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Perspectives: Lessons from the Auto Show – for All Marketers
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Perspectives: Lessons from the Auto Show – for All Marketers

Anyone who goes to major industry trade shows is bombarded by what readers old enough to remember Jay McInerney would call the “bright lights, bright booths” approach. Everyone there tries to capture your attention and steal a minute (better yet, a few minutes) of your time to show you their new product or service.

I recently attended the Detroit Auto Show where, according to the organizers, “future mobility innovations meet the pavement.” It was, obviously, about cars. But it also had some of the elements you’d see at any trade show—lots of information about what you can get now, and a few teasers about what’s to come.

But how well do these enormous investments in attempts to capture your attention actually work? This would be, I thought, a good place to run a test using some of the consumer neuroscience technology that Nielsen routinely uses to evaluate media content, advertising and packaging.

So I walked the show floor with an Automotive News reporter wired with eye tracking and biometric equipment, curious about which elements truly engaged and which did not. After all, these nonconscious measures—by which I mean any passive measure of processing below conscious awareness—provide unfiltered data and insights that are far more complete than simply asking for a spoken response.

After all, how many things can you say for certain that you’re paying attention to, or even seeing, at any given moment? Whether five minutes or five hours ago, our brains just aren’t good at recalling the kinds of details marketers need to evaluate their efforts in a complex world. Applying the right neuroscience tools can capture a more complete view of the experience, second-by-second. They can report, with incredible accuracy, what you see, and how deeply you engage with it.

What I and my reporter friend saw is consistent with what we at Nielsen see in everything we test: some elements engage, others don’t. Some go completely unnoticed.

What did we learn from this little experiment?

  • Habits are hard to break. Our participant repeatedly engaged with cars in the same way. The way he approached a car, the features he engaged with first and second, and the order in which he revisited them reflected habits formed from years of looking at cars. It was striking. But after all, cars are complex things, and we (nonconsciously) develop patterns of behavior all the time to train our brains to act in certain ways when faced with familiar tasks, all in the service of processing information as efficiently as possible. That means the way in which we watch TV, surf websites, flip through magazines and, in this case, “consume content” at a trade show becomes ritualized. Brands must understand these nonconscious processes in order to know whether they’re truly reaching consumers. Often, however, they don’t—and given the high budgets that go into branding and its potential effects, it’s surprising how much is left to chance.
  • It’s what people do, not what they say, that matters. There were several instances in which our participant was highly engaged with a car, or some of its individual components. Yet he couldn’t recall them, and he certainly couldn’t verbalize them. We can’t consciously recall—and therefore can’t articulate—everything that’s stored in our brain in the manner traditional brand analyses require. Fortunately, new technologies that passively measure experience at a nonconscious level are available to aid marketers in understanding what truly engages consumers.
  • Neuroscience is “always on.” Our technology sees everything participants see, and evaluates everything participants experience, moment-by-moment. So there’s a real understanding of whether something worked or not. For instance, my experience showed, as it so often does, that some of the biggest signs—those that brands are probably certain will be seen—often are not. Not only did our participant not engage with them, he never even saw many of them. These are not inexpensive oversights. Brands need to understand that the placement of creative elements needs to be guided by how attendees truly navigate their environment, not how we think they will navigate it.
  • Make it clear. The technology and results showed more than once that my colleague didn’t have a positive experience with something you would have expected him to. As we looked back through the data, we saw instances of low engagement with information that the manufacturer clearly thought was presented well—when in fact, it was presented poorly. At one point, our participant saw something intriguing, but he couldn’t understand what it was or how to use it. For manufacturers’ expectations to be met, a “wow” factor must be presented with the appropriate amount of information, in the right way. And, paradoxically, the more complex the message, the simpler the explanation required.

The bar has never been higher to reach consumers. We are all perpetually distracted with more choices on more screens with more advertising than ever before. Our mobile, always-on lifestyles have made engaging today’s consumer harder than ever. Whether you’re creating an ad, understanding a driving experience, or designing a trade show experience, you need to go beyond what you think your audience will engage with—and even beyond what traditional tests suggest they will engage with. Understanding nonconscious responses gives brands the confidence to succeed in any situation.

Read the reporter’s published experience in Automotive News.