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Neuroscience Mars Digital Marketing

'You get 2 seconds to engage consumers online': Mars neuroscientist shares key findings


By Kenneth Hein, US Editor

August 13, 2020 | 6 min read

Mars shares key findings from one of the largest, on-going neuroscience studies in the world. The problem is marketers may not like the results. Have we got your attention?


This 15-second M&M's spot scored best online.

Digital ads are now the equivalent of a print or out-of-home ad. Why? Because extensive neuroscience studies, conducted by Mars, show that similar to these traditional methods, marketers now only have about two seconds to capture consumers' attention in the digital realm.

Mars, the family-owned global company behind brands like M&M’s, Wrigley’s gum, Skittles, and the like, thrives on impulse buys for many of its products. What Sorin Patilinet, global consumer marketing insights director, Mars, Inc., and his team in the communications lab, are trying to solve for is how to first draw attention and then create an emotional connection. The two together are the magic formula for triggering impulse purchases.

“You don't go to the store with gum on your shopping list,” says Patilinet. “We want to reach as many people as possible to build this memory structure, which will be triggered at the point of purchase, especially since half of our categories are mostly impulse buys like chocolate and gum.”

His team has spent the past six months working with RealEyes and other partners to develop what it calls the “future of pre-testing.” Through anonymous “facial coding,” it can detect attention and emotion. It has tested 130 digital ads across key geographies from the US to China in various durations ‑ six, 15, or 30-seconds and even long formats on YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms.

This is the latest tool within one of the largest neuromarketing studies in the world, which is now in its fifth year. One of the biggest takeaways from it all: “Marketers would be shocked if they knew how little active attention some of their executions are getting,” says Patilinet. “They think that people watch all the 15-seconds, and then they find out that in some cases, it’s only two seconds.”

In addition to the new “future of pre-testing” tool, Mars has gathered 4,000 campaigns from which they have identified a direct sales impact. They’ve done so in partnership with Nielsen, Catalina, IRI, Kantar and GFK. Of those thousands of ads, they’ve tested 250 for various elements of the cognitive process, attention, emotion, and memory. They’ve learned from the good and the bad to develop an understanding of what a “four-star ad” looks and feels like. The key finding: attention is a strong proxy for sales impact.

But attention alone isn’t the answer. “We look at it as a ladder. The first need is attention because we know that attention is declining. Once you've gotten that attention, you can then start eliciting emotions. We've proven that by building emotions, you can encode your distinctive assets into the consumer’s brain much, much better. And then [those assets] can be recalled. So, the ultimate goal is not emotion. The ultimate goal is memory encoding. But that happens faster through emotions than through rational messages.”

There are four challenges when it comes to creating emotional ads.

Emotion takes time

The number one thing Mars realized is that it's very difficult to elicit emotions in short form. The creative moves into a very tactical, rational space because of the short duration. A Facebook ad on newsfeed is seen for two seconds and a YouTube skippable ad is skipped as soon as possible. “So, we front load our creative. And this creates a little bit of tension with our belief that ads require emotional messages," says Patilinet. "The ads that we tested have lower levels of emotion. Our conclusion was that it's probably because we've moved from 30 seconds to now six seconds, that it’s difficult to elicit emotions. And because we need our logo and we need our brand [in those six seconds], it's hard to make the ad emotional without a story.”

You can’t trick your customers

Attention too often becomes the element tricking consumers into watching your ads. “We're not really looking for that because we know that that does not create a long-term relationship. We want to teach them about something and then show them the product. Digital ads now are very similar to what out-of-home ads were in the past or print ads because you basically have one shot in which to say your message and that's it.”

You need to strike at peak attention

Brands need to show their product or to highlight their brand at moments of peak attention. “We've landed on peak attention as a KPI that that drives success in digital,” he says. This issue is marketers have a maximum of five seconds to make in impact. “The only thing we can do is to elicit some polite attention within the duration that they watch.”

Don’t forget the art

Ads are a mix of art and science, says Patilinet. “We're trying as much as possible to push the science. But you can only push it up to a certain level because there's the art that your agency will come up with. We don't want to become overly technical.”

So, what works? Here is one M&M’s ad that really scored high on attention and emotion. No change was needed to it.

Patilinet and his team will continue to investigate how to strike the correct balance by leveraging neuroscience. They will also use it to remain rooted in reality. “I'd love to still live in the mirage, but I have my feet on the ground. We just need to be mindful that attention doesn't become lower that because we've been doing this ourselves. Too many ads, too much clutter on websites has created this attitude of removing ads from your life.”

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