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Synchronicity. The one brain metric to rule them all?

Relevant topics Research, Archive

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Neuro similarity has been found to be highly predictive of effectiveness of communication campaigns and packaging design.
  • Application:
    Neuromarketing research will go beyond individual measures and include overall similarity between respondents.
  • Wat exactly makes communication ‘work’? And what does successful communication look like in the brain? The latest brain research shows it is not so much a matter of specific brain areas lighting up, but rather the degree to which multiple brains react in the same way.

    Communication is what makes us human, as Yuval Noah Harari described in his book Sapiens (2014). For communication to be a successful exchange of information, it taps into a complex web of collective knowledge, abilities and social structures. Effective communication requires the translation of ideas from one person to another to take root (Hasson et al., 2004).

    As a marketeer, we most certainly understand that effective communication is key. But how do you know your message is communicated correctly?

    Neuroscientists have been long interested to study the parallels between people experiencing the same environment. They found that when seeing the same stimuli, their brain acted similarly, as if they were synchronized by the stimulus (Hasson et al., 2004). Several studies have proposed a neural measure to capture this similarity in brain activity (Nummenmaa et al., 2012).

    What does synchronous brain activity mean in practice?

    Synchronous brain activity is found in a movie with a coherent narrative: compared to a movie with random images, a coherent plot makes the individual brain behave more alike (Jääskeläinen et al., 2008). Others showed that high similarity suggested increased attention (Dmochowski, Sajda, Dias, & Parra, 2012).

    In addition, when participants are viewing a movie from a similar psychological perspective (for example all participants are empathizing with the same person in the movie), synchrony in brain activity between people increases (Nummenmaa et al., 2014). It is also shown that the degree of similarity across individuals’ brains might index the similarity of their emotional states.

    Illustration by Jeroen Krul.

    So, the research thus far indicates similarity in brain activity signals as the participants shared understanding of the stimulus. How can we use that in neuromarketing research? And does it predict anything about the actual effectiveness of the stimulus?

    Several recent studies have used EEG (electroencephalography), which is a method to measure brain activity hundreds of times per second, to test the outcomes of brain similarity. It was found that the similarity in brain activity during a television show can predict buzz of that show on Twitter (Dmochowski et al., 2014). Studies using the brain activity synchrony on movie trailers, were able to predict future recall of the movie (Barnett and Cerf, 2017) as well as population level box-office revenue (Christoforou et al., 2017).

    Predicting movie ticket sales with neuro similarity

    These promising findings prompted Unravel Research to develop the measure of neural synchrony themselves. Are we able to go beyond movie ticket predictions and predict the success of actual products in-store?

    Unravel started with replicating the previous movie trailer studies. In two studies, each testing 16 film trailers on 30 participants, the researchers were able to strongly correlate the degree of similarity brain activity with the box office revenue at the opening weekend. The correlation of this single measure with sales was .69. When building a regression model which also includes movie budget, the researchers reached a prediction accuracy of 79.7%. That’s an offer you can’t refuse.

    Predicting product sales with neuro similarity

    But does this also work when predicting sales for products? Unravel conducted a new study on how neural synchrony plays into the sales of food packaging. Why? It has been estimated that over 75% of food/drink purchase decisions are made at the point of sale (POPAI, 2014) where even 90% of consumers makes a purchase after only evaluating the front of the package (Urbany, Dickson, & Kalapurakal, 1996). Thus, compelling food packaging is essential when selling a product.

    To test whether neural synchrony is predictive in the context of packaging, the team set up a study evaluating 16 product packages within the cookies category and compared them to the weekly in-store sales of that product. And guess what? A book indeed is judged by its cover: the similarity on the packaging was again correlated with the in-store sales of the product.

    What’s in it for you?

    As a marketeer, you’ll always want to know how well your message is transferred to the customer. Neural similarity seems extremely promising in this regard. Of course, we do not know what exact message ‘causes’ neural similarity, but we do have a better understanding of the ‘neural signature’ that is predictive of in-store sales.

    Excited to learn more about neural synchrony in neuromarketing research? Visit https://www.unravelresearch.com/



    Barnett, S. B., & Cerf, M. (2017). A ticket for your thoughts: Method for predicting content recall and sales using neural similarity of moviegoers. Journal of Consumer Research44(1), 160-181.

    Barnett, S. B., White, H. M., & Cerf, M. (2016). Keep it simple stimuli: brain-vetted elements of movie trailers predict opening weekend ticket sales. ACR North American Advances.

    Christoforou, C., Papadopoulos, T. C., Constantinidou, F., & Theodorou, M. (2017). Your brain on the movies: a computational approach for predicting box-office performance from viewer’s brain responses to movie trailers. Frontiers in neuroinformatics11, 72.

    Dmochowski, J. P., Bezdek, M. A., Abelson, B. P., Johnson, J. S., Schumacher, E. H., & Parra, L. C. (2014). Audience preferences are predicted by temporal reliability of neural processing. Nature communications5, 4567.

    Dmochowski, J. P., Sajda, P., Dias, J., & Parra, L. C. (2012). Correlated components of ongoing EEG point to emotionally laden attention–a possible marker of engagement?. Frontiers in human neuroscience6, 112.

    Harari, Yuval Noah (2014), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, New York: Random House.

    Hasson, U., Nir, Y., Levy, I., Fuhrmann, G., & Malach, R. (2004). Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision. science303(5664), 1634-1640.

    Jääskeläinen, I. P., Koskentalo, K., Balk, M. H., Autti, T., Kauramäki, J., Pomren, C., & Sams, M. (2008). Inter-subject synchronization of prefrontal cortex hemodynamic activity during natural viewing. The open neuroimaging journal2, 14.

    Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Viinikainen, M., Jääskeläinen, I. P., Hari, R., & Sams, M. (2012). Emotions promote social interaction by synchronizing brain activity across individuals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(24), 9599-9604.

    Nummenmaa, L., Smirnov, D., Lahnakoski, J. M., Glerean, E., Jääskeläinen, I. P., Sams, M., & Hari, R. (2014). Mental action simulation synchronizes action–observation circuits across individuals. Journal of Neuroscience34(3), 748-757.

    POPAI (2014). Mass merchant shopper engagement study. Retrieved from: 936 http://university.popai.com/Research%20Library/popai-mass-merchant-shopper937 engagement-study.pdf

    Urbany, J. E., Dickson, P. R., & Kalapurakal, R. (1996). Price search in the retail grocery market. Journal of Marketing60(2), 91-104.

  • Synchronicity. The one brain metric to rule them all?

    Further Reading

    • If You Could Pick Just One Neuro Method – Which One Should It Be?

      If You Could Pick Just One Neuro Method – Which One Should It Be?

      Deciding whether or not to put a product in your shopping basket is often a split-second decision. If there’s one advantage neuromarketing has over traditional methods, it’s being able to measure objectively what happens during that split second.

      One problem: the amount of research methods under the ‘neuromarketing’ umbrella grows ever more diverse. From skin conductance to EEG. From Facial Coding to Eye Tracking.

      When deciding for a specific method, a marketer wants to know one single thing: how well does it predict actual purchase?

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