NeuroChat - Tom van Bommel - Neuromarketing with EEG
[00:01 – 05:01]
Chris: Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to introduce yourself and have a discussion with us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, your training and your current position?
Tom: Sure. Yeah, currently, I own a company in neuromarketing, which means that we apply eye tracking EEG, GSR and well, that particular toolbox in the area of marketing of course. My personal background is in psychology. So, I was trained as a psychologist, particularly, consumer psychology, with a minor in neuroscience. So, there is this marriage between marketing and the biological area, of course on well, how people respond on a more physical level towards that marketing. And that of course, is united in neuromarketing nowadays.
Chris: That is great. What a good marriage between neuroscience and psychology and then applying it to current marketing. What prompted you to start a company? And how long have you been…
Tom: Well. Ten years ago, with my partner, who is named Tim, by the way. We met at the masters of consumer psychology in the Netherlands. And we… The stuff that we learned there really got our, well, blood pumped on applying that and seeing that being applied in the real world of course. So, all these, well, subtle cues that you can use to… Well, more on a subconscious level influence consumer behavior.
Tom: But what we saw when we went… Well, start with our internship for instance, we saw there was not that much being applied yet. So, instead of, well, joining another company, we just decided to start one ourselves and really bring the psychology and neuroscience towards the business world. And a lot has changed in that 10 years, not necessarily because of us of course. But during that 10 years, neuromarketing really caught fire, in a good way. So, yeah, it is cool being part of that movement.
Chris: That is fantastic. Yeah. I think you hit the timing just right for the ramp up into… I mean, there has been so much development, interesting development in both the basic neurosciences, but then also, you know, what we would call applied neuroscience and consumer neuroscience is a burgeoning field. So, congrats on getting the timing right. Tell us a little bit more specifically how do you employ physiological measures? What physiological measures do you use? And how do you, you know, structure those into your investigations for your customers?
Tom: Right. So, we got three core pillars of our research. First of all, the big part is media and advertising. So, mostly, letting people watch videos, while we register their eye tracking and while we use eye training to register their eye movements and of course, their brain activity while watching that. And from that, we of course, try to predict whether or not the ads going to work and if not what we can do about that and sort of, optimize the ad and take out the weak points and improve the strong points. So, that is the first one. Second one is usability, which is more on an individual basis where we really go into the individual experience while people, for instance, interact with a website or a new product packaging and see what are the highlights and again, the negative sides eventually of experiencing a website. And the third one actually, and that is where I really love the capabilities of what B-Alert can do is to go actually in retail environments and sort of, see how people respond to packaging shelves, the overall store ambience in the real world, in a way that does capture brain activity while still being valid, without having well… This could not be done 10 years ago, of course.
Tom: With technologies that we had then. So, those are the three pillars that we are active in.
Chris: That is great. And do you use any other… So, you use eye tracking, you are planning to use EEG. Do you use anything else like, skin conductance or any other measures of physiological activity?
Tom: Yes, skin conductance is the third one, which we sometimes use as an add-on to EEG. However, there is not a lot that GSR will tell you that EEG does not. So, most of the time, if we go with skin conductance, it is instead of EEG.
[05:02 – 10:00]
Tom: So, sort of, for environments or typical clients that do not have the budget for EEG, just to put it really bluntly. And they still want to have a touch of something neuro scientific and well, then we can offer GSR, which of course, is a lot cheaper to do and easier to administer per respondent because it is a lot faster. That is an advantage of GSR, of course. And what we did actually is do research in haunted houses of one of the theme parks in the Netherlands. A big theme park, a brand asked us to do research on what was the scariest and of course, the least scary parts of the haunted house, and sort of, figure out whether the emotional journey within that attractions was the way as intended. And of course, well, that is really GSR territory because GSR just tells you whether the body gets pumped up and well, that is all you need to know there. But in most research questions, we always go with EEG.
Chris: Yeah, and that has been our experience as well, you know. Particularly, if we are doing laboratory based experiments, we will hook up as many sensors as we possibly can, but the GSR seems to be, you are right, responsive in extreme emotional situations. But generally, we see that many people do not show much of a GSR response at all and other people are highly reactive on GSR, so, it is not the best generalizable measure. But you know, if now that you can do it with a wristband, it is, like you said, it is inexpensive and, you know, sometimes it is worth just adding in to see if you get anything. How about… Now, are all of your customers in Scandinavian countries or do you do work throughout Europe, have you done work in the US? In other words, are there any cross-cultural differences?
Tom: We did a lot of work in the US last year actually. So, our company is based in the Netherlands. So, Amsterdam, and most of our clients are still over here and we started to get bigger and especially do a lot of projects in New York. Currently, those are on hold due to the entire, well, COVID situation. So, there is a kind of, step back there. Fortunately, within the Netherlands, we are full steam ahead again. So, we are standing on both feet again and going forward. But yeah, we are really looking forward to, well, do more projects in the US and go more worldwide. But currently, our biggest market is in the Netherlands.
Chris: Great. But do you… In your opinion, are the measures that you are using, the eye tracking combined with EEG and maybe other measures, do you think they generalize from culture to culture or are there potential differences?
Tom: I would say so. So, we have not done really tight comparisons in this regard. Well, we do have one with movie trailers, where we did a trailer study. So, just let people watch movie trailers and see how their brain responds. And we did the same study with Dutch respondents and in New York, so, with US based respondents. And what you saw was that the emotional highlights which we measured with frontal asymmetry, pretty much were the same across the ocean. So, especially, in the realm of entertainment where of course, the Dutch markets are huge consumers of American entertainment, it is not that surprising that we really overlap in how our brain responds and that was actually what the data showed us.
Chris: That is great. Yeah, well that makes sense too, in that, you know, the big movie houses of the producers are looking for universally appealing themes and so they probably, hopefully, planned it that way. Well, what about… Do you get involved with anything, in terms of food or tasting or smell, you know, kind of the other sensory experiences besides vision?
Tom: Yeah, we are currently working with a big house in fragrances. So, this is kind of, like, the company that nobody knows by name but actually developed the fragrances of a lot of the, well, Hugo, Boss Armani type of brands. And not necessarily these names but just as an example. And what we did do for them is actually pinpoint the different kind of smells, so, the different nuances in the fragrances. And see whether or not the brain responds differently to those, again, with the prefrontal asymmetry metric. And there have been some published studies in this regard actually, that use the very same metric with smell.
[10:01 – 15:03]
Tom: So, there is some new ground that we are uncovering in that area but mostly it is visual stimuli so, product packaging, advertising, that kind of general marketing stuff.
Chris: Yeah. Well, our brains are really wired for visual experience primarily. But I am curious if you got into the other senses as well.
Tom: Well, we were actually asked to do. Oh, sorry. Just one idea that popped in my head, which is interesting to discuss for you, I think. Of course, with actually people tasting a product, there is a lot of facial activity involved, which of course, well, a lot of… evokes a lot of electrical activity, which potentially, well, disrupts your EEG signal.
Tom: So, with scent research, you can of course do it quite well, get clean data out of that because there is not the Turing movement. But as soon as people have actually… To eat and chew and swallow it, there is so much electrical activity going on that I personally would not really dare to go into that territory with EEG.
Chris: Yeah. You have hit on something that is really important, especially for novices in the EEG field. There are many biological signals that are much larger than the EEG and muscle activity is one of those. And the jaw muscles are some of the biggest muscles in the body so, you really cannot chew gum and acquire a good EEG at the same time. So that is good fundamental rule. We have worked on a number of studies with Dr. Lee burke out at Loma Linda, where they were looking at the effects of chocolate. Different types of chocolate and different concentrations of chocolate. And there, you know, you can control for it by just making sure it just melts on the tongue. So, you just put it in your mouth, you know, and then you allow it to melt. And we have also done some studies with them on nut butters. But again, the same thing. You know, you make sure that there is just a small amount in the mouth and you know, you do not allow people to bite down on it, or even swallowing itself has its own muscular activity. But there are certainly ways to do that and I know our friends at team us in Italy have done wine tasting too. It is one of my favorites.
Chris: Wine and cheese pairings. And again, there, you can somewhat control the amount of muscle activity. It makes maybe, the experience a little less genuine. But of course, you know, they get to drink the wine and eat the cheese afterwards, after the experimental session is over. So, I find those, you know, really interesting and you do have to be a little bit more careful, just like you do, when you are walking around a shopping mall. You have, you know, walking, which gives us a little bit of extra activity. Not too difficult to decontaminate from the EEG, but you know if somebody is jumping up and down then you are going to start to lose a little bit more. So, when you did your haunted house experiment, were people walking through the house and having different experiences? Oh, you did not use the EEG for that one, did you use EEG?
Tom: No, that was fully GSR. But we do use EEG in store and people sometimes jump up and down. So, we do get into those kind of situations, which are really workable. So, you have to, well, sort of, clean up your data a little harder but what I really like about it about ABM is that you can actually do that.
Tom: Whereas, well, 10 years ago, it would be virtually impossible to go beyond your lab with research.
Tom: And especially, our newer marketing clients really like that added realism, instead of using FMRI for instance, where people are lying flat on their back in a really noisy environment and you can now actually go into the store where it really happens.
Chris: Yes. Yeah, that is that is the beauty of our system and that was one of the design goals from the beginning to make it so lightweight and comfortable that you really forget you are wearing it. And that is always our goal. So, to… You know, allow people to have as realistic an experience as possible. Again, with the caveats that EEG is a tiny signal. We are really good at, you know, magnifying it and amplifying it and analyzing it, but you do have to take a few precautions. How about the future? Like, where do you see…? Do you have any ideal experimental designs or goals for ways that could better serve your clients?
Tom: Well, I think the research, the published research so far is still lacking a bit in validating actual brain signals to eventual behavior.
[15:04 – 20:01]
Tom: So, of course there are a lot of published studies that predict short-term behavior so, they measure brain activity for stimulus and then predict willingness to pay one hour later. Of course, what the companies that hire us are really after is predicting their sales targets months later. And that is a bit harder of course. And those studies are fortunately coming in, dripping in, sort of. And we do our own studies in that regard, where we really try to get market level data and correlate that with brain signals. And some published studies have done this very well with movie trailers. So, of course, the beauty of movie trailers is that you have got a really clear stimulus that you can measure, and you have got a really clear marked level response, which is ticket sales. And what we can actually do is predict those ticket sales based on brain level activity, which is beautiful. And with advertising, you want to do the same thing. But with advertising, it is a lot noisier between the moment you see the ad and the moment you find yourself in the store, contemplating whether or not you are going to buy the product. So, that is a lot harder. And what we are doing right now is doing a lot of validating studies with all kinds of measuring, in the lab and the eventual market level response. We are really trying to pinpoint the actual chain of events, sort of… Does brain activity really predict what happens down the line? And most of the time, fortunately, it does. So, we have seen this with movie trailers, with video game trailers and in a study we did two months ago, we saw it with the amount of plays a song has on Spotify. So, we really… We tested an entire new cd with 30 second sound bites from each song. And again, brain activity that we measured before the… On day one of the album being published, predicted which songs would become the biggest hit on that album two months later, and that is beautiful.
Chris: Yeah. I think the problem in the field of neuromarketing or consumer neuroscience is that companies like Nielsen are sitting on top of a lot of proprietary IP that they refuse to publish or make public. And so, you know, while they did a lot of interesting core research, they are… you know, that is part of their secret sauce.
Chris: So, are you interested in publishing in the scientific journals? Is that something you would be willing to…
Chris: Your data, beyond your customer base.
Tom: Yeah, that is what we are doing right now for the game trailers and film trailer part. That… So, there are a couple of published studies that predicted film trailer success from EEG. But the problems with those studies is that they always tested movie trailers of movies that were already released. So, a big part of what you are measuring in the brain is success that is already in the market. So, movies that have become a success, well, more than likely will generate a better result in your brain after being released. But what has not been done and what we have done now is actually test the trailers while the movie has not been released yet, and then wait a few months and see which movies actually became hits and then we can see whether the effect still holds, and it does. It is a bit weaker of course, but it is still very much there. And we have done that with movie trailers, game trailers and now music. And this is the first time to my knowledge, this has actually been tested and we will certainly will prepare a paper on this and get this published.
Chris: That is good, and please share any published results with us. We will be happy to circulate them. We are always interested in promoting, you know, scientific discovery in the field. It has been a very exciting for me. You know, I have been doing EEG for most of my career now, 30 years. And just to see the breadth and depth and scope of all of the applications has been very exciting. And so we are happy.
Tom: Oh, yeah.
Chris: The reason I am trying to, you know, at this point, get out and chat with people, not that we can go out and go anywhere… Have some chats and we are going to circulate all of these chats, so that people get to know, you know, our customers and… also understand a little bit more about what we can do with EEG, which I am still amazed and learning things, learning new things or seeing new applications and that is always very exciting.
Tom: Oh, yeah. There is so much you can do with it.
[20:02 – 25:01]
Chris: Yeah, that leads me to one last question. And that is, you know, what else can we do to help you further your research goals or further your company goals?
Tom: Well, you have done a lot already, without us asking. Because it is just, well, the product really fits our needs extremely well, because it is really what EEG need. Because EEG has been around for more than 100 years, if I am correct.
Tom: But it is only very recently that it has been applicable to marketing and that being is a lot of you to thank for. So, it is all about being portable, being comfortable. Those are the, well, the requirements that for a long time were not met and were not needed in a medical area of course, because who needs comfort, if all you need to know is a medical diagnosis. But of course, in medical, that is very much what you need because if it is not comfortable, if it is not realistic, what does the data actually tell you? And now, we can do that so, well, that is the biggest hurdle that we have had to take neuro to marketing.
Chris: Right. Yes, exactly. Well, that is great. This has been a fascinating discussion. Is there anything else you want to tell us tom? About your company or your goals or your vision.
Tom: Well, if we can go a bit more in depth in metrics, that are exciting us at least and that we use a lot is of course, the traditional, it is a weird word to use with neural markers but the traditional way to use metrics was of course, to get individual data and calculate metrics on the individual basis and if you would like to use that as an aggregate metric, you would just have an average of that. And what we have been using for the last couple of years is actual inter-subject synchronicity, which of course, is being published more and more on, which is more a metric of the degree to which respondents experience the same brain activity at the same time. And that has been found across a whole array of different contexts to be really predictive of actual behavior, because it tells you more or less how engaging or not disengaging a specific metric is. Because if a metric is not that interesting, people are going to think about other stuff and probably their brain activity will diverge more than when the metric is on and when the stimulus is really interesting.
Tom: And there is no one metric, there was not one metric to rule them all, because well, let us talk about movies for instance, the ideal brain pattern for a horror movie or horror movie trailer will of course, be vastly different than the ideal brain pattern for a rom-com. And there is only one metric that can really fit as an umbrella above all these different goals that your stimulus can have, which is the degree towards where the different respondents really feel the same thing at the same time. And well, it would be really interesting to make this more automated. So, if there is one thing you guys could help us out in, it would be this. Because now, we can certainly make it work but it requires a lot more manual stuff that we have to do in our… to calculate the amount of inter-subject synchronicity.
Chris: Well, that is actually an excellent question. It is an area we have been involved in and are actively involved in right now, where we are synchronizing across the brains of multiple participants. We have done some work where they are just passively watching a video, and there… I mean, I do not know what your experience has been but the audience may have some effect. They may synchronize but that… But the brain synchronization across individuals, we have seen it happen more when you have some sort of collaborative team interaction. So, if we have people come together to try to solve a problem together or we have, you know, there is been some great studies on musicians playing together. And there where you have this sort of, concentrated focus on being part of a team and collaborating, you do see synchronization across the brains. What we are working on now, we have a number of tools for synchronizing the systems. Now, we are working on how do we adapt our software so that you can open up two or ten files simultaneously and look across all of the individuals to look at coherence concordance.
[25:02 – 26:57]
Chris: We are looking at granger causality. So, if you start something, does that trigger a chain of events in the group of people that are… that, you know, you are interacting with or working with. And then lastly, we are looking now at all the studies we have done to date, people have been in the same room, either having a discussion or working together. What happens when you are in a zoom call?
Tom: Oh, yeah.
Chris: You know, you have to ask but now you have got six people that you are interacting with on video, will we see the same level of brain synchrony that we see when you are in the same room together with all of the cues and mirroring and everything that that you have. So, I expect us to come up with… I mean, we are going to be coming out with a whole suite of tools for team, what we call ‘team neurodynamics’ or ‘team synchrony’ and a lot of hopefully new research findings as well. It is very interesting.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah, the future is looking bright. This is still a lot of ground to uncover.
Chris: Yes, absolutely. And we see you definitely, as a good partner in uncovering all of those.
Tom: Thank you.
Chris: No worries. Alright.
Tom: We have you guys to thank you for that.
Chris: Yes. Yes. It has really been a pleasure getting to know you a little bit better.
Chris: Understanding what you are doing and I look forward to future collaborations and best of luck to you and your company.
Tom: Yeah, likewise. Thank you.
Chris: Alright, take care.
Tom: Take care. Bye