One of the great buzzwords in recent years has been “customer engagement,” generally taken to mean how emotionally involved customers are with a product or brand. And, whatever one calls it, having customers who not only are satisfied with your product but are willing to promote it, defend it, and do battle with others on behalf of it is a great state of being. Who wouldn’t to have customers like Apple’s? Try to explain that PCs are better for business networking and have more software to a long-time Apple customer, and you’ll provoke as impassioned a response as if you had suggested that a devout Baptist friend consider the virtues of Buddhism. Clearly, few brands enjoy that level of customer engagement, but most companies would love to tap into even a fraction of that emotional commitment. (Kathy Sierra writes some great material with on this topic in her Creating Passionate Users blog, e.g. How do you thank your loyal users?. The focus is nominally software-oriented, but her posts make great general reading. And, as a bonus that readers of this blog will appreciate, she incorporates a mind/brain science component in many posts.)
Neuromarketing studies have looked at brand recognition, and found that familiar brands produce higher levels of brain activity in areas associated with positive emotions (see Brain Branding: The Power of Strong Brands). Another study showed that brands can be associated with a positive experience can be “hardwired” in the brain in a manner vaguely similar to Pavlovian conditioning (see Branding and the Brain). Still, having a strong brand identity is not the same as having highly engaged customers, although there may well be overlap between the two concepts.
One would think that neuromarketing techniques could tell us something about customer engagement, since it apparently involves a strong emotional response to the brand or product. And indeed, that seems to be the case. Last year, the Gallup Management Journal published an interview (credited to the Harvard Business Review) with Gallup principal John Fleming titled, Is That A Neuromarketer in Your Brain? Oddly, the pullout quote from Fleming is, “Neuromarketing runs the risk of being perceived as a sham science,” although he proceeds to report on an fMRI study of customer engagement with great enthusiasm. I assume that Fleming is using an extremely narrow definition of neuromarketing, or finds some other way to distinguish neuro-customer-engagement from other aspects of marketing.
Semantics aside, Fleming’s research is interesting. Before we delve into it, be aware that Gallup offers both survey services and consulting to companies, and “engagement” is their big pitch. You don’t want satisfied employees, you want engaged employees. Ditto for customers. Gallup will survey your employees, customers and potential customers, etc. and compare data to a large database of results from other companies. Hence, they focus on standardized questions that allow easy comparisons over time and between firms. While I have no doubts about Gallup’s statistical analysis acumen, they tend to dress up their theories with pseudo-formulas like L3 + A8 = CE11. This seems to be a fancy way of saying they ask three questions about “rational” satisfaction with a brand and eight questions about emotional attachment to come up with a value for customer engagement.
The study described by Fleming differed from Gallup’s normal survey techniques in one major way: the subjects were in an fMRI machine while they were asked the questions. Their brain activity was monitored and correlated with their responses to the questions. Fleming notes,
We found that the higher the level of engagement, the more activity occurred in three specific areas of the brain: The orbital frontal cortex, which is where emotion and cognition are integrated; the temporal pole, which is one area for accessing memory; and interestingly, the fusiform gyrus, which is implicated in facial recognition. So, the initial hypothesis was that the more engaged customers are, the more actively they pull out memories — and that their thinking process involves faces. The hypothesis was that they were probably recollecting an experience they’d had at the retailer, and at the same time, they were more active in integrating emotional and cognitive information…
When we looked more closely at those who scored high on questions relate to their “Passion” for the retailer, two additional areas of the brain lit up. The first was the amygdala, which is the area associated with emotional processing. The second area was the cingulate gyrus, which is implicated in binary decisions — for example, decisions about what is good or bad… The implication is that their brains were firing off on a lot of emotional content.
The fact that highly passionate customers show emotion-related brain activity when asked about the brand doesn’t seem like a huge surprise. There was an interesting aspect to the responses, though. The questions related to simple, rational satisfaction (e.g., “How satisfied are you with ____?” and “How likely are you to recommend ____ to a friend?”) produced no enhanced brain activity. The eight customer engagement questions (e.g., “_____ is a brand I can trust.” and “I feel proud to be a ______ customer/user/shopper.”) did produce higher levels of brain activation which correlated with the subjects’ responses to the questions. Fleming also reported that there was a strong correlation between the level of engagement measured by the survey responses and actual purchases.
Fleming uses the data as a launching pad to explain the importance of measuring the right variables (i.e., those that are part of the Gallup methodology) when surveying customers. While we can’t argue with the idea that emotionally attached customers are the kind of customers you want, we think Fleming’s work can also help those conducting fMRI-based neuromarketing studies. By identifying brain areas that seem to respond to an emotional attachment to the product, this work provides a bit more “marketing mapping” information useful in evaluating subject responses to product designs, advertising messages, etc.
Beyond watching for lit-up amygdalas and cingulate gyrii, what should marketers seeking passionate customers do? Developing engaged customers takes a lot more than clever ads, or even a highly effective marketing plan. Rather, one needs a culture of customer engagement that starts with the product concept and design, flows through marketing and merchandizing, and reaches into every aspect of customer interaction and support. While occasionally a company can treat its customers poorly and still engender surprising loyalty, that isn’t the approach we’d recommend. Try and do everything right; you probably won’t be perfect in every area, but a small lapse here or there may not prove fatal if the other areas perform well enough. Don’t count on neuromarketing as a major component of the process; rather, let it be part of the research process that leads to products and marketing that maximize customer emotional engagement with the brand.