As European social welfare budgets come under pressure, persuading stakeholders of the need both to make retirement provision and to save towards it is becoming more crucial.

Yet planning and funding a communications strategy to achieve this will be wasted if members neglect to read or simply ignore the literature. Behavioural science is one tool which pension funds can utilise, as the sophisticated knowledge in this area opens up the potential for funds to maximise the impact of their marketing.

A number of funds are already using neuromarketing.

This is the study of how people react subconsciously and emotionally to stimuli – such as written information or pictures – by monitoring brain activity. It can be a useful tool in giving marketing more impact.

The Dutch pension fund ABP has recently completed a neuromarketing study. “Around 95% of decisions people make are made subconsciously,” says Joyce Vonken, marketing intelligence specialist at APG, ABP’s administrator. “We thought this was an interesting new field of research which would give us new insights and help us to improve communication to pension fund members and understand them better.”

Dr David Lewis, a neuropsychologist who pioneered neuromarketing in the 1980s, has been called the ‘father of neuromarketing’. “More and more companies are using it,” he says. “We think that the testing of implicit, or gut, attitudes towards communications will be commonplace in a few years’ time.”

At a glance

• Neuromarketing is the study of how people react subconsciously and emotionally to external stimuli.
• It can be used to make communications more effective.
• Messages are more likely to get the reader’s attention if they are supportive.
• Online testing can be cost-effective and allow access to greater samples of test subjects.

He adds: “People don’t like facing up to the fact that they get older. And there is a huge mistrust of anyone involved in financial services. Neuromarketing helps find what messages they will pay attention to, and small things can have a vastly greater influence than you’d think.”

The UK insurer and pensions provider Standard Life started its neuromarketing project two years ago*. It was alerted to the concept by Dr Lynda Shaw, a behavioural scientist in the financial services industry who advises the company.

Susie Logan, head of business marketing and communications at Standard Life, says the intention was to move away from what an individual pension fund member thinks to what they actually feel. “Our clients run many workplace pensions campaigns, but everyone is struggling to get to the holy grail of what makes people interested,” she says. Using scientifically validated methodology helps overcome the problem that an individual is not necessarily the best judge of their own feelings.

Types of testing used in Neuromarketing Research

Neuromarketing tests identify which parts of the brain become active when the individual is exposed to stimuli such as verbal or pictorial messages.

There are three ways of performing this analysis:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects are put inside a MRI scanner, which analyses changes in blood flow to illustrate brain activity. The drawbacks are costs and that it places the subject in an adverse environment.

Electroencephalography (EEG): Brain activity is measured by electrodes on the scalp. It is not as expensive as fMRI but is time-consuming. The number of subjects is limited. The average study size is 40 subjects. 

Implicit association testing (IAT): A recent innovation, this is carried out using a computer or smartphone. Subjects are asked to perform a series of tasks in rapid succession, for example, classifying a word (or concept) as ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’. This can reveal unconscious reactions formed by memories of which the subject is unaware. The faster the reaction, the stronger the association. Testing can be carried out online, with subjects’ responses measured using eye-tracking techniques – for example, recording how long the subject looks at the screen, or what they see. IAT allows for larger samples and the ability to filter subjects according relevant criteria such as age or geographic location. 

Into the scanner

ABP’s study was carried out by Neurensics, using a sample of 40 volunteers.

They were placed in a scanner and given 118 paired images and statements about pensions. Individual statements were shown briefly, to focus on the subconscious reaction.

The scan showed which parts of the brain showed activity while assimilating information. Positive emotional reactions included desire, expectation and trust, while negative responses included fear, anger and disgust.

ABP wanted to make their communications more effective in alerting members to changes in pension rules, or in reminding them of legal practicalities such as nominating beneficiaries, and prompting them to take the necessary action.

The research found that people will only take action when the balance of emotions is positive and the stimuli is perceived as appealing.

“In general, the results showed that, in their communications with members, pension funds have to focus on positive associations with pensions,” Vonken says. “For instance, rather than warn how important saving for a pension is, we should emphasise how people who save can enjoy their pension later on.”

People find information about their own pension relevant, said Vonken, but sometimes they need extra motivation to act. This motivation can be based on positive associations through the right wording and imaging. For instance, the right subject line in an email can increase the number of people who read it and its effectiveness (see panel).

Logan emphasises the need for positive messages. One aspect of Standard Life’s tests was to highlight activity by brainwaves signaling attention – which indicate what is grabbing the attention of the individual – and the brainwaves indicating whether a response is likely.

Logan says: “The perceived wisdom was that you have to make messages very hard-hitting to get people’s attention, and that is still true. But, we found out that people then instinctively disengage. So, if people expect you to give them bad news about their pensions, they switch off before they read it.”

The lesson is to use supportive messages that catches the attention, then follow it with a clear call to action.

Meanwhile MN, the Dutch asset manager and pensions provider, started employing neuromarketing six months ago and is currently assessing scientific reports and third party experiments.

It already uses specific techniques to optimise perceptions and responses, such as language, round shapes, friendly faces and colours in its communication.

“We are always looking for useful new, scientific insights offering the potential to increase the effectiveness of our communication policies,” says Michiel Cleij, marketing and communications manager at MN. “The communications landscape has changed quite dramatically over the past few years, partly due to the increased influence of social media. These changes stimulate professional communication services providers in general – and pensions communication providers in particular – to stay closely connected to new insights and demands, and to keep their eye on the ball.”

MN is using desk research and interviews with market players. There are three main techniques for carrying out neuromarketing tests (see panel).

Lewis, the founder and chair of Mindlab International, a neuroscience research agency which worked for Standard Life on its ‘Save More’ campaign, says online testing is the most relevant method to his clients because it is fast, cost effective and greatly increases the potential sample size.

Practical tips for writing communications

APG’s market specialist, Joyce Vonken, warns pension funds against focusing just on making sure their information gives all the right arguments – which are aimed at the conscious mind – or just that information is complete.

She says: “They should be aware that people react subconsciously to their messages. What they write influences people’s emotions, and this has an influence on what they ultimately decide to do.”

Other tips include:

• Test with neuromarketing. What people say they will do is not always carried out.
• Think about the emotions and reactions your texts will trigger.
• Make sure the text of communications sent to members triggers more positive than negative emotions.
• Make sure pension information is personally relevant.

Drawbacks and lessons

However, neuromarketing is not necessarily a win-win solution. “It provides possible insights into what drives certain behaviour, and could potentially help pension funds to engage in dialogues with members. But, it is more expensive than traditional research methods,” says Cleij. “It only gives insight into the average consumer, when individual differences can be substantial. It could also introduce ethical dilemmas or suspicions of manipulation.”

Another drawback is that only a few variables can be tested simultaneously. Furthermore, laboratory testing does not give enough breadth to results, although this can be tackled by testing in the workplace.

Standard Life has carried out workplace testing in co-operation with clients, using different campaign techniques to measure impact. It has also tested the effectiveness of different media, for example, e-mail and posters.

It is now using the lessons to build up a library of ten different campaign creatives with different messages, to enable understanding of which campaigns have been most effective. This will act as a resource in planning future campaigns.

Meanwhile, ABP’s marketing teams are being trained to integrate the research into practical improvements to their campaigns.

Workshops and presentations have been implemented, and a booklet and checklist has been developed, in which neuromarketing insights are explained.

Vonken says: “Our communication specialists are now aware that in order to make sure people get informed and take action on their pension, they have to think about the subconscious reactions, emotions and associations that their texts will activate. When writing texts or developing campaigns the neuromarketing research results and behavioural marketing insights in general are taken into account, beside the fact that texts should be clear, complete, correct and understandable.”

Of course, a key part of the process is defining and measuring success.

ABP monitors the effects of campaigns and communications, using A/B tests. This means sending members one stimulus containing neuromarketing insights and one which does not. The effectiveness is then compared.

Standard Life’s ‘Save More’ campaign was assessed by how many people increased contributions into their pension plan, tracking numbers in the month after the campaign ended.

However, any fund carrying out this testing should ensure factors blurring these measurements are eliminated – for example, not running a campaign which coincides with annual pay rises.

Testing member awareness is easier with digital systems, allowing analysis of website usage – which pages members go to, how long they spend there and where they go next. Besides indicating what attracts users, it can also show what repels – if, for instance, half the users opt out at a particular step, the web page may be lacking in clarity.

Standard Life is preparing an internal report analysing the relative effectiveness of different campaigns, this will be published early this year.

MN is investigating as to whether and how neuromarketing might be included in future communications strategies. It will develop concepts and thoroughly test them on various target groups. Test campaigns may launch during 2015.

However, Cleij emphasises the drawbacks. “We have learned that while neuromarketing is promising, it is still developing,” he says. “So, we should not jump to conclusions too fast, but try to look for valid, tested approaches and develop some easy-to-implement test cases.”

Lewis concludes: “We have already worked for a number of banks and financial institutions to unravel the emotions behind decision making, and we are talking to agencies and behavioural economics companies about incorporating these measures into their research.”

How to write a better e-mail subject line

E-mail subject lines are crucial because they can either attract or repel the reader. So which is the better?

• 1: Your pension regulation is changing – stay up to date just like 100,000 other members.

• 2: The government has announced a new pension regulation. This has consequences. Read more.

The first subject line works better because: • It says “your” instead of “the”. This encourages people to believe that the statement is relevant to them.

• The phrase “Just like 100,000 other members” uses “social proof”. People are more inclined to act or believe something is good when they see other people doing it as well. They want to behave like similar people.

• The second subject line talks about “consequences” – something which has a negative connotation and will subconsciously generate negative associations and emotions.

*The results can be seen at