Three neuroscience tricks for creating compulsive brand stories

Marketing exists for one sole reason: to ensure your business’s survival by promoting its products and services.

Nathalie Nahai

Without you, and without your efforts, the brand or company you represent will lose its lifeblood and eventually (or, as is more often now the case, rather rapidly) shrivel up and die.

No pressure then. That’s why I thought for my first column, I’d pop my Marketing Week cherry by outlining three key neuroscience facts you need to know to create persuasive and effective marketing.

Let’s start off with empathy. We all know that this is what makes brand stories so powerful and whether telling tales online or offline, the same principles apply.

When you think of empathy, what are the first associations that pop into your mind? Helping out a neighbour or hearing a heart-rending story perhaps… all emotional stuff, right? Not so fast.

Research into this peculiar field has uncovered a rather fascinating, quirky relationship between our feelings of empathy and a subset of motor neurons that reside in our brains.

Have you ever wondered why those excruciating, eye-watering YouTube videos of people doing bike stunts and bashing themselves in the privates are so painful to watch and yet so compellingly shareable? Well, as it turns out, our ability to ‘feel’ other people’s pain (and pleasure) stems from a collective of rather aptly named mirror neurons, which brings us to the second fact you need to understand as a marketer.

First discovered in the 1990s, these reclusive neurons were stumbled upon quite accidentally when a group of Italian researchers, headed by Dr Giacomo Rizzolatti, were going about their day placing electrodes in the ventral premotor cortex of macaques.

Intent on studying neurons specialised in control of hand and mouth actions, one of the researchers had left a monkey wired up to the EEG machine when he picked up and ate a piece of food. Bizarrely, he noticed that approximately 10 per cent of the monkey’s neurons that had fired before (when the monkey had picked up the food), were firing again now – merely by observing the researcher perform the same action.

This simple discovery profoundly changed the way in which we understand the mind to work, and it is thought that these neurons are the primary reason why you can literally ‘feel’ someone else’s pleasure or pain when you see them performing an action that you yourself can imagine taking.

Our ability to understand and share the feelings of others is a primary driver behind some of the world’s most viral media today. If you can change someone’s emotional state dramatically enough, they’ll want to share their experience with others, and they’ll pass on your message.

Empathy is the reason why, every year, we sit with (self-admonishingly) baited breath for the big reveal as the new John Lewis Christmas ad rolls out. It’s just an ad. Yet people devote blogs, tweets and conversations to what the story might be this time around.

Before you start berating yourself, don’t worry, you’re not alone in falling for this time and again. The reality is that humans are hard-wired to find seductive emotional stories with a strong narrative arc. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that, yet again, there’s another neural reason behind the success of such stories – the phenomenon of neural coupling.

A few years ago, psychologist Dr Uri Hasson and his team at Princeton University set out to explore exactly what goes on in our brains when we tell, and listen to, a story. They discovered that when you’re listening to an engaging story, the response patterns in your brain become markedly similar to those of the story-teller’s (albeit with a slight time delay). In effect, you’re literally getting on the same wavelength as the narrator, in one beautiful act of neural coupling.

So where does this leave us? Dr Uri Hasson suggests that “communication is one act, in which the brain of the communicator and the brain of the listeners are trying to be coupled, and merging as one.”

As a marketer, it’s your job to make sure that your story, which is ultimately your message, is persuasive and emotionally arousing enough that people will want to tune in to your signal, amidst an infinite sea of noise.

Nathalie Nahaï is a web psychologist and author