Emotional Stability Neuroscience Start-Up’s
Measurement Tool Aids Marketers

February 15, 2008


Here’s a tip for Mark Penn, Martin Sorrell, Bill Gates, A. G. Lafley and every marketer and communicator following in their footsteps. If you want to elect candidates, create breakthrough advertising, produce powerful video games and provide innovative products, go have a conversation with Mike Lee, CEO of San Francisco based EmSense.

Lee’s little San Francisco tech start-up is making progress measuring emotional response to communications using lightweight physiological and neurological sensing devices, a proprietary set of data processing algorithms and an analytics database. The high tech tools and processing techniques emerging from EmSense just might revolutionize the worlds inhabited by Penn, Sorrell, Gates and Lafley.

Penn is CEO of Burson-Marsteller and president of Penn, Schoen and Berland, chief pollster for Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Sorrell is the CEO of WPP, the global communications powerhouse. Gates is chairman of Microsoft, provider of Xbox games. Lafley is CEO of P&G, the consumer products giant. All depend on consumer insights.

In the New Hampshire presidential primary we saw that the consumer insights business is unpredictable. Marketers are trained to seek to understand how consumers think, feel and act. Consumer insights are the life blood of marketing. They are our competitive advantage. Yet they’re a tool that relies both upon art and science. We’ve made a lot of progress in market research but any junior product manager knows there’s often a gap between how consumers respond in a survey and how they actually behave at the polls or in a store.

The missing component in the analysis is often our inability to measure and predict consumer feelings or emotions. Traditional market research techniques don’t help much in the emotional realm. Qualitative market researchers may intuit what respondents feel about a new product or a new television commercial, but quantifying emotional response to new products and communications is still a dicey business.

Lee, 53, believes EmSense can change all that. He wants to put more scientific method and cutting edge hardware, software and analytics into our research arsenal. “Understanding emotion wasn’t possible in the past. Technology has developed to the point that it is now,” Lee says. “We can measure emotion on a large scale. Once you can get that data into a computer, you can start to change things like advertising. You can provide information nobody’s had before and make better decisions.”

Lee is a Silicon Valley veteran with degrees from MIT and Stanford. He cut his teeth at Hewlett Packard at the prestigious HP Labs. He counts HP co-founder David Packard among his mentors. He helped invent and commercialize HP printers, plotters and medical devices like EKGs. He helped David Packard start a marine research institute. He’s had the entrepreneurial bug since childhood, growing up on a farm in Idaho. His first venture at age 10 was in the livestock business.

EmSense was founded in 2004 by seven MIT graduates, including Lee. The initial challenge was to turn their unique method of measuring consumer emotional response --- backed by 22 pending patents --- to the world of electronic video games.

“It started as a challenge,” Lee says. “Could we help a client build a video game that was a positive contribution to society? Could we create fun that wasn’t based on shooting and killing and negative things? Could you build fun off of an entirely different concept? It evolved from there.”

Lee sees at least a dozen different applications for his technology. It could be applied in medicine, training and education, video games, politics and media; anywhere that a better understanding of emotional response could improve results. EmSense is primarily focused today is in the area of advertising. The company is reaching out to marketers and advertising agencies around the world to demonstrate its ability to help assess and improve television commercials.

“We've created a lightweight headset that has a portable wireless EEG capability,” says Elissa Moses, chief analytics officer for EmSense and a 25 year communications research veteran. “The EEG tells us when respondents are engaged on a moment-by-moment basis. We can look second to second through any advertising or communication. It tells emotional valence based on the brain waves observing positive or negative changes in feelings,” Moses adds. The EmSense methodology also tracks adrenalin, changes in heart rate, body temperature, motion and blinking.

“We have a set of data that shows how people are really reacting emotionally and what's really capturing their interest. Unlike other research techniques, we do this without them thinking about it and filtering responses,” Moses says.

“Look at the upset in New Hampshire,” Moses adds. “People said one thing in the polls and did something else. That goes to the heart of what EmSense is about. Sometimes the head and heart don't match. We have the ability to measure both and correlate and contrast the results. It gives a more complete understanding of how messages and communications are working.”

“We also have a large normative base of data,” Moses says, a tool that can be used to assess a prospective television ad to improve it. “A good ad has certain dimensions,” Moses says, and the traces of physiologic and neurologic data collected by EmSense during testing can help a creative team decide how to improve the effectiveness of the advertising.

So what makes Lee the entrepreneur emotional? “No one ever measured emotion like this. Everyone said it was impossible. Proving it can be done. That’s what turns me on,” Lee says.

Michael Krauss is president of Market Strategy Group, based in Chicago, and can be reached at Michael.Krauss@Mkt-strat.com or news@ama.org.



 ©2008 Marion Consulting Partners