Embracing neurodiversity can only make marketing more meaningful

Deeper insight and richer innovation is possible if marketers realise not everyone’s brain works in the same way.

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I can’t see pictures in my head. I also can’t hear sounds in my head. In fact, I cannot recreate any of the five senses. I have full aphantasia (there are varying degrees). This essentially means I have no mind’s eye.

It’s estimated that over 2% of the population are aphantasics. There are records of people telling stories about having no mind’s eye since the 1800s, but it’s only since 2015 that academic research has been published and awareness has grown.

If you do have a mind’s eye and I asked you to imagine an apple, I’m sure you would tell me that you can see the apple clearly. Some people would have a 3D image, some people would see and smell the apple. I, on the other hand, don’t know where the space is in your mind that you would imagine that apple.

Many people recognise they have aphantasia as adults, reporting the realisation in their 30s and 40s. It makes sense because we rarely reflect on how our brains work and we don’t know any different because, well, it’s the only brain we have. It isn’t until something sparks the idea of comparison between different ways that brains work that the realisation hits. Everyone’s story is different, but I can see similarities with adult recognition of ADHD and autism among my friends and peers.

If we open out our thinking to look at the world without making assumptions that everyone’s brain works in the same way, this will allow for deeper insight.

I’m a little unusual because I have known about my ‘different’ brain since I was 18 thanks to my A-level English literature teacher, Mr Jackson. We were talking about imagining what a character looked like and the imagery the text we were reading evoked. He explained he couldn’t see pictures in his head. It stopped me in my tracks, because I realised that I couldn’t either.

It seems strange now that I would just go along with the language used around visualisation, but I didn’t know any different (and this was a long time before the research of 2015). In that class we started to explore the dominant narrative and assumptions around visualisation, and how the lived experience varies.

This started my fascination with understanding how brains work and (luckily) I was also doing an A-level in psychology, so I was able to lay some learning foundations. During my academic career, I have published on consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing continuing this interest. As a PhD student, I volunteered for a friend’s MRI study and she gave me a picture of my brain scan, which sits in a frame in my office.

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I’ve spent time trying to figure out how my brain works. I realised that my difficulty with maths at a young age was because teaching methods relied on visualisation. I found the mental tasks tricky, so I would learn by rote and promptly forget. The very damaging label that “I can’t do maths” took root and I’ve had to work hard on that.

Photos are incredibly important to me because they are the only visual representation of moments past. I can tell you what things or people look like, but I don’t bring up a mental image to do that. It isn’t a list. The best way I can describe it is knowledge. I also had to work out study and revision techniques that worked for me. I can’t hear sounds in my head, so no voices or music, but I can play musical instruments and (badly) sing a song.

Feeling ‘seen’

As marketers, we know it’s so important to empathise with our customers. We can extend the idea of putting ourselves in their shoes. We can look at the world through the lens of the different ways brains work. Understanding the lived experience of our customers can move beyond lifestyle, preferences and interactions.

I’m not suggesting that we have to account for every possible variation in the ways brains work at every turn. That would lead to creative paralysis. More, that thinking about the idea of neurodiversity means acknowledging that everyone’s brain is unique, just like a fingerprint.

Neurodiversity is actually about the idea that variations in how our brains work are normal. In fact, I would argue that neurodiversity contributes to the richness of society. Neurodivergence is where neurological differences are acknowledged, which encompass dyslexia, ADHD, autism and many more. With the right support and in the right environment, these are not barriers, and there is a lot of work being done around diagnosis and understanding to help.

There are lots of people who have been labelled ‘difficult to manage’ or ‘not a team player’ because they haven’t been understood.

If we open out our thinking to look at the world without making assumptions that everyone’s brain works in the same way, this will allow for deeper insight and ways to innovate around forging connections with customers. When people feel ‘seen’ or understood, that is powerful. It fosters connection and brings people in, moving them away from feeling ‘other’ or different. It’s a core facet of human nature to want to belong.

When considering inclusion, and how to be inclusive, this is another way to think about our approach. Great strides have been made in thinking about accessibility and training in workplaces and beyond, but there is work to be done.

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I recently coached someone with a new neurodivergence diagnosis. They did not want to disclose this at work – didn’t want to be labelled – and felt shame. This was amplified because if they went ‘public’ with their diagnosis it would certainly prevent them from being promoted to the leadership position they were being considered for. Their decision to keep this secret made me wonder, how many other people feel they also have to hide how their brain works?

The statistic that has stayed with me since I first read it in the 2020 Institute of Leadership research report, is that 50% of 1,156 UK employers stated they would not employ a neurodivergent person (with the highest level of bias existing towards Tourette’s and ADHD). An estimated one in seven of the population are neurodivergent and there is a remaining lack of understanding and awareness about neurodiversity.

Prioritising inclusivity

Inclusion is about creating environments where everyone feels valued, respected and supported, regardless of their differences. It is not just the remit of those who have a combination of the letters E, D and I in their job title.

Leaders and managers need to do better. There are lots of people who have been labelled ‘difficult to manage’ or ‘not a team player’ because they haven’t been understood. The lack of inclusivity here comes from the top down and does not recognise the value and contribution these individuals do offer.

I firmly believe that as marketers we have a part to play in social responsibility. We tell people’s stories and we shape narratives. Alongside the necessary and important top-down approaches to inclusivity, we can play a very important part in a bottom-up approach.

When people feel ‘seen’ or understood, that is powerful. It fosters connection and brings people in.

Embracing neurodiversity is about advocating for understanding and inclusion in every aspect of society. The aspects that we, as marketers, touch. We can reflect neurodiversity in communications we put out into the world. We can build inclusivity into brands and employee experiences. We can look at the customer journey and create inclusive experiences.

People are actively searching for places where they can be themselves, both at work and in life. As marketers, we can recognise neurodiversity and the associated strengths and challenges, articulate these, and help to create tools and environments where people can thrive.

As Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2024 comes to an end, I wanted to take the opportunity to open up conversations about our brains. Questioning our assumptions about how others think and feel based on our own brain functioning is a great place to start. I am confident that asking friends and colleagues about how they experience the mind’s eye will lead to some interesting conversations. In a bid to foster inclusivity, we can all be curious and learn about brains by asking simple questions and reflecting on the diversity of experiences.

If you’ve read this and had a sudden realisation about your brain, you aren’t alone. There is loads of great research going on about brains and lots of resources and supportive communities. I must also mention that there is psychological support available through health services. I’m not an expert, but I’ve lived with my brain for my whole life and I’m always happy to talk and share.

Laura Chamberlain is an award-winning professor at Warwick Business School, a marketer, career strategist and coach. She is also founder of self-development consultancy Think Talk Thrive.