Content Marketing

Neuroscience Says Stories May Make People Love Brands More Than Their Families. But Why?

When I’m advocating for the potential of brand storytelling, there’s one neuroscience study that I’m always tempted to reference, mostly because of this super-sexy tl; dr: Three in eight people love a brand more than their spouses or kids, all because of the story button in their brains.

Neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak came to this conclusion by testing the amount of oxytocin—the emotion triggered when you’re hugged by a loved one—released in people’s brains when they’re asked about brands they claim to love. He also examined their levels of other emotional responses, measured by factors like heart rate and nerve twitches. When Zak asked questions about the brands, and then followed up with questions about a loved one, an interesting pattern emerged: When a person’s relationship with a brand was tied to a story, that respondent showed more love for a brand than a loved one.

Those were situations “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,” wrote Fast Company reporter Rae Ann Fera.

I loved this study when I read it and was tempted to write about it, but a couple of details quelled my excitement: The three examples above were literally the only three examples. Dr. Zak’s sample size was only eight people. That’s a liberal arts school writing workshop, not a statistically significant sample size. The study was also commissioned by ad agency Oceanan, and that made the small sample size suspicious; after all, it was hard not to imagine they weren’t hoping for a result that would help them pitch what they sell (brand storytelling!). Plus, the name Dr. Zak kept making me imagine Zack Morris dressed in a lab coat.

Still, I haven’t been able to stop thinking—or occasionally talking—about that study since it came out in March, and it’s because I believe the results would have held up under further scrutiny. Honestly, I love my friends and family a lot, but I doubt they’d outrank the New York Giants if I took part in Dr. Zak’s tests. The same might even go for Miller High Life, which was a fixture of many crazy stories from my time at Sarah Lawrence College.

Without a doubt, both of those brands lucked into my love. My dad passed down his love for the Giants; Miller High Life was on sale at $6.49 per 12 pack in Stop & Shop for the entirety of my very exuberant sophomore year.

There is really only one type of company that creates this type of emotional response without luck: entertainment brands. I will dance ecstatically to the Pete and Pete theme song at my wedding. My future grandkids will be just as tired of me talking about The Wire as two-thirds of my current friends. Tolstoy and Wes Anderson will always bring me to a place of strange, pure glee. And all that goes back to great, entertaining stories that have forged a deep emotional bond in my mind.

I maintain that brands can compete in the entertainment game as long as they make adequate investments. After all, 90 percent of media is owned by six massive corporations—aka brands. People don’t prefer the content put out by media companies because of some inherent rule; they prefer it because it’s usually better and because people these companies to create material worth their time. Meanwhile, audiences are conditioned to expect brands to interrupt them with 30-second commercials they don’t want.

But the success of blockbuster hits like The LEGO Movie, magazines like The Red Bulletin and Porter, and viral sensations from Old Spice, Dove, and Chipotle show people will watch anything from anyone as long as it’s good. If we accept that premise, most brands are being held back because they’re failing in two crucial areas:

1) Making content that’s as entertaining as what media companies put out.

2) Finding ways to distribute that content effectively.

Ultimately, the fact that brands continue to fail in this way seems a little bit insane. After all, you can complete with anyone in entertainment if you give talented people enough creative freedom and resources, and you can build an audience for that content as long as you hire the right editors or producers. Both of those things are accomplished by spending money, and brands have a lot of money to spend in the pursuit to stay relevant.

You want your brand to be loved? Give creative, talented people the freedom to do their thing, and get out of the damn way.

Make your Twitter timeline far more amusing by following @JoeLazauskas and @Contently.

Image by Budweiser

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