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The "Story Button" In Your Brain: Neuroscience Study Sheds Light On Brand/Human Love

Move over focus groups. Neuroscience-based research from Innocean seeks to uncover what people really like (and seemingly reveals that, sometimes, people love brands more than people).

In this age of easily shared hyper-hyperbole, where everything is the most amazing, the absolute worst, or the most squee-worthy, to hear someone decree their love for a brand is no big thing. But do people really, truly love certain brands? And if they do, is it possible for someone to love brands as much or more than loved ones? And is what we say we love the same as what our brain shows we love?

These provocative questions are among those that agency Innocean sought to explore with its Brand Love study, an experiment conducted with neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak that tests physiological responses to determine what people like. Intended as an experiment to help the agency get a better understanding of how people respond to advertising, the study has yielded some interesting results. Namely, that in some instances, people do in fact express stronger love for their favored brands than for their chosen loved one.

Image courtesy of Innocean

Uwe Gutschow, Innocean's VP, digital and engagement strategy director, says the study came from a desire to connect with consumers on a deeper level. “We started thinking about how we do that as agencies and marketers and what that means. For us, it means how do you connect more on an emotional level, which is a common thing. We tell stories and create experiences that connect with people emotionally. But then there’s another aspect of connecting with people on an unconscious level. We threw out this thought: do we, as people, actually know what we like? And is what we like really what we like. Sometimes the brain responds without us even knowing it.” This subconscious response is what prompted them to test brands against people, because it’s safe to assume that precisely no one would openly admit to loving a thing more than a human.

The study was based on Dr. Zak’s research that shows that when hugged, people release oxytocin, a molecule connected to love and attachment, previously thought to only be present in pregnant women. To measure emotional responses, subjects were connected to wireless monitors (collecting data such as heart rate nerve twitches) that tested attention and emotional connection. They were then asked questions about a brand they said they loved, followed by the same questions with their loved one as the subject. The tests showed that brands outperformed people where a person’s relationship to a product was tied to a story--such as the subject who loved his watch, which was handed down from his father, more than his girlfriend, or the man whose life-long love of the Seattle Seahawks measured as stronger than his love for his toddler. In all, three of the eight test subjects showed more love for brands than people. “The product they loved more, they loved for a reason,” says Gutschow.

Image courtesy of Innocean

When these results were discussed at SXSW, Dr. Zak said it was telling that when the product beat the person there was always a sense of connection that was driven by story. “We’ve known for a long time there is no ‘buy’ button in the brain,” said Zak. “But these results show there’s a ‘story’ button.”

An earlier study conducted by Zak and Innocean supports this idea. The study used to the same biometric methodology to measure the top performing ads from the Super Bowl, pitting what people said they liked (as represented in the USA Today Ad Meter) as opposed to what people actually liked. Again, the results were quite different, with the top Ad Meter spot, Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” falling to number 8, and Doritos’ “Cowboy Kid” rising to the top. The reason for the difference, says Zak, is rooted in story. “ ‘Puppy Love’ was great, but you saw puppies and a Clydesdale, and you know what it’s about. It didn’t have a strong story arc.”

Dr. Zak says that this information is valuable for marketers because the brain, as he describes it, is very lazy. It uses the same systems for similar functions, so in this case, he says that there are no discrete brain functions for varying kinds of love. “The brain uses the same systems for all kinds love,” he says.

With a room full of agencies and marketers looking for the next big thing at an interactive conference, it was of little surprise that people were clamoring to know the practical application of research that can quantify with data what people truly like versus what they say they like. Namely, will this kind of study be developed into a research tool?

Image courtesy of Innocean

In short, Gutschow says no, not at the moment. “For us, we haven’t used this in any of our work as of now. We’re still trying to understand how the brain responds,” he says acknowledging this would be valuable and more accurate if used in focus group testing. But Gutschow says for the agency the potential of this kind of research goes well beyond testing something you’ve already created with the hopes that people like it.

“You could do a test where you show someone a visual stimulus or rough cut for a commercial and get a read on which one people respond to better. You could totally do that, but what I think what we’re trying to get to is a longer-term approach that’s not just using this as a way to test work, but to help inform the types of connections and moments we want to create for brands,” he says. “And it’s not just visual--we’ll be exploring actual experiences, like going into a store. How does that touch point affect people? How does that impact people’s overall connection to that brand?”

With data all the rage, Gutschow views neuroscience as another form of analyzing data. “At Innocean we are really looking at data and how all of the different sets of data we’re getting, how do we use it to create work. As ad science evolves and as the measurement gets better there’ll be more information that will give us a better understanding of what people react to. For us it’s an ongoing series of learnings and getting better at it. But the end goal is how do we create better moments that connect with people and the blurring of art and science. Finding out more and more about what those magical moments are could inform the types of stories that we tell and how we tell those stories.”

[Base Image: Flickr user Robert Bejil]

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