New York, NY — When I walked into a recent leadership meeting, I found two things on my chair: a copy of the Harvard Business Review (the one with the Advertising Analytics article on the cover) and a hardback of Unconscious Branding by Douglas Van Praet. It’s a book that we can’t stop talking about because it takes on all the challenges and limitations of creating break-thru work with same-old market research techniques.

Van Praet’s core premise is that emotion – not logic – is at the core of all our decision making. As the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor puts it, “We live in a world where we are taught from the start that we are thinking creatures that feel. The truth is, we are feeling creatures that think.” In fact, we don’t even think our way to logical answers. We feel our way to the reason. Emotions don’t hinder our decisions. They drive them.

That should be great news for us. Marketers are supposed to be experts at understanding and engaging people at a very emotional level. The challenge comes when we test that creative by sitting behind a one-way mirror, enjoying some M&Ms and asking people to consciously explain the unconscious origins of their actions.

We want their limited, linear left brains to explain the sensory responses of their creative right brain. So, the left brain uses its numbers and words to try to explain the right brain’s emotions and sensations. That creates an enormous gap between what we say and what we experience.

Van Praet said, “Describing joy or sorrow as an arithmetic mean is like describing a van Gogh painting as a binomial coefficient.” The real human experience is something that data can’t capture. “We need to generate smiles, tears, or goose bumps–not significant differences correlated at the 95% confidence interval,” he explained.

The great example is the Volkswagen commercial that Deutsch LA created for the Super Bowl.

In standard testing, it didn’t garner the gold-standard of purchase intent. Instead, it rated a below-average persuasion score. These are the numbers that we make multi-million dollar bets on despite their spotty correlation to actual sales data.

But that didn’t mean it didn’t generate a strong emotional response. In the annual Sands Research Super Bowl Ad Neuro Ranking, which measures not what people say but how they feel through electrophysiological activity in the brain, the ad elicited the strongest emotional response that they’d ever seen in testing.

Of course, the bet VW made on “The Force” paid off. The spot was one of the most-shared and talked-about in the Super Bowl mix. And, well beyond the impressions it paid for during the big game, it earned billions of YouTube impressions, estimated to be worth more than $100 million in earned media. Oh, and, the VW brand achieved the best U.S. market share in 30 years.

Van Praet’s ideas point to new approaches to advertising. But, there’s still much more work to be done on how to test them.

Take a look at this Coke video for a few hints at how their company is changing the market research mix (FFW to minute 4:32 if you’re in a hurry).

What’s the best new approach to market research you’ve seen?

Posted by: Leigh Householder

photo credit: Broo_am (Andy B) via photopin cc

About the Author:

As Managing Director of Innovation and Insights for Syneos Health Communications, Leigh is responsible for building and scaling a global team of healthcare experts who together help life science leaders better understand the complex lives, influences and expectations of their customers. Specifically, they uncover actionable insights that fuel empathy and creativity; lead co-creation events that let marketers learn from peers, trends, and new possibilities; and help clients identify the most valuable and useful new customer experiences to create.

Leigh has worked with Fortune 1000 companies to craft their digital, mobile, social and CRM strategies for nearly 20 years.She’s worked for category-leading agencies in retail, public affairs, B2B technology, and higher education. Prior to moving to Syneos Health Communications, she held several leadership roles at our largest agency, GSW.  There, she founded an innovation practice fueled by the zeitgeist and spearheaded digital and innovation thinking across the business.

Leigh has taken a special interest in complex healthcare products that can change lives in meaningful ways. She was recently a strategic lead on the 3rd largest launch in pharmaceutical history: Tecfidera. Before that she had keys roles with Eli Lilly Oncology, Abbott Nutrition, Amgen Cardiovascular, and Eli Lilly Diabetes.

A critical part of Leigh’s work is trends and new ideas. Every year, she convenes a group of trend watchers from across our global network to identify the shifts most critical to healthcare marketers. This year, she led over 250 experts to experts to focus on the most important changes in the commercial, consumer, marketing, digital and healthcare landscapes. (See reports at

Leigh is a sought-after writer and speaker. Recognized as one of the most inspiring people in the pharmaceutical industry by PharmaVoice and Top 10 Innovation Catalysts of 2017 by MM&M, Leigh also was recognized  as a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring.