Physically Rewarding Prospects to Create Preference: A Neuroscientific Rationale for Brand Advertising
In this age of hyper-targeting, infinite metrics and instantaneous results, companies struggle with the age old question of whether or not to spend time and treasure on brand advertising. Marketers and agencies alike find themselves having to answer this question for CEOs, CMOs and corporate boards time and time again. After all, many forms of advertising can be measured and optimized, so why spend money on “fluffy feel good” ads whose results are much less easy to quantify? There are many good answers to this question. But most rationale for branding typically relies on the intuition of leadership, or the idea that other leading brands can't be wrong. This article revisits recent neuroscience research in an attempt to provide an empirical answer to why brand matters, and why it continues to be the most valuable tool in a company's marketing arsenal.
Lets start by looking within. Do you remember how you felt when you first saw Coca-Cola's “Mean Joe Green” ad? How about AT&T's “Reach Out and Touch Someone”? Am I dating myself? Okay, a more recent example... How about Proctor and Gamble's recent “Best Job” 2012 Olympic sponsorship ad celebrating the commitment of Olympian moms? All of these commercials are cut from similar creative cloth and each does a spectacular job of eliciting strong emotional response – a physical sensation of goodness and wellbeing. This ability to create a physical response among viewers is perhaps the most powerful manifestation of advertising and represents the high-art of creating deep emotional linkage between brand and consumer. There is a good reason these commercials, and many more like them, trigger good feelings and keep us talking about them for years. Neuroscience research sheds light on how and why these ads work the way they do.
In the mid 1990's, a 'rediscovery' of the hormone Oxytocin created a great deal of buzz in the scientific community that continues to this day. Oxytocin was first discovered in 1906 by British pharmacologist Sir Henry Hallett Dale who noted its ability to facilitate uterine contractions in pregnant women – in fact Dale gave the hormone its name because Oxytocin means “quick birth”. This property, as well as the hormone's role in inducing lactation, led to its eventual widespread use in maternity wards in the form of the drug Pitosin. In the 1970's, however, researchers became aware of some other interesting effects of Oxytocin. Specifically, they found it to be a neurotransmitter capable of creating maternal and bonding instincts in mammals. This research was picked up and amplified in the 90's through the work of Paul Zak Ph. D., Director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University in California. Zak's work posits that the feeling of trust and empathy we experience is a purely chemical response made in our brains by Oxytocin. Zak, and other scientists, argue that Oxytocin is nothing less than the “trust molecule”, responsible (perhaps solely) for our ability to trust and empathize with others. The research of Zak and others shows that when we are trusted or related to by others, this triggers our brain to release Oxytocin which, in turn, creates feelings of trust and empathy toward the giver. What's more, this release of Oxytocin feels good. It's why we enjoy the feeling of helping others, of establishing trust, and of nurturing or being nurtured by those we love. Interestingly, a very recent study conducted by the University of Utah attributes certain music with the ability to release large amounts of Oxytocin.
Oxytocin, in many ways, is responsible for making us “human” – sociable, trusting, cooperative, helpful. This effect has been known and used by magicians and confidence artists for centuries. When a con man (or con woman) takes you, he does so by manipulating our natural tendency to trust. The confidence game works not because the target trusts the con artist. It works because the con artists trusts the victim. By putting their trust in us (the dupes), our Oxytocin response naturally makes us want to return that trust in him. This powerful biological brain response is so influential that it can override our better judgement. Some forms of magic work on this same principle. The magician is just as much affable joker as illusionist. When the magician asks for help from a volunteer or feigns fear that a trick may not work, they are purposely triggering our natural tendency (Oxytocin) to empathize with others who appear weak or in need. This empathy feels good, and it's why, despite the fact that we know we're being deceived, we still enjoy it.
The connection between Oxytocin and advertising effectiveness was first established by Zak's research. In fact a number of articles have been published discussing this research and the role of Oxytocin induction in advertising. In fact, almost immediately following the publication of Zak's findings, some ad agencies attempted to 'engineer' the release of Oxytocin through advertising with mixed results. And the research didn't stop there. Today the new field of Neuromarketing is being employed by the world's leading brands. Neuromarketing uses new fMRI technology to scan the brains of research subjects to determine what messages trigger desirable responses in the brain. The goal of such research is to improve our understanding of how and why brands affect the brain and enhance advertising's ability to stimulate brain response. In one fascinating fMRI study, for example, researchers found that participants demonstrated no greater preference for Coke or Pepsi when given unlabeled samples. But when participants knew that one sample contained Coke, they greatly preferred it to other unlabeled Coke or Pepsi samples. The study showed that exposure to the Coke Brand had a significant effect on the brain of participants whereas exposure to the Pepsi Brand had no such effect. This finding isn't just intriguing from a scientific standpoint, it begs the question as to why exposure to the Coca-Cola Brand creates physical changes in our brains whereas exposure to the Pepsi Brand does not.
Now lets tie this interesting scientific knowledge back to the goal of answering the question at hand. Here, it's important to remember that decades before science knew what caused the feel-good sensation certain ads induce, brands and their agencies were still making it happen. Indeed, some of the most effective ads ever produced were delivering massive doses of Oxytocin to the brain long before science understood what was actually happening. It doesn't take a tome of research to make great advertising that stays with consumers for decades. What the research is very useful for, however, is helping marketers and agencies answer that nagging question of why spend on brand advertising.
What the research proves irrefutably is that advertising can trigger the release of Oxytocin in the brain, and that it can create long-lasting neural impressions. The research helps us safely hypothesize that when advertising messages trigger the release of Oxytocin in the brain, the brain stores these positive affiliations and conjures them up the next time the consumer is exposed to the brand. And this powerful affiliation between brain and brand is the root of preference.
So the answer to why spend money on brand advertising is that brand advertising, unlike conventional feature/benefit advertising, quite literally serves a completely different and higher-order purpose. When brands set out not to sell product, but to make us feel, they succeed by causing us to relate to and empathize with – the kid being thanked by his hero Mean Joe, the elderly mom who's son calls “just to say I love you”, and the mothers of Olympic athletes sharing the struggle and reveling in the success of their children. Within a 30 or 60-second window, we connect with a person or situation, empathize with them, and are rewarded with a boost of Oxytocin that gives us the warm and fuzzies – sometimes to the point of tears. This is not only powerful, but salient. Evoking emotional response creates long-lasting connection between brands and people. Critically, when we create advertising that moves people, we are literally giving them a physical gift – a jolt of chemical good feeling.
The role of brand advertising is not to make one feel good about a product or service. The role of brand advertising is to make one feel good about oneself. This is the very unique and special role of brand advertising. It is literally a platform used by brands to give its customers and prospects a physical gift – the gift of good feeling. When Coca-Cola 'taught the world to sing' in the 70's and when P&G celebrated Olympic moms more recently, were they asking us to buy anything? Where were Coke's reasons-to-believe? Nowhere. Which P&G products are they asking us to try? None. When Apple created “1984”, was it promoting features? Nope. These ads worked (and work today) because they are not about a company's products or services. They are about the company's customers. They work because they are not selling products to consumers. They are making consumers feel good – and people remember who makes them feel good. Great brand advertising works not because it asks one to act, but rather to feel. They are not out to make us buy products today. They are out to make us feel good about the brand forever. And when we feel good about brands, we buy them. The science bears this out.
And while there is no single formula for creating brand advertising that changes the consumer brain, there are some guiding principles. Chiefly, there must be an organizational commitment to crafting the brand. There must be an understanding of the consumer and what they care about. There must be the will to bear out the results over time. And there must be the courage not to sell consumers products, but to make consumers feel.
Is brand advertising as quantifiable as direct response advertising is? No. But is it the reason why the worth of Apple, BMW, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, and myriad other leading brands are valued at many times their respective earnings? Absolutely. The answer to the question of why spend on brand advertising is simple: when companies do brand advertising right, they give their customers a hug, and the customers hug right back.
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Macknik, Stephen L., and Martinez-Conde, Susan. Slights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. New York: Picador, 20120
Honigsbaum, Mark. “Oxytocin: could the 'trust hormone' rebond our troubled world?”. The Guardian, August 20, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/aug/21/oxytocin-zak-neuroscience-...
Wikipedia. “Oxytocin.” last modified on 14 June 2012 at 03:34, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin