Your brain on retail

It’s the eve of Black Friday, the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season. Many retailers have been preparing for this moment all year, and for good reason: according to Deloitte, retail holiday sales are expected to top $1 trillion this year.

That’s a big pie to fight for. Department stores will look to out-do one another with elaborate shop window displays to capture passersby. A growing number of retailers will release Christmas and holiday-related ads and short films in a bid to ensure consumers think of them for their gifting/hosting/everyday needs this season (Check out our 2016 and 2015 holiday ad write ups for more). This all makes it a notoriously noisy media environment.

So with the frenzy of holiday shopping upon us, what’s likely to have grabbed the attention of consumers? What will have resonated with them emotionally, and what will they have imprinted in their memories?

To find out, Brainsights pulled a sample of retail ads and consumer brain data from the last year from its database. We looked at the last twelve months in order to include holiday seasonality, but also the brand strength from communications outside of this season. Our objective was to understand how retailers communicate, and what consumers actually respond to.

We analyzed more than 220 pieces of retail video content from 84 retailers across eight retail categories (including e-commerce, fashion & accessories, general merchandise, etc) and three markets (Canada, the UK and Germany). Each spot is content-coded by key theme at the second-by-second level, to understand how retailers ‘talked’ during their ad time.

On the consumer side, more than 2500 brains were analyzed against this content. This means billions of brain data points mined for insights, across a vast general population sample for each market.

By comparing advertisers’ ‘Share of Time’ to consumers ‘Share of Mind’ we highlight both the discrepancies and areas of opportunities for retail marketers.

Some Key Findings:

  • Retail communication shows some diversity, but several themes dominate. Just 7 themes - of 38 - account for 50% of retail air time in our analysis.

  • Retailers like to keep it light - and it (mostly) works. Lightheartedness was the theme most commonly used at 17% of all retail air time. It also performed strongly from a consumer standpoint as it ranked #10 for Attention, #8 for Connection and #6 for Encoding.

  • Despite their popularity in retail communications, several themes fail to break through (Attention), resonate with (Connection) and imprint to memory (Encoding) for consumers. Exemplary Individual and Self Actualization together accounted for 15% share of time in retail advertising, but landed in the bottom half across all three ACE metrics

  • On the other hand, Female Camaraderie and Outlaw Spirit are two underutilized themes that show great interest from consumers. Both themes feature less than 1% of the time, but rank in the top 7 across all three metrics of Attention, Connection and Encoding.

How to read this visualization

Based on Tree Map graphs, each element has a hierarchical relationship to one another. The overall shape represents nine hours of retail advertising. Each theme used within retail advertising has its own box. The box size represents the Share of Time advertisers use for that given theme. For instance, the largest box Lightheartedness was found in approximately 90 total minutes of the ads we analyzed . The brightness of colour represents the Share of Mind. The brighter the colour the stronger the consumers resonance is to that theme. Each theme has been mapped across Brainsights’ three key metrics of Attention, Connection and Encoding to highlight overall consumer neural response.

Key Considerations for Brands

It is important to reiterate that Brainsights are reporting averages across the themes found in retailer advertising, and within averages, performance can vary considerably. Retailers approach the same themes in different ways, with several factors influencing performance including tone, audience, narrative style and structure, and context-related factors like screen and platform (built for TV versus built for Facebook, for example). These, however, are micro factors - individual performance differences.

The purpose of this study is to provide a macro level view as to retail communication and consumer non-conscious response. And brands should be considering these insights both in relation to brand and message differentiation, and in understanding what consumers value in the retail space.

Are your brand communications meaningfully differentiated, or are they playing in the ‘same sandbox’ as everyone else?

Are your brand communications tackling themes that matter to consumers? Are there themes that offer greater opportunity to connect deeply with consumers? Can your brand authentically explore these themes?

Click here to download the report in PDF.

Interested in learning more, or in having a consumer insights report for your industry? Contact us at