De-Biasing Marketing with Consumer Neuroscience

Kevin Keane of consumer neuroscience agency Brainsights explains how brands can de-bias marketing by evaluating nonconscious responses in qualitative research.

IN CLEAR FOCUS: Kevin Keane, CEO of Brainsights, explains how his agency uses neuroscience to understand consumers’ responses to advertising at a nonconscious level. We learn how gaining insights directly from consumers’ brain activity can help brands de-bias their marketing content. Data from a recent Brainsights study shows the value of color-blind casting: Not only is there no downside to casting BIPOC individuals in ads, but Caucasians actually respond more favorably than non-Caucasians.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: In today’s episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Kevin Keane: Neuro is particularly strong in understanding nonconscious response – why do people not remember our key message? Why is our message not resonating as much as it could or should? Neuro cuts right through to the underlying motivations of consumers. It’s unbiased.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising. Produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. Our guest today is a marketing research innovator. Kevin Keane is the co-founder and CEO of Brainsights. Based in Toronto, Canada, Brainsights uses neuroscience and biometric measurement to understand how consumers respond to advertising on a deep, nonconscious level. Gaining insights directly from consumers’ brain activity, Kevin and his team use the collected data to advise advertisers and media companies, enabling them to de-bias their content and ensure it’s engaging and persuasive. Kevin is joining us today from his home office in Toronto. Kevin, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Kevin Keane: Thanks for having me, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: So Kevin, what kinds of research questions do Brainsights’ clients typically have that traditional quantitative surveys or qualitative focus groups can’t answer?

Kevin Keane: So the biggest questions tend to revolve around why and how. Why do consumers feel this way or do this thing? Why do they remember my brand, but not the product I’m advertising? How should I cut down this video? How should I talk about race, about bias? How should I leverage this talent? So quant and qual get used to answer these types of questions too of course, but I would say versus quant and qual, neuro is particularly strong in three areas: granularity, understanding passive response, and nonconscious response. And so it makes it suitable for three broad areas of questions. On the granularity piece, where and how are consumers responding to my marketing stimuli or my product? In ad terms, how does the opening perform, the product demonstration, the final brand plates? How are people paying attention? Where are they resonating? What are they encoding to memory? And this granularity helps immensely to optimize things like video cut down. So how do I cut a 60 to a 15? But it also helps in diagnosing problem areas and experiences. Where do people disengage? Where is cognitive load too much? The second thing is passive response. So, you know, advertising tends to get optimized primarily based on the direct response that the ad facilitates: “click”, “like”, “share”, “visit the website”, things like that. But we’ve found hidden value that can really only be found in measuring passive response. So it’s like an impression quality, and this helps our clients understand the complete value of their media investment as well as how to optimize it, to unlock that hidden value of context. And then finally, nonconscious, preconscious. So neuro cuts right through to the underlying motivations of consumers. It’s unbiased. So clients will engage us to mop up problems. We help them to contextualize some of the problems that they’re getting with quant, qual, other methods. And some have turned away from those other methods almost entirely in order to do so. We get asked a lot of different kinds of questions: Why do people not remember our key message? Why is our message not resonating as much as it could or should? It’s important to understand that neuro is a tool. It’s an important one. I think it’s increasingly the most important one – of course I would. But we also use traditional quant and qual approaches to get at a complete understanding of consumers in our consulting work.

Adrian Tennant: When they hear you talking about neuroscience and brain activity, some listeners are probably imagining a very invasive setup. So could you explain how Brainsights taps into consumers’ brain activity and nonconscious?

Kevin Keane: Yeah. So we primarily use wireless, portable EEG or electroencephalography headsets. So sort of think of them like Fitbits for your head. Purists might critique our use of this kind of headset as incomplete. It’s not this hundred-channel EEG setup that plugs into people’s faces, the kind that you might imagine when you think about neuroscience and the kind that you’d actually find if you searched Google Images for “EEG” or “electroencephalography”. The reason we use these headsets is they’re flexible. We collect only the data needed for our clients, which is also best practice from a privacy perspective, and much more forward thinking in terms of where we think things are headed in terms of consumer privacy, in terms of collecting data that’s needed and being transparent about how it’s used. We then built a signal processing and data collection platform that allows simultaneous collection of data for hundreds of participants. You know, obviously that kind of scale breeds confidence. And it also helps to socialize neuroscience across more and more of the general public. And that accessibility, both in terms of social and in terms of economic accessibility, helps to drive market demand for these neuro solutions.

Adrian Tennant: In addition to electroencephalography, or EEG, do you use any other techniques?

Kevin Keane: Yeah, for sure, from a biometric perspective, we would also use eye-tracking and really this is about thinking at the millisecond level where people’s gaze is and how they’re processing what they’re seeing, which is picked up with the electroencephalogram. Our solution syncs those two at the millisecond level. And we’ll deploy those for UX-based studies, for example, experiential-based studies, where we need to get an understanding as to the field of view of a given participant and how they’re wayfinding through a specific experience, digital or physical, and how they’re processing that in their unconscious mind.

Adrian Tennant: Kevin, when it comes to designing a consumer neuroscience research study, how similar or dissimilar is it to a traditional quant or qual study?

Kevin Keane: There’s similarities and differences. You know, it’s similar in relation to questions you’re looking to answer and the development of hypotheses that you might have going in. I’d say it’s quite different, in terms of our approach. You know, we take a very attention economy approach. It’s our belief that we’re living in an attention economy, and as such, it’s not just your competitors you’re competing against. But it’s basically anything else that might be competing for your attention. So, in addition say, to comparing a pet food company’s ads to its competition, we’re also comparing it to a random representative sampling of what we could reasonably expect their audience to be viewing and consuming. Then we’re analyzing their neural response to that suite of stimuli to understand how does it break through against that random representative sampling. And then how does it compete against their competitors for attention, for emotional connection, and how it’s imprinting to memory.

Adrian Tennant: 2020 marked a turning point in global awareness of racial injustice. The Black Lives Matter movement inspired marches around the world and sparked public debates about institutional racism and implicit bias. Now, research conducted by Brainsights was featured recently in the World Advertising Research Center’s online journal. Kevin, can you explain what your study revealed about the depiction of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in video advertisements?

Kevin Keane: Thanks for asking this question, Adrian. We think it’s incredibly important work. We partnered with one of the top advertising agencies in Canada, John Street, to look into whether there is a difference in advertising effectiveness if you cast a BIPOC talent – Black, Indigenous, People of Color – in advertising versus caucasians? Is there a difference when you put that advertisement in front of non-caucasians versus caucasian audiences? And the answer is no, there isn’t a difference in effectiveness. And, in fact, BIPOC talent can even increase the effectiveness of ads on caucasian audiences. There remains biases and systemic biases in the advertising industry. Even in a progressive place like Canada, where there might be open casting calls which from the experience of our collaborators over at John Street, could still imply white casting or default to white casting. And what we wanted to prove out, free of social desirability bias – so really using neuro to cut through to actual true response – was, is there a difference in effectiveness? Can we once and for all make this case, where, you know, there’s really nowhere else to hide, where BIPOC talent should be cast in a way that’s representative for our country, in advertising and our data was revealing that there’s  potential upside to casting BIPOC talent, in increasing advertising effectiveness. And that was the high-level summary of the study.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm, implicit bias is by definition nonconscious so neuro seems like a really ingenious way to figure this out.

Kevin Keane: Yeah.

Adrian Tennant: In November of last year, Brainsights published original research that looked at the importance of emotional response to video advertising. But your findings suggest that another medium represents an under utilized brand-building opportunity – and that is audio. Tell us what you learned.

Kevin Keane: And you know what, this research that you’re referring to, Adrian, really around  the potential of audio as a brand-building media surprised us. It’s kind of well-known that video historically has been the go-to brand building channel and that doesn’t go away. But when we looked at how audio performs versus video for key metrics that we’ve associated with, or  proven a connection with, brand strength – so specifically, our connection metric and emotional strength metric – we’re seeing comparable levels hit in audio as we’ve seen in video, across similar categories, similar types of executions. And the reason interesting is, you know, audio traditionally has been kind of viewed as a tactical activation channel and you get a lot of promotional messaging – you know, limited time offer, financing messaging, things like that. It’s not necessarily always used or thought about in terms of brand-building. And our research sort of lifted the lid on that and  I think helped to contribute to busting marketer bias around how channels should be used and thought about. Um, and when you dig into the data a little bit more and you start to understand the growth of innovative storytelling in the audio space. And also the – some might say – oversaturation of video and screen-based media, you can start to  understand the potential and the power of innovating in brand storytelling in audio. Which is funny I say that, but you know, this is how radio started – it was the soap opera sponsored by the big soap companies in the Twenties and Thirties and they were done as storytelling channels that they sponsored and sometimes even produced. And that’s covered in the research too, a little bit of historical context, which is really interesting. So, in a way, it’s  what’s old is new again. And that’s a really interesting finding from that research.

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

Karen Hidalgo: I’m Karen Hidalgo, Associate Account Manager at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising account professionals.

At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. By conducting our own research, we’re able to capture consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect with your audience. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Kevin Keane, co-founder and CEO of Brainsights, a consumer neuroscience research agency. So Kevin, what first sparked your interest in consumer research?

Kevin Keane: Yeah I’m a coffee-on-a-sidewalk-patio kind of guy, you know, love drinking like a latte or cortado and just people watching wherever I am. And maybe it was that – maybe it was just that enjoyment, that pleasure, thrill, interest in seeing and observing the world, understanding patterns of behavior. When I was young and even something that I enjoy today and I think maybe led me down this route, and then in terms of marketing, I sort of fell, you know, ass backwards into marketing. Um, I think it is some people do and into digital attribution and digital media and digital data, back in 2008, 2009. And  you know, I was really interested in the possibility of blending digital media and the growth of digital channels with understanding consumers, understanding people, their motivations, why they do what they do, behavior. And then spent about six, seven years in that industry, figuring that out and then also coming up against  some of the limitations, the methodologies and tools that were used to understand advertising effectiveness. And that’s, I think, what propelled me or encouraged me to strike off on my own and start Brainsights because, a lot of startup entrepreneurs, you see, or you feel a frustration in some of the existing tools, to help you solve problems. And you set off and build something better. And my clients –  big cosmetics companies, banks, drinks companies would be asking, “Okay, well, you know, how does my creative perform?” Like “What is my creative doing to influence sales and influence results?” And I would ask them, “Well, how do you evaluate your creative?” And they would say, “We have these ad tracking studies where we ask people to sit” and it’s like, well, “You know that a growing body of research, a growing body of evidence, that’s saying that decisions are made at the unconscious level.” If you’ve ever read anything by [Daniel] Kahneman or Richard Thaler, or just like the growth of behavioral economics, and I was like, “You should understand that a lot of these mechanisms are happening at the unconscious level.” And so those tools didn’t really exist in an accessible format. Neuroscience, neuro marketing tools at the time were really only the preserve of the big, big brands, the big, big budgets. And so we set off to build a solution that helped to answer that problem and put into the hands of more people, the tools to better understand the mechanisms of the unconscious mind. And from that then grew obviously the interest in consumer neuroscience, neuro marketing, but also in understanding bias and understanding that these tools could be applied to potentially addressing some of the bigger issues of the day. You know, the biases that we have related to identity and identity politics, the biases that we have related to political decision-making, to understanding, and acting on climate change, and environmental degradation, these types of problems that that there’s a really, important role for the tools of neuroscience to play in helping to tackle those.

Adrian Tennant: Now, does Brainsights typically work with clients directly or is it more usual for you to work through an advertising or marketing agency?

Kevin Keane: It’s more the case that we’re engaged directly with the clients. Though, you know, more and more we’re developing solutions, again, just executing on the vision that I spelled out about making these tools as accessible as possible. We are working and collaborating with agencies to deliver more holistic solutions, and releasing tools that are better suited to the greater volume of advertising that they will be producing. And that they would require like, more of an off-the-shelf tool to be able to use for multiple clients.

Adrian Tennant: Well, during the pandemic, Bigeye has been very fortunate. We’ve not seen any negative impact on response rates to our online surveys and we’ve successfully pivoted to online platforms to conduct what would have previously been in-person qualitative research. How has COVID-19 impacted Brainsights’ business? Is an online or remote solution even feasible for consumer neuroscience?

Kevin Keane: Yeah. Our business has been impacted for sure, because, traditionally we’ve done larger scale, in-person data collection. So people come to our space. Speaking to our setup, it’s a sort of living room-type setting or an office-type setting, anywhere that we could conceivably think about consuming media. And, our business has been impacted with those lockdown procedures, particularly earlier in the pandemic. We’ve since done and had a touchless, contactless interface with our community in-person. In terms of an online solution, it’s something that we’re actively exploring. As you can imagine, there are challenges to helping people understand how to use EEG headsets and use them properly, like, you know, independent of observation. All I’ll say right now is watch this space. Because I think it’s going to be some significant innovation in the next little while on at-home, consumer neuroscience platforms.

Adrian Tennant: One of the advantages that large traditional research companies have, especially those that have years of data relating to particular categories of consumer goods, is their ability to tell a client how their results compare with other brands or the norms for the category. Are there such benchmarks in consumer neuroscience that help clients understand how well they’re doing?

Kevin Keane: Yeah. I mean, it’s taken a while. The industry I’d say as a whole, and this is an observation that I had made at the Neuromarketing World Forum back in 2019 was, you know, we participated there. We were with one of our clients, Bell Media, and presenting some of the interesting work that we have been doing. And, you know, one of the interesting observations that I’d made at the time was  the consumer neuroscience industry is maturing. And, there are some companies that have been around now for a while. So for us, we now have six years of historical data that comprise our norms. Even in that short amount of time, there’s a lot that’s changed with respect to how people consume media. You know, you look at the shift, for example, from linear television to streaming solutions. And that just gives you  one example. Look at the shift from video consumption on TV to on other screens, primarily mobile. And that’s another example. I’d say candidly, my opinion is there’s been a little bit of an obsession with norms, and if everything’s tagged to how we’ve done or how my competitors do, I feel like sometimes  it is sort of used as cover. And our clients, they definitely appreciate having the norms that we’re now able to provide. But they’re always moving forward and they’re always looking for how do they better connect with consumers and use some of these tools we’re developing, that other neuroscience companies are developing, to establish firmer relationships in the brains of consumers and tracking that, and understanding how customers are performing. Historical norms are important. Competitive norms are important. I think that there’s a bigger piece that perhaps, goes unstated. And that’s really about consumer norms and snapshot norms, about what’s happening right now and how that tracks over time as well. And I think that that’s something that our clients Uh, appreciate as we sort of you know, exist in this attention economy where we’re competing, not just against our competitors and not just against our past selves, but against future competitive threats. And the average end-consumer.

Adrian Tennant: Brainsights is focused on de-biasing marketing and advertising decisions. And we’ve talked about race already, but what other kinds of biases should marketers be aware of?

Kevin Keane: This one’s a little maybe controversial, but I would say they should be most aware of their own biases. Things like confirmation bias, where you’re seeking out information that confirms a previously held belief. It’s a cognitive bias that is, I would say, rampant and in consumer research and in marketing, just in general, availability bias. So we have available specific data sets, somehow make those better or rights then less accessible datasets because to hand.  You know, there have been many conversations where we’re presenting data that runs counter to the firmly held beliefs of our clients. And you can imagine Adrian that, that creates some uncomfortable conversations and uncomfortable moments. And it can be quite delicate to deal with because we’re people, right? We’re humans, and there’s ego involved, there’s vested, interests involved. And so, like any kind of good client service person, you want to understand what those are. You want to understand what the minefield might look like. But at the same time, we have an overarching organizational philosophy called data respect and that infuses everything that we do: how we compensate our participants, our community for their data. We respect their data and we provide a transparent value exchange for that data. But that data respect philosophy also is about respecting the science and respecting what data comes back from people’s brains. And what that says about what motivates people and how effective marketing stimuli is at tapping into that. And sometimes those results are not necessarily favorable to what some of our client’s preconceived notions would be –  that’s part of the value and also candidly, part of the risk for neuro is you don’t really even always know what’s going to come back. And that’s something that I think anybody who’s kind of dipping their toe into neuro wants to understand how to use it. Once you understand its value you also need to understand that’s a distinct possibility for what might come back.

Adrian Tennant: So what are some of the most interesting research projects that Brainsights has undertaken?

Kevin Keane: We’ve live screened the entire Super Bowl to understand what ads actually work in the context of the Super Bowl and not just what works independent of that context. And the value of the context of the Super Bowl versus other contexts that we’ve looked at. So if I place my Super Bowl ad within the Super Bowl, but also place it within a drama or comedy on TV, or, some kind of digital platform, how does that compare? That’s always really interesting in understanding what is the impression quality value, the mental imprint that varies depending on the context within which a piece of content and ad is viewed. That work is always really interesting. Another piece of interesting work we did with a company up here called Home Equity Bank, who provide reverse mortgages, which is basically you have equity in your home and you can borrow against that for older Canadians 55-plus. And this is another kind of bias that marketers should be aware of – age bias. How do we talk to people that are older, that are in call them silver, golden years of their life? And the fundamental question that we were asked for this research, how do Gen X, Gen Z, Gen Y, how did they process the same stimuli, different than Boomers and how should we be configuring our advertising message to engage and persuade Boomers, their core audience? And we created a really beautiful study that busted bias around how Boomers want to be engaged. It’s not about speaking to this level of physical frailty, it’s about tapping into their internal view of creativity, guile, the things that most people want to see about themselves that weren’t being represented in mass media. And that was a brilliant piece of research and kudos to the team at Home Equity Bank for going down that path and putting their own advertising under the microscope. Again, like being brave in understanding that they probably made mistakes, and being open to learning and resolving that going forward. I think that that’s something that a lot of our clients share is that bravery, openness, and just relentless desire to improve.

Adrian Tennant: Well, we’ve seen the impact of COVID-19 play out in many ways. One of which of course is the acceleration of certain trends in consumer purchasing the adoption of e-commerce for grocery shopping. How do you see the role of technology in consumer research generally developing over the next five years or so?

Kevin Keane: I think it’s going to be a fine balance to strike. Because, and I mentioned this earlier, because of privacy worries, the disclosure, the unwarranted, reckless capture of consumer information. I think that technology’s potential is obviously huge and I think we’ve seen that obviously huge in delivering and surfacing ever greater insights and ever improved understanding of people. And that can be used for good, and it can be used for not so good. And let’s be honest, I think that we’re going to see increasing innovation and increasing importance in technology, in driving consumer research and a parallel to that is going to be a need for talent, both in the understanding and deployment of that technology, but also in more deeply understanding and deriving insights from the unique data that comes out of that technology. Equally that has to be blended or married with an approach that respects the consumers, the people that are using this technology and providing this data and are ever more aware of the data that they’re providing. And there has to be meaningful value exchange. Well, that happens with consumers for the provision of this data. And so I think that we’re going to see, I think, real innovation and technology that drives greater consumer insights. The ones that’ll come out and win are the ones that will provide that explicit, transparent value exchange with consumers, for the dues they’ll be providing.

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about Brainsights, where can they find you?

Kevin Keane: Find us on LinkedIn, find us on Facebook, Instagram, but all of our material including our latest research or white papers around audio, around our holiday mindset studies, can all be available on the as well.

Adrian Tennant: And we’ll include links to that resource on the transcript for this episode.  Kevin, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Kevin Keane: Adrian. Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed the discussion and I really love what you’re doing here.

Adrian Tennant: That’s very nice of you to say, thank you. Next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Dallas Taylor: Being in this sound design world, there’s all these really cool stories like the story of the Wilhelm scream or the NBC chimes or what’s that voice on your phone? Who is that person? There’s so many stories out there of these great sounds that have these very intricate histories that I wanted to tell.

Adrian Tennant: An interview with Dallas Taylor, creator and host of the podcast, Twenty Thousand Hertz, that reveals the hidden stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. That’s next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS. Thanks to my guest this week, Kevin Keane, co-founder and CEO of Brainsights. You’ll find links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights”. Just click on the button marked “Podcast”. And if you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or your preferred podcast player. And you’ll also find us on YouTube. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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