scenario, your brand comes to mind first before anybody’s. Equally, I think that you know, I completely understand the need to activate in-market buyers in a way that can more meaningfully hit quarterly targets. There’s also, like, just the necessity of hitting sales goals and moving the business forward. So I think there’s obviously space for both. I got another kind of guru in the space like Mark Ritson’s “Bothism” framework of thinking where I think, you know, going after The Long And The Short Of It – apologies for all these different, you know, obvious references to a guy like yourself, Adrian – but you know, there is a need to balance, and you can do that without setting one against the other.

Adrian Tennant: Kevin, where do you believe insights, data, and research are headed?

Kevin Keane: Where I think insights is going, and I think this is really important for the creative, the advertising, the branding community. There’s been a lot of talk around, you know, following Cannes, the decline of brands or the disappearance of brands and the primacy of AI. And you know, I think that unique data sets – if everybody’s using the same data set and the same set of tools and the same large language models, I, you know, and the same prompts, I think you’re gonna get the same work, right? You’re gonna get more of the same. And I think what I’ve learned over my career is that this is the opportunity for creativity actually to stand out. You know, if everybody has the same access to the same stuff, and equally, it’s creativity in a broad sense. It’s not just about creating unique ads. It’s about taking a different perspective, and that different perspective can come from insights and research. It can come from a unique, different data set. It can come from the mashing up of disciplines that hadn’t necessarily been mashed up before or surfaced in any particular way. So I think, you know, the future of insights and data and research is the same kind of future that advertising has. It’s about innovating, staying ahead, and bringing that unique perspective that keeps you ahead of what everyone else is doing.

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you and your work at Brainsights, what’s the best way to connect with you?

Kevin Keane:, or, find us on LinkedIn, which is where we post a lot of our thought leadership. For example, and this is a shameless plug right here, Adrian, but, we did look at this science of Cannes-winning creative recently, which I think is really interesting, and it kind of gets into some of the principles that we were discussing here about attention, emotional resonance, memory storing, coding, you know, really strong storytelling, and linking the cultural with the contextual with the creative – it’s pretty cool!

Adrian Tennant: Excellent. And we’ll include links to the reports we discussed today in the transcript for this episode. Kevin, thank you very much for being our guest again on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Kevin Keane: Thanks for having me.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Kevin Keane, the founder, and CEO of Brainsights. You’ll find a transcript of this episode with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Just select podcast from the menu. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for joining us for IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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