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Using neuro-metrics to inform and improve TV Advertising ROI

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1. Challenge

With an annual R100 million spend on TV advertising (2015 spend), our KFC ad strategy team felt it was important to build best practice principles or heuristics to guide the advertising and marketing team in producing creative content with an objective of improving return on investment. I regularly conducted research to gather KPI measures, but these failed to illuminate ways to improve the impact of our work. I needed to provide research insights that captured actual engagement and responses to the content, in a way that affected consumer decision making and response to the ads.


2. Approach




Quick service restaurants



Working with the Innerscope research team hailing from Harvard and MIT, I conducted research integrating biometrics, eye tracking and reported responses, since this methodology had been proven to predict consumer response and sales. We selected seven ads from our portfolio to identify which advertising stories and practices delivered best for KFC South Africa’s ROI. We designed a sample that was sufficiently large and diverse to be representative of our broad consumer base.

To make the most of the Innerscope research team expertise, I sat with the experts over a number of review sessions learning how to interpret the various metrics and patterns of response, allowing me to build a deep understanding of the way in which people responded to and learnt from advertising and communication. The time zone difference meant that these calls were held mid-evening. The insights were so rich and exciting that I often slept little after these sessions! In the detailed write up, I have shared just a few bit size learnings from my sessions. 


In facilitating a workshop with the advertising and marketing team, I developed an "ABCs of advertising for KFC SA". Not rules per se, these would be too constraining for the creative process, but guiding principles on best practice for better understanding and alignment between the ad agency, Ogilvy, and the marketing team.


Innerscope research agency, Advertising agency, Marketing team, CMO, Recruiters


By applying these ABCs to the scripts, design and production for more impactful advertising, we reduced time spent reviewing briefs and scripts by 30%. Draft production reviews were considered more constructive and effective, ensuring improved ROI and a better advertising delivery.

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A need to measure the right things, not the easy things

As our understanding of how advertising worked and as our advertising briefs evolved - away from persuasive messaging to using story telling, symbols, visuals and music to engage and influence - we needed a method to help us build capability in producing great ads: creative and effective ads. 


In the past, our adverising research delivered simple liking and interperation results using conscious measures from surveys. These are the easy-to-get measures. However these failed to deliver much beyond a series of KPIs upon which to reward teams with performance bonuses. To understand which adverts worked best for the brand we couldn't rely on traditional research techniques as these rely on conscious reported responses from viewers. However, with new technology and developments in neuro-psychology we were now able to learn retrospectively from our ad portfolio and build best practice principles.


To help the advertising agency, Ogilvy, and our marketing team determine and align on what makes a successful ad, we needed research that could measure consumer responses at a non conscious level, with results that were were also indicative of actual consumer behaviour and thus sales impact.

KFC advertising detail

Why look for new adverising metrics, when its easier (and much cheaper) to ask people what they think?

System one

Our non-conscious emotional and attentional responses have a stronger impact on decisions. To identify how people are responding to the video, we thus need to measure the system one or non conscious responses to the content.

No recall needed

Recall is a conscious process and our memories are faulty. These measures enable an observation of response​s, rather than a recollection of response.

Measure in the moment

To observe audience responses to the video content we need to measure responses at the moment of engagement with the content. This allows us to map resposes to areas of attention and content.

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Using biometrics, neurometrics and pscyhometrics for ad testing

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Working with Innerscope Neuroscience Research, a team of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists working out of Harvard University and MIT, we conducted research on seven KFC television commercials amongst 60 people. The research combined biometrics, neurometrics and psychometrics to help understand consumer behavior, and to measure and analyze audience engagement with the adverts. We chose this experienced team and this research methodology as it had been proven to predict customer responses and sales data 

  • across a 40 ad data set with a Fortune 500 brand;

  • across an 18 ad data set with a Fortune CPG brand;

  • in new product sales; and

  • in magazine sales with a ARF validation set.


Since I was spending large sums from our research budget to ship biometric equipment, including Tobii eye tracking monitor screens, from USA to South Africa for the purposes of the research, it was imperative that the research provide us with truly valuable results. As KFC has a broad customer base we selected adverts that targeted a range of demographics and product consumers, and thus recruited both low and high income, younger and older consumers. 

People were recruited to watch a television show with a range of adverts shown at the scheduled breaks to normalise their engagement and one KFC ad was included in the reel for each participant. Several participants in the research were mistakenly shown a TV series that wasn't relevant to their home language and interests and I saw that this had a negative impact on their overall engagment with the content. As a result the ads seemed relatively entertaining in comparison to the TV show. Concerned, I raised this with Innerscope who recruited replacement participants and sessions to make up for this error. 

To capture non-conscious responses to the KFC ad, people wore devices that captured their heartrate and galvanic skin response and watched the advert on a Tobii eye tracking monitor screen. A short questionnaire was completed after the TV show to capture recall of and conscious response to the KFC adverts.

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The engagement pattern matters more than the moment in time

While it is important to grab attention early on in an ad (or story), the overall pattern of engagement and intensity of engagement throughout an ad matters more than whether engagement is positive or negative at a single point in an ad. However, since the first and third sections of the ad are most predictive of sales, an advert should deliver strong, positive engagement in the first and third sections of an advert to optimise impact on sales.

Build up story effective for new launches: single message

To announce a new product or service, the build-up story may be more relevant. However, the approach constrains the ad to delivering one key message. One of our new breakfast ads followed a build-up approach capturing and building viewer engagement with frequent scene cuts and fast paced music. We learnt the novel approach attracts interest. However, the risk of frequent camera cuts is disorientation, resulting in disengagement which needs music and voice-over to keep viewers oriented.

Coherence is aided by simpler stories and familiar structure

Tighter, simpler stories are more coherent, preferred to stories with many parts as they require less effort, especially for relaxed, at-home ad break viewing. Stories need coherence to maximise their effect. Two simple ways to check for coherence are: 

  1. clear beginning, middle and end of a story;  

  2. introduce the protagonist early, carry them throughout the story and ensure they are visible in the end.

Familiar story structures and contexts also help reduce the effort to follow the story. #Cognitiveeffort

An S-Curve of engagment is best for brand building

For brand building and repeated engagment, story-based (S-Curve) advertising is recommended. The S-Curve is evident when the ad gets enough interest early on, provides some tension in which engagement drops, then resolves the story, ending on a high - along with branding. The story is more character driven, eliciting feeling and requiring less thinking. A key benefit of S-Curve advertising is that it can deliver multiple messages, and is especially helpful for building brand equity over time.

Eye movement indicates cognitive effort

Beyond eye tracking heat maps, we learnt how to recognise if the viewer was having to work hard cognitively to follow the story and ad, through the pattern of eye movements. Working cognitively hard meant the viewer was more likely to disengage with the ad which reduces the ads ability to deliver for the brand. In the breakast ad, frequent camera cuts caused some disorientation. Typically this would result in disengagement but in this case, we learnt that music and the voice-over had helped to keep viewers oriented. 

Visual biases direct our attention: beware of attention vampires

The brand needs to gain visual attention, whether subtly or more overtly, to effectively combine the ad message with the brand memory. However, due to our inherent visual biases, many viewers fail to see the brand if other objects or activity on the screen compete with attention for the brand. We called these attention vampires. When the brand competes with faces, movement, writing or is on the periphery, attention to the brand is reduced.

Building agreed best practice principles for more efficient script reviews and better ad engagment

From the multitude of learnings gained from both the research and specialised expertise shared by the Harvard and MIT professors, and in collaboration with the Ogilvy team, we agreed on a simple framework of principles to apply during the script and production review phase of an advert. We called this the A B Cs of script and production review. The principles in the framework were used to provide a common agreed understanding of "what great work looks like", an evaluation that can be challenging in a creative process.

While a couple of the ads produced good results, some of the ads performed poorly in the research. We accepted that we all had a part to play in the results from the ads we'd tested and had done the best job we could at the time. Some of the discussions on what had gone wrong were difficult, with millions of rand in brand investment and people's contributions under sscrutiny. Yet, it was easier for everyone to agree on best practice principles for a way forward. 


As a result we were able to get better understanding and alignment between the agency and the marketing team on the story line and production in an advert. It also alerted the marketing team to be clearer about how many messages they could ask the agency to communicate in an advert, which resulted in more focused advertising briefs as well as a more focused objective and 'box' for the creative team.

I was able to share the learnings with the global team and, over the next year, ran training sessions with different markets to build organisational capability in using mind science to improve the impact of advertising. I was awarded the "superhero" of insights by the Global CMO, a superman action figurine on which was inscribed "Alana, thank you for your inspiring and insightful work, for sharing and building capability globally, for more impactful KFC brand work". My young boys have benefited from the Superman the most - it has been through many superhero figurine fights in our home!


Building insights from non-conscious responses across the seven ads

To make the most of the Innerscope research team expertise, I sat with them over a number of review sessions to learn how to interpret the bio, neuro and psycho- metrics. The time zone difference meant that these calls were held mid-evening. The insights were so rich and exciting that I often slept little after these sessions! Below I have shared just a few bit size learnings from my sessions.

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