OPINION How neuroscience drives empathetic marketing

Key points

The human brain is hardwired to respond more to emotional rather than functional marketing campaigns

This reaction is driven partly by brain chemicals including dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins and cortisol

Investing in more emotional marketing can drive better results

James Trezona

James Trezona

James Trezona, MD of storytelling agency Rooster Punk, breaks down the chemicals and processes involved when the human brain responds to marketing initiatives. 

 

Financial services companies are not immune to the same misperception that affects most companies: that customers make buying decisions based on primarily rational, logical, and economic reasons.

Traditional marketing campaigns, which fixate on the best rates, returns or platform features, might result in incremental sales growth as you fine-tune and pull various demand generation levers, but financial services brands that think this way are missing out on the exponential growth in sales volume and velocity – as well as loyalty – offered by emotionally engaging their audiences.

Across both B2B and B2C, firms need to develop a personality for their brand, tell stories in their campaigns and define their principles and purpose.

This is not just my opinion. It’s based on years of scientific studies, the most interesting of which is in the field of neuroscience, concerning the chemicals that are transmitted around our bodies and how they affect our thinking.

Marketers can glean a lot from this fascinating subject. If you want to persuade people to buy from you, you need to cater to the (seemingly) irrational and instinctive aspects of human nature. Below I’ve outlined some of the key neuroscience principles involved in marketing campaigns.

 

Dopamine

This is the ‘feel-good’ hormone that creates a rush of excitement when you anticipate a reward. In our hunter-gatherer days, dopamine would have given us a feeling of exhilaration when we came close to finding food, motivating us to carry on. Once we’ve experienced this surge we do more to trigger it again, which is why, in modern times, we keep checking our emails and social media feeds.

In marketing terms, think about how your story may or may not be encouraging your prospects to expect a reward. It might be through the tried-and-trusted route of special offers or limited-time discounts, but it might equally be through your customers feeling appreciated or recognised, and these emotions are far more enduring. ‘Social sharing’ releases dopamine – this is why ‘viral’ campaigns go viral – we’re wired to share. Is your story one your audiences (prospects and customers) want to share? Word-of-mouth has always been the most effective and efficient form of marketing and the digital era has turbocharged this.

 

Oxytocin

This is a hormone secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of our brains. It’s often known as the ‘cuddle’ or ‘bonding’ hormone because it’s released when we snuggle up with people we love, or interact with friends. It also causes us to bond with our own social groups. This makes sense when we consider that in our ancestral times, leaving our social or family group could have meant serious danger.

Studies have shown strong links between storytelling and the release of oxytocin; in fact, when people empathise with a story their oxytocin levels are on average 47% higher than normal. This hormone plays a huge role in building bonds of trust between their brands and potential customers.

 

Serotonin

This chemical creates a calm feeling when we gain a social advantage, and makes us feel important. Because of our inherently social nature, we’ve evolved to assert ourselves to compete for natural resources; serotonin is released to reward us when we’ve ‘won’. It’s soon absorbed back into our bodies, meaning that we have to keep asserting ourselves again and again to feel confident. It therefore follows that remembering our past successes and focusing on happy times increases our serotonin levels.

From a marketing perspective, think about how you can enable your customers to feel confident in relation to their peers so they associate that good feeling with you.

 

Endorphins

If you feel high after a workout it’s because of endorphins. They are the hormones that keep a long-distance runner going, and enable an exhausted or injured animal to run for its life. Humour and laughter also create endorphins, which is why we feel energised and ‘high’ when we share a joke with friends or watch a funny sitcom.

They create a sense of energy, and in parallel with oxytocin release through, for instance, a moving and uplifting story at the start of a presentation, people are far more likely to make decisions as they have both momentum and trust.

 

Cortisol

This is our stress or emergency hormone, triggered by pain or the anticipation of it. This can be comprised of physical threats such as hunger or injury, or internal threats such as social isolation or rejection. The release of cortisol creates an unpleasant feeling which motivates us to stop what we’re doing and start focusing on something that will make us feel happier.

Bombarding your customers with pressure, cluttered messages and conflicting tones creates cortisol – as they seek to avoid the ‘pain’ of being overwhelmed. Especially given the heightened state of anxieties we’ve seen in the pandemic, this is particularly dangerous as they trigger negative ‘avoid’ responses easier than ever.

 

Towards empathetic marketing

So, the neurological evidence strongly proves marketing strategies that are geared towards the binary, logical aspect of our brains limit their effectiveness. Companies which focus on the ‘real’ triggers that motivate people to make decisions, will not only come up with more creative and effective ideas but also find ways to talk to common needs across heterogenous markets.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted this need even more. Over the last 14 months, people have made buying decisions from behind a computer screen. Sales people are no longer able to build relationships and trust face-to-face. Thus the pressure is on marketers to trigger the emotional connections that brands need to grow.

Some weeks into the first lockdown, my co-founder and I took part in a discussion panel about the subject of empathy in marketing as a way of achieving cut-through. As we talked, it became clear that most B2B brands in the audience had only ever had a functional value proposition – with commercial, rational messaging focusing on product features. This would turn off their customers in normal times, but even more given the situation at the time.

Some of these businesses were starting to turn to more empathetic messaging, but without any pre-existing level of emotion they were finding it difficult to do so without appearing inauthentic. It was brands that had invested in their emotional marketing over a long period of time which were able to forge a much more natural and organic sense of unity with their audience.

Human behaviour is a messy, complicated and infinitely fascinating phenomenon, and the sooner you learn to explore it, the more you’ll increase your sales and build a legacy that will stand the test of time.

James is the author of Humanizing B2B: The New Truth in Marketing that Will Transform Your Brand and Your Sales (Practical Inspirational Publishing, April 2021)

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