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Local researcher gets a read on what consumers really want

When she worked as a corporate marketing researcher more than a decade ago, KeunYoung Oh was regularly frustrated by the limitations of consumer surveys. What people said they wanted in a product, she found, often wasn’t what they ended up buying.

Now, as an academic researcher, Oh is studying a potential way to get more accurate feedback from consumers. She’s reading minds.

The SUNY Buffalo State College associate professor of fashion and textile technology is using electroencephalography, or EEG – a technology traditionally reserved for medicine – to analyze the brain waves of shoppers.

“We are trying to break into a consumer’s mind,” said Oh.

“This kind of new technology can give us consumers’ immediate response to products, including their emotions,” said Oh. And more than anything, it’s those emotions that tend to fuel consumer decision-making.

Oh set up her experiments in a small office on the third floor of the college’s Technology Building, where she is examining how people react to familiar and unfamiliar brand names and the impact website reviewer ratings have on consumers.

She relies on students to serve as test subjects, and on a Wednesday afternoon, senior Brea Bates has agreed to participate.

It’s the busiest shopping season of the year, and Bates sits on a chair in front of a computer screen, as she might do while looking online for gifts for her family. Only in this session, Oh slips a cloth cap over Bates’ hair that looks like something out of a sci-fi flick. The gray cap has a series of button-like nubs on the outside and a network of thin wires inside the cloth.

After snapping the cap in place, Oh fills a plastic syringe with a gel and injects it into each of the nubs - which are the electrodes that pick up tiny electrical charges emanating from just below the scalp’s surface. Oh asks Bates to stay as still as possible during the experiment, which includes five sets of visual stimuli displayed on the computer monitor. As Bates looks at the pictures, a special device known as the Nexus 32 records her brain waves.

The experiment – conducted with Bates in the room alone – lasts about 20 minutes.

Buffalo State fashion and textile technology associate professor Keunyoung Oh shows her test subject Elyse Stark the results of their experiment. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Buffalo State fashion and textile technology associate professor KeunYoung Oh shows her test subject Elyse Stark the results of their experiment. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Some of the pictures show articles of clothing that Bates and other consumers might buy online. Other sets of pictures flash brand names like Walmart and Target, as well as other names that aren’t well known to American buyers.

Ultimately, Oh will be able to examine what drew the attention of Bates and other participants to particular products or brand names. She also can measure whether certain products, brands or concepts prompted emotional responses in people.

It’s all part of a burgeoning field called neuromarketing, that uses neuroscience in an attempt to understand consumer behavior.

Getting to the bottom of why someone bought something is difficult using traditional consumer surveys, because respondents often unconsciously provide misleading answers on those surveys, said Oh, a native of South Korea who was associate director of the marketing science center for Research International between 2002 and 2007.

Oh started teaching in Seoul at the same time, and landed a job as a research scholar and lecturer at Auburn University in 2007. Buffalo State hired her in 2008.

“Consumer behaviors do not really reflect what they said in surveys,” she said.

Most people “are not intentionally lying,” she said. But they act logically or rationally in answering a survey, when in reality emotions usually govern buying, especially in the case of smaller purchases like clothing.

“Most oftentimes, our behaviors are dependent on how we feel. The how-we-feel comes before how we think,” she said.

EEG is used in the diagnosis of medical conditions such as attention deficit disorder, insomnia and depression. The technology allows Oh to measure a consumer’s “instant perceptions.” The electrodes are able to capture a brain’s response within 600 milliseconds of an image being flashed on screen.

The concept of neuromarketing might seem a little Orwellian, but in today’s social media and technology-driven world, it’s almost predictable, too. Consumer habits already are being tracked and analyzed through the websites people visit and through the products they buy online.

“I’m not surprised that this is the next step, going a little bit further,” said Bates, a fashion and merchandising major from Buffalo.

Christophe Morin likes to compare the use of neuroimaging in marketing to the telescope in astronomy.

“Marketing for a long time was based on assumptions and theories that are completely obsolete, very much like our views of the universe became obsolete after the invention of the telescope,” said Morin, founder of a marketing research firm based in California and co-author of  “Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in Your Customer’s Brain.”

“We all know in many ways that neuromarketing is the next step in making marketing a more scientific field,” he said. “The field is making its way into academia. The field is definitely here to stay. It’s not a fad; it’s not a gimmick.”

Bates was more than happy to be a research subject. The cap, she said, “feels kind of good. It doesn’t feel weird at all.”

“I know neuromarketing is becoming really important in the fashion industry,” she said. “I think it’s going to become really popular. Everybody is trying to reach as many consumers as possible.”

Oh said student participation in the study is a key component because it gets them much more engaged in the learning process. She plans to test as many as 50 students and to publish a paper on her findings in an academic journal.

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