Imagine if you could physically feel what others physically feel. The person you’re looking at gets a hug; you feel all warm and fuzzy. They get slapped in the face; your cheek stings from the impact. Sounds like science fiction? Not if you suffer from mirror-touch synaesthesia.
People with severe cases of this rare condition can find it socially debilitating: they can’t watch people eat because they feel mush in their own mouth, going to a party is a cacophony of sensations, watching a movie is overwhelming – the hero gets punched; they feel bruised.
The condition affects only a tiny minority of people, but this small population is of outsized interest to neuroscientists studying phenomena like empathy and ‘emotional responsivity’, how we react to others people’s feelings.
One of the latest hypotheses is that empathy is the result of a process of simulation in our brains. When we see someone feeling happy, the same neural circuits used to make them feel happy are activated in ours – much like what supposedly happens in a Vulcan mind-meld. Mirror-touch synaesthetes have heightened activation of these mirror systems, which is why studying throws light on how we all respond emotionally to other people.
What’s interesting from a communications perspective is that these same mirror neurons also get hijacked when we experience a story. That feeling of being spellbound, of total engrossment in the action, is the result of our mirror neurons simulating the emotions of the characters. It’s why we all gasp, wince, or weep at the same time at the cinema – we are all synched to the story. Stories are a way of transmitting emotions and information between brains – mind-melding for humans.
What’s all this got to do with marketing?
As anyone who is aware of Daniel Kahneman’s writing will know, there are two broad ways we make decisions, including purchase decisions. Most decisions are made by what he calls ‘System 1’ – they tend to be emotional, gut-feel, (and often habitual) decisions, made quickly by more ancient and reflexive parts of our brain. Our inner Captain Kirk, you might say. Novel or more elaborate choices are made by ‘System 2’ – more rational, deliberative decisions that involve weighing up conflicting or new information. Our inner Doctor Spock. These are made by more recently evolved parts of our brain, such as the frontal cortex, the seat of our critical reasoning. System 1 works faster than System 2 – in short, we feel first and think second.
Good brands have the potential to elicit emotional purchases, the result of ‘System 1’ processing. Our favourite brands are ones we tend to say we ‘love’ or ‘like’, and buying them is often an instinctive, emotional decision that doesn’t involve much deliberation or justification.
One of the surest ways to make a brand an emotional purchase is to tell stories involving the brand. As we have seen, we all experience stories emotionally. Any information about the brand encoded in the story tends to be stored in our memory with emotional tags attached. As we ‘feel first and think second’ when making decisions, the information tagged emotionally gets retrieved faster. Over time, brands that are emotionally tagged become our reflexive purchases, our favourite brands.
All advertising makes a brand more mentally available – exposure is generally a good thing. But advertising that tells a story has an extra quality to it. ‘Brand storytelling’ is different to storytelling in that it encodes information about the brand within a story, and different to advertising in that it employs narrative structures and devices. It’s a powerful combination because it makes your advertising and content more memorable and meaningful, and is more likely to build emotional value into the brand over time.
But doesn’t all advertising somehow tell a story?
Well, not really. A story has to have certain shape to qualify as a story, and storytelling advertising and content has to conform to that shape to harness the persuasive power of narrative. There are many story models, but for the purposes of this article, let’s stick to one of the simplest: ‘situation, complication, resolution’. It’s an Aristotelian concept more commonly known as ‘beginning, middle, and end’. (I did say let’s keep this simple).
The ‘situation’ introduces the protagonist and a dramatic setting. The ‘complication’ adds a dramatic conflict: a tension, challenge, or difficulty faced by the protagonist that he or she has to respond to. In the ‘resolution’, we find out whether the protagonist’s actions end in success (comedy) or failure (tragedy).
Any advertising or content that replays this shape (and not necessarily in that order) will work as a story. But for the advertising or content to work as a piece of branded communication, the brand or product messaging must be encoded into the story – whether implicitly or explicitly. This can be done in various ways, like including it in the action or making the brand something the protagonist uses to resolve their dilemma. What is important is that the brand is woven into the very fabric of the story.
Leaving brand messaging to an end frame or as a summary strap line doesn’t count and won’t work. This is because the brain performs what is called ‘cognitive closure’. Cognitive closure is the process by which the important constituent parts of the story are filed away into the memory when the brain deems the story to have finished. If brand messages appear after the story appears to be complete, the extraneous information is discarded. This mental process often explains why a supposedly good TV advert is often recalled like this: “I remember that ad! It was great! The one for… what it was for again?!” The viewer remembers the story, but nothing else.
This phenomenon is born out in a recent publication by Kantar MillwardBrown called ‘Make a Lasting Impression’ and by the on-going work of Neuro-Insight into the effectiveness of advertising. At KMB, they use ‘facial coding’ to gauge the emotional resonance of an advert moment by moment. At Neuro-Insight, they use steady state topography (they get respondents to wear caps wired with sensors) to record the intensity of brain activity. The output of both methods charts how audiences show more ‘interest’, by means of facial movement or neural activity, as the story is revealed.
One of the examples in the KMB study dissects the emotional resonance of Amazon’s 2016 ‘Priest and Imam’ advert in which two old friends, a vicar and an imam, each realise the other is getting older and buys them knee-pads via the Amazon app. The ad is effective because it both tells a story and encodes brand messages within the action. According to KMB’s results, there is a clear spike in the chart recording emotional interest at the introduction of complication, when they have difficulty standing up. There are two spikes at the points of resolution, when they receive knee-pads in the post and then start using them. The advert thereby imparts several brand messages – about Amazon’s values and about how easy it is to buy on the app – by weaving the brand and app into the action. By integrating brand messaging into the narrative, it works both as a story and an effective piece of advertising.
It is clear from the research that ‘brand storytelling’ is meaningful, memorable, and effective, and ultimately drives sales and brand growth. It’s not to say that using narrative is the only effective way to advertise (there are many other mnemonic tricks to be employed), but it is certainly a manner of advertising that works because it works with our brains’ natural proclivities.
What’s more, story has a strange effect on powers of critique. Because stories are experienced emotionally, rather than rationally, the information in the story tends to bypass our critical faculties. They get processed by System 1, rather than the more rigorous System 2 (after all, very little gets past Spock). This explains why we tend to suspend judgment when listening to a story – an effect that Coleridge called ‘the willing suspense of disbelief’. What modern research has shown, however, is that the effect is more unwilling than willing: we can’t help but be sucked in by story. Can elephants fly? ‘No!’, you would be quick to reply. But watch Disney’s Dumbo and you don’t tend to quibble. Which, as an aside, might explain why stories play such an important role in faith and religion.
What needn’t be taken as faith is the fact that much research into narrative-based advertising and content all comes to a common conclusion: as Jennifer Edson Escalas says ‘the spellbinding effect of telling stories elicits strong affective responses and low levels of critical thought, which in turn affect brand attitudes and evaluation’.
In other words, brand storytelling gets people to feel and think positively about your brand in a way they tend to judge less. The truth is that we have as much defence against the powerful persuasive force of story as we do against the Vulcan mind-meld.
And that’s science fact, not fiction.
Ed Woodcock is director of narrative at storytelling agency Aesop.
To read Aesop's Storytelling Series Episode 1: why brand storytelling has got zombie movie written all over it click here.