How neuroscience can save Christmas for brands

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Yes, it's September, and you're not the only one wondering where the year went right now. Excuse the 'C' word, but Christmas is around the corner, at least for consumers. Brands will already have most of their planning ready for this year, and they should be already working on their Christmas ads.

Or should they? Planning a traditional strategy during such an eventful year may fall short of customer expectations, or even generate some averse reactions altogether. When the tides turn so fast for us all, what worked three months ago may not be relevant in the now – which puts the entire Christmas planning at risk. How can brands save their Christmas?

We got in touch with Aoife McGuinness, neuroscience consultant at HeyHuman, to look at the problem from a different perspective. Can neuroscience help save the creative industry this Christmas?


How Neuroscience might just save Christmas 

It’s September. Summer’s barely left the building - those chirpy images of snow, Santa and shopping aren’t really on most people’s minds. It’s too early. Let’s get Halloween out of the way first. You know how it goes.

That’s customers, anyway. From a creative, brand perspective, all this Christmas stuff would be tucked away at the bottom of the proverbial stocking by now. The arguments about spend, what the overall sentiment is, what kind of delicate soundtrack you go for - that’s all in the rear-view mirror of the Coca-Cola truck in a regular September.

But this isn’t a regular September. You know that. I know that.

Every brand knows that. Yet some of them will still truck on, rolling out their campaigns as usual, not accounting for the seismic shift in how everyone now lives their lives. All the time and effort that’s gone into their traditional Christmas planning can’t just go to waste, they’d argue - they’ve gotten this far and they can’t just pull it. With traditional testing methods, they just don’t have the tools to gauge what they need to; they can’t be on the pulse, because they can’t account for that lapse in time and sentiment.

But going ahead with the messages, images and mindset of a few months ago could very well mean your creative seems out-of-touch. The tone might fall flat, the goalposts for taste may have changed, the coronavirus advice might be completely different to what it was when the ad was conceived. The nuance of public sentiment has been volatile, to say the least, during this pandemic - it’s highly unlikely your creative will chime with it if you’re basing it on how people felt three months, two months, even a month ago.


And in such a risk-averse, ever-fluctuating environment, anything we can do to bolster the relevance of our creative work is going to give us a massive leg-up when it comes to what customers choose to spend their time and money on this Christmas.

You’ve got to plan for every scenario, which is incredibly difficult, given that things seem to change weekly.

So how do you work that Christmas magic this year?

You can never know for certain, but one way to get as close as possible is by using neuroscience. You can get into people’s heads by mocking-up different Christmas scenarios - Christmas with lockdown, Christmas with a vaccine, Christmas without grandparents etc - against which you’ll test a range of concepts and brand communications, to see how consumers will respond in each.

Because, with traditional methods, you couldn’t have possibly predicted that people would be so blasé about safety when the R rate was so high, could you? And by the same token, could you have predicted the fear intensifying as the R rate dropped? Probably not. Now that living with the virus has become part of our everyday lives, neuroscience can be applied to fine-tune and guide creative work.

Lab-based techniques such as EEG (electroencephalogram - they’re the exact sort of headsets you’d imagine when someone tells you ‘neuroscience testing’) and eye tracking, alongside a slew of online techniques such as implicit association and visual saliency, offer you a range of options. Given current social distancing, the online choices are more practical for most people just now.

Once you decide which method is most suitable, get running those tests.

You can then ascertain what exactly it is about your ad that people gravitate towards; and, in the same breath, what it is they’re not overly keen on. Does your road-worn Christmas narrative still hold up, or does it require subtle changes?

Some of them might be the smallest of adjustments - perhaps a shot of people interacting at the Christmas market is deemed to be ‘too’ close, given social distancing and the residual fear of large crowds that’s still very much alive and well. Maybe the footage of the multi-generational family needs to be shot in a different way, given that our parents and grandparents may be shielding by the time December rolls in.


This real-time, genuine customer insight gives you the power to assess and tweak both the strategic and executional assets within your creative. For the former, that means the overall themes and messages within the ad; the latter concerns how those themes and messages are conveyed, in the form of actual assets like music, images, video and so on. You don’t have to stick with the dreary piano ballad this year - if those you’re testing on think it’s downright depressing, perhaps you should just change it.

Ultimately, your creative should mitigate fear.

Because there’s a lot to be afraid about: if our children are safe at school, how certain people will feel being isolated, our jobs, our homes. People don’t need to be reminded about that when they’re unwinding in front of the TV or browsing online.

Having the flexibility, knowledge and wish to edit your work in line with this; to properly empathise with an audience, is what will separate the truly great Christmas ads from the Brussels sprouts this year. The entire point of your ads is to positively engage customers and give them a reason to feel an affinity with your brand - basing these ads off their direct, unfiltered feedback really is a no-brainer.


Aoife McGuinness is neuroscience consultant at HeyHuman. Header image: Jesse Orrico.


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