Sweat Consumer Insight out!

Delphine Caruelle

How to know if your commercial or the experience you create for your customers is emotionally engaging? You can measure the quantity of sweat they secrete.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Consumer behaviour

Knowing how customers feel is critical to marketers. To gain such insight, a survey is usually administered to customers – asking them to report on scales how they feel. However, advances in neurosciences now allow to unveil consumer emotions by studying physiological changes i.e., reactions in the body.

Physiological changes are indeed what distinguish affect from cognition. The emotional experience first occurs at the physiological level (e.g., heart rate acceleration, sweat secretion); once the mind discerns these physiological changes, the person becomes conscious of experiencing an emotion.

Therefore, studying physiological changes can enable to detect emotions. Of particular relevance is electrodermal activity (EDA), a psychophysiological indicator of emotional arousal.

• Read also: Consumer lies in the service encounter

Emotional stimulation

When a stimulus (an object, a person, or a situation) is emotionally relevant, the eccrine sweat glands in one’s body are activated. These glands then secrete some sweat, which might or might not be visible at the surface of the skin. This translates into a sudden increase in electrodermal activity level.

The quantity of sweat produced by these eccrine sweat glands reflects the degree of emotional stimulation (also called emotional arousal). Quantifying the emotional reaction to a stimulus thus consists into measuring the quantity of sweat that has been secreted, as indicated by the rise in EDA level.

How to measure electrodermal activity

While many neuroscientific tools (e.g., fMRI) are not easily available, measuring EDA only requires the use of an EDA-sensor equipment.

This equipment – which in its simplest version looks like a mere wrist band - is to be placed on the fingers, palms and/or wrists of the participants, thus measuring emotional reactions in a non-obtrusive manner. Such equipment is becoming increasingly affordable and user-friendly. Besides, free software is available to analyze EDA data.

Why using sweat?

Using EDA to measure the emotional reaction to a marketing stimulus has three main advantages.

  1. First, it allows to capture the emotional reaction continuously. For instance, EDA can be recorded second by second while watching a commercial. This informs marketers on which particular scenes in the commercial are emotionally engaging. Similarly, measuring EDA while customers visit a store or while they experience a certain service allows to understand what parts of the shopping trip or of the service experience generates an emotional response, and which parts do not.
  2. Second, it taps into unconscious emotions i.e., emotions experienced physiologically but not reaching the stage of awareness. Unconscious emotions have been shown to impact consumer behavior – despite individuals not being aware of them. Unconscious emotions cannot be detected through surveys or interviews, since individuals are not conscious of them. EDA measurement is thus of great help to record such emotions.
  3. Third, using EDA allows to bypass the biases of the mind. EDA is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which means that it does not depend on any voluntary control. Consumers are not always able or willing to report their emotions with accuracy, whereas EDA captures the emotional response in a non-verbal way, as it is experienced physiologically. This is particularly useful when testing the emotional response to an advertisement that is controversial or unconventional. Respondents might refrain from telling how this advertisement makes them truly feel, but EDA would reveal the emotional stimulation experienced before any cognitive filtering.

Complement to self-reports

Electrodermal activity measurement should not be seen as a mere substitute for survey methods, rather as a complement. For instance, an EDA measurement records emotional stimulation second by second, whereas surveys capture a summary of the emotional response. Using both methods thus allows to have a more complete overview of the emotional response.

In conclusion, even though using sweat to gain consumer insights does sound not very glamorous, EDA measurement offers a novel and complementary approach to quantifying the emotional reaction to marketing stimuli and is worthy of marketers’ consideration.

This article is published in BI Marketing Magazine 2018. BI Marketing Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Marketing at BI Norwegian Business School.

Text: PhD Candidate Delphine Caruelle, Department of Marketing, BI Norwegian Business Review.

Published 5. July 2018

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