How to stop brand apathy at a neurochemical level

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Our brains are wired to react to newness and the potential for reward, writes an associate strategy director at Deutsch.

If you ask your grandparents why they fell in love with each other, they won’t be able to tell you. They’ll try. They’ll offer a nice list of culturally and socially desirable character traits, but mostly they just know something felt different.

If our core purpose is to find mates that will help our genes survive another generation, the prospect of being face-to-face with a potential mate is an emotional onslaught fed in part by the flood of the neurochemical dopamine. It is that chemical reaction that allows us to galvanize and bond, so we stick together and procreate. 

Research from Neuroscience News shows that "dopamine levels continuously signal how good or valuable the current situation is regarding obtaining a reward." Our brain’s reward center activates when it senses something good is about to happen. It loves things like: "the next episode starts in 5, 4, 3, 2 …," realizing it’s Friday (which, research has shown, is the happiest day of the week), or the swipe, swipe, swipe that we believe could lead us to our progeny.

To our brains, newness is possibility and the potential for reward. Newness is unexpected and it screams opportunity. When our senses tell our heads some kind of reward might be coming, our brain cells are heightened and that makes us want to take action. 

Action is what marketers strive for. The constant challenge is finding novel ways to spark interest. Setting the standard of uniqueness and unexpectedness becomes its own opportunity. Finding territory brands can own—from communications to product to distribution—they can show audiences how difference equals a reward for them. 

Being unexpected starts small and grows into an advantage. Here are a few ways to get the chemical reactions started.

Talk about attributes other brands ignore or fear. Brands follow industry best practices because they’re safe, but safety stops them from standing out. Dodge stood out a few years back when they used Will Ferrell’s character from Anchorman to extol the virtues of a car’s glove box. Burger King recently made a statement by showing a handful of their restaurants burning down to promote their burgers being flame-grilled. And instead of talking about athletic achievement, P&G has used the Olympics as an opportunity to promote the moms who help athletes get where they are. By exposing the attributes competitors are ignoring, target audiences get to experience a new and different angle to a conventional message. 

Use conventional formats in a different way. The variety of formats available in digital is an opportunity to stray from what quickly becomes forgotten. Last year, Mini used the pesky skip button to prove its performance prowess by challenging people to skip the ad before the car could get to it. And Nike grabbed attention by using simple type to tell people to get outside and run. When brands optimize creativity on conventional formats, they capture attention because it breaks the pattern of what we are used to seeing.   

Reinvent the way your message is told. Audiences easily filter through ordinary content to avoid being overwhelmed, and content creators have challenged themselves to stay ahead. Facebook deftly takes advantage of the discomfort some people feel when their newsfeed changes by constantly optimizing the feed and staying ahead of the boredom. Brazil’s No. 1 beer, Skol, asked people to find its old, pseudo-sexist ads in public, and then swapped them out for female-created and empowered pieces of art.

"Borrow" something great and make it your own. Novelty can come in the form of changing context. Under Armour’s creative work used stylistic and narrative cues from sports leaders like Nike and Gatorade to turn the focus back on its product advantages. Likewise, Facebook released a feature on Instagram that was heavily inspired by Snapchat’s stories feature, which recently reported having more "story" users than its competitor. Facebook added a feature people love to something they already highly value.

We (you and I, the grandchildren of our grandparents) are here in part because our ancestors felt enough newness in each other to stick together. Maybe it’s time for brands to take a cue from them and foster the kind of chemical-fueled novelty that will keep audiences engaged.

—Ben Perreira is associate strategy director at Deutsch.