Can a Strong Brand Be Like a Religion?

Why has digital advertising taken such pains to ruin something as wonderful as how people feel about the brands they love by assuming that brand ads don’t work online and only interruptive, painful calls to action do? The direction taken by many in online advertising seems to fly in the face of the last decade of neuromarketing research, and is about to cause advertisers to shoot themselves in their collective feet. There is no evidence that consumers don’t want to see brand ads, and tons of it to show that they are both tuning out and turning off ads that the industry regards as “performance.”

Our emotional engagement with strong brands shares something with our feelings about religion. This truth was revealed to me as I was reading “Stealing Fire,” a book about how altered states of consciousness are being used by both business and the military to bring about “flow states,” those states in which people show extraordinary creativity and team work. Burning Man, the large art festival in the Nevada desert, is an example of how an entire city can be created by self-managed teams in flow states.

However, the fact that engagement with strong brands lit up the same brain centers as religious experiences still took me by surprise, and it illuminated for me many of the things that are wrong with digital advertising, and some that the industry could easily get right.

In 2007 a collection of the world’s biggest brands, including Apple, Sony, and Coco Cola, Nike, Samsung, and Ford, put up $7million to fund a study into the neuroscience of buying behavior. They wanted to study whether there were more effective ways to influence behavior than what they were using, and saw this study as a way to replace old-school focus groups with brain scans.

A marketing consultant named Martin Lindstrom teamed up with a neuroscientist, Gemma Calvert to conduct the study. Lindstrom later wrote Brandwashed. They used functionalMRI (fMRI) and electroencephalograms (EEG)to scan the brains of people as they made buying decisions, discovering along the way that product placement in movies and TV shows rarely works, and that shopping and spirituality share the same neuronal activity.

Of course there was a backlash, since no one wants to think of themselves as being manipulated. But that doesn’t mean creative departments and marketers can’t strive for stronger brands and better brand experiences. Bought and executed correctly, ads for strong brands can produce similar feelings of joy, love and serenity to those produced in religious people by religious iconography — an emotional engagement for which marketers strive. And with the right platforms and media buying policies, we can even do this programmatically.

So let’s not ruin it by creating ads that merely ask for the sale and follow people around on the internet, and don’t provide worthy experiences.

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