Neuroscience can teach marketers: A good story, told in the right context, can reframe events in a positive light. For example, people suffering from anxiety and depression are often in the grip of unhelpful narratives, but we can use stories as a powerful therapeutic tool.
When you work to help people find their way out of psychological turmoil, it becomes clear that storytelling is not something of an afterthought. We don’t tell stories to embellish the facts; rather, stories are central to how we, as humans, make sense of the world.
In other words, it’s not that we weave our thoughts into stories, rather, our thoughts are the result of the stories we tell ourselves. That’s why it’s so hard to think our way out of emotional difficulties.
When we interact with the world, our brains constantly use the language of metaphor to create (some say “discover”) patterns of meaning. These patterns generate a set of emotions that create our motives and often drive our actions. This refers to what Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman calls system 1 thinking, although, strictly speaking, it is not really thinking, but rather what we might more accurately call emotional processing.
We are in danger of not only diminishing the effectiveness of advertising, but also feeding an unsustainable (and unhealthy) “more is better” culture.
It’s a remarkably effective evolutionary mechanism for understanding the world and making quick, intuitive decisions.
Just think about the fact that our ability to “read” a person’s facial expression seems instantaneous. Of course, it’s not infallible, and the ability to stand outside yourself, observe and sometimes challenge your emotional processing is a very valuable skill. But it takes will, effort, and practice. More often than not, what appear to be rational thoughts are actually rationalizations we make up to create consistency with our emotional picture of the world.
Neuroeconomist Paul Zak conducted a fascinating experiment that shed light on how stories affect our brains. A group of people were shown a short emotional animated story about the relationship between a young boy and his father, who was trying to come to terms with the fact that his son is suffering from a terminal illness. In the end, he decides to treasure every last moment they spend together.
In the process, researchers took blood samples and discovered that the audience’s brain chemistry literally follows the development of the story. At the beginning of the film, as viewers learned about the painful situation, they experienced heightened attention modulated by the neurotransmitter cortisol. Then, as they became familiar with their father’s struggle, the respondents’ empathy grew, modulated by an increase in oxytocin levels.
Even more remarkable, however, was how the story affected participants’ behavior. After watching the movie, they were given the option of giving some of the money they received for participating in the experiment to charity. In another version, they could double their money by giving some of it to a stranger, but they had to trust that the other participant would reciprocate and return some of their winnings. The amount of money donated or invested directly correlated with the amount of oxytocin in the blood. Higher levels of oxytocin (which, for example, is very common among nursing mothers) made respondents more trusting and generous.
These experiments clearly show that stories change our behavior by altering our brain chemistry. But not every story does. A control group of participants was shown an alternate version of a story in which the facts were presented along with footage of a father and son enjoying a vacation at the zoo. Viewers struggled to keep their attention, did not release oxytocin, and were less generous/trustful of their money.
Nature has programmed us to respond to a universal storyline. We pay attention to what causes uncertainty because it may be something we will have to face in the future. Then we learn by emotional modeling-in other words, we empathize. Finally, a satisfying ending provides a surge of serotonin to make sure the message gets through. The story is a perfect, neurochemically modulated process of metaphorical remembering.
Advertising is neither life nor death, but you can see this process, for example, in many John Lewis Christmas commercials. How does a little girl prevent Edgar the dragon from burning down an entire village and thereby prevent her friend’s social isolation? We empathize with Edgar through the girl’s eyes as his exuberant attempts to be accepted lead to him terrorizing the very society that wants him to be accepted. Finally, a caring gift (Christmas pudding) resolves this story.
As this quote from the YouTube feed shows, it is a story designed to ignite chains of empathy and trust in the viewer’s brain: “It’s just so sweet.” It can also be a metaphor for those kids who never fit in but still feel the spirit of Christmas.”
Zack’s experiments show that the success of this advertising model lies in the use of the “here and now” neurotransmitter language, such as oxytocin. It’s the chemistry of a big hug, of eating with friends, of feeling connected. It’s not hard to see why these emotions can be important when it comes to maintaining long-term brand preference.
If we’re going to invade someone’s life uninvited, we have to work hard to be invigorating, helpful, interesting and engaging storytellers.
However, these are not the neurotransmitters that provoke immediate action. For this we need to turn to a completely different brain circuitry, modulated by the most powerful of all neurochemicals, dopamine.
Dopamine has to do with optimizing resources for the future-it rewards us when we achieve something that seems to increase our chances of evolutionary success. It is the chemistry of desire, motivation, and novelty. It is what makes us strive to achieve goals and satisfy our desires.
Take a previous example: while a John Lewis brand ad encourages us to feel emotionally rewarded for shopping at that retailer (and willing to pay a premium for it), it will show us pictures of beautiful sofas to remind us that our current sofa may be a little shabby already. It may well add a financial incentive, such as a sale, then add convenient payment terms and next-day delivery.
Dopamine fuels our vision of a better life with a new sofa and motivates us to go out and buy it. The dopamine “high” soon wanes and is replaced by an inner pleasure in the process of buying the couch itself, modulated by our “here and now” neurochemistry, which in turn reinforces our positive feelings about the brand.
A virtuosic circle of “brand building” in perfect harmony with the “activation” messages. All this can be understood in terms of two different neural pathways – let’s call them the “satisfaction pathway” and the “desire pathway.” The first shapes preference, and the second, roughly speaking, stimulates appetite.
We know from Professor Byron Sharp and others that when it comes to brands, it’s all about appeal and creating “mental accessibility.” However, the power of stories to not only create memories, but meaning and therefore value, tells us that there is more to advertising than just creating some relevant positive associations that make a brand easier to perceive and buy.
Brands are not responsible for culture. They exist to sell us products. But because the Internet promotes an increased focus on short-term goals and a quick return on investment at the expense of long-term value creation, we risk not only making advertising less effective, but also fueling an unsustainable (and unhealthy) “more is better” culture.
And if all this sounds too idealistic in the consumer world, at least if we’re going to invade someone’s life uninvited, we should be straining to be invigorating, helpful, interesting, and engaging storytellers.
Lori Castelli is the founder of brand communication company Castelli and Co. and a psychotherapist and human qualities coach.