Don’t forget that we’re human

Dec 10, 2014 · 9 min read

The future for financial brands is easy. It’s technology, it’s Big Data, it’s functionality. Except it’s not. Web psychologist Nathalie Nahai explains why business overlooks the powerful emotions of human beings at its peril

Words: Natalie Nahai
John W. Tomac

century from now, our descendants will look back and marvel at how quaint we were way back in 2014. “Look at them,” they will squeal. “Dashing about with their little phones, working five days a week and ironing their clothes. They barely even knew the meaning of nanotechnology.”

But for us living here now, it feels like a time of enormous change. This is the century when data broke the dams, the era of information overload, the constant flurry of digital voices.

No wonder that communications technology is occupying the minds of forward-looking businesses. Following the economic crisis, many businesses (particularly banks) saw technology as the secret to reinventing themselves and winning back the faith of their customers. And board directors the world over asked their consultants: “Where is technology taking us, where are we heading?”

But societies have a bad habit of not learning from history. Rapid shifts in technology are nothing new and past experience should remind us that humans drive technology, not the other way around.

After all, the internet is simply a way of connecting humans with other humans. Every time we create a new technology, whether it’s lighting a fire, sending a telegram or creating a website, we simply use it to help us do stuff we have been doing anyway since the earliest days of civilisation — communicating, trading, flirting, telling stories.

The danger with obsessing over the technology itself is that we look at the latest shiny toy and think “that’s our magical solution, that’s our silver bullet”. But in the majority of cases, it’s not. Businesses need much more than technology to understand the richness of a person or an audience.

As a result, the digital revolution has spawned a series of behavioural science books about applying neural-marketing and web psychology to online spaces — the writers Nir Eyal and BJ Fogg are good examples. And this is good — people are learning how to make the technology work as well as possible for people like us — human beings.

Big Data

Big Data is a fascinating development but it’s only effective when applied alongside other contextual tools. In basic terms, that means knowing when a correlation is meaningful and when it’s not; and combining that with academic research around psychographics — the study of personality, values, attitudes and lifestyles. We don’t act as automatons in response to technological drivers, we react as humans. It’s amazing how few brands think about the psychology of the individuals in their audience.

You see this in the way that some businesses have approached social media. One of the biggest mistakes companies make is to clamp down on dialogue. Bigger organisations often fear social media and the impact of word of mouth. The problem is that if a company decides not to participate in that conversation, those customers are still going to talk about them, but the conversation will be one-sided. Whatever you think you are doing to build your brand, your customers will have a much bigger say in terms of whether people believe you are reputable and trustworthy. If you don’t take part in that conversation, your brand will almost certainly suffer.

Emotional drivers

Financial services businesses have embraced technology and, in some cases, see it as the salvation of their brands. But while they push the logical benefits to customers, they can overlook the primal and emotional drivers that are just as important.

Take lawyers as an example. We don’t really think of lawyers as emotional; we think of them as logical. Law firms generally promote themselves with very logical language, yet when most of us actually use a lawyer, it’s at a time of high emotion in our lives — maybe we’re getting divorced, or there has been a death in the family. We see our lawyer as a steward of transition at a difficult time, so why don’t they promote how they can make us ‘feel’ as well as what they can ‘do’ for us?

Of course, professionals cannot be seen to (or be allowed to) manipulate people at a vulnerable time, so appealing to a client’s ‘emotional brain’ has to be approached with care and integrity. Nonetheless, many finance brands have scope for connecting with people in a more proactive, emotional way, recognising and empathising with the circumstances in which customers require help — be it buying a house, tackling money problems, starting a business etc.

Some of the newer financial institutions such as Simple Banking seem to get this, and are certainly more approachable and keen to remove barriers. Simple’s tagline of ‘worry-free alternative to traditional banking’ sums it up well.


The next big sweep will be through the ‘internet of things’. The concept of the quantified self has arrived, as has being able to access behavioural data through things we wear. No one knows how that will change things.

In terms of software shifts, we’re moving towards hyper-personalisation and individual psychographic profiles. There’s a big issue in the UK at the moment with insurance companies using metadata. People say it’s anonymous, but it’s not. If I find out that someone in my street has called up an escort service, then a week later they call their GP, then a day later they visit A&E, it’s a fair bet that their health insurance prospects may be compromised.

We may see banks and insurance companies discriminate against people and give preferential treatment to others based on data they gather without their permission. That would be a major concern for consumers and, if banks don’t adapt quickly enough to the new market and people’s concerns/expectations, they will struggle.

The companies that will flourish long term are the ones who treat their customers’ data with genuine confidentiality, are transparent in how they use it and also give their customers a say in how it’s used. It’s about opening a discussion with customers rather than robbing them of their privacy.

Financial brands can also develop by embracing positive aspects of human nature, such as collaboration. As individuals, we tend to operate in silos and compartmentalise things, which can be very dangerous. We do this as businesses too, and we saw what happened to many banks as a result of not seeing the bigger picture.

Businesses should collaborate more, learning from others that have travelled further along the same path. Financial services businesses waste a lot of time forging their own way online when they could learn from earlier pioneers, such as the advertising industry. We should talk to each other a little more, like humans.

Human behaviour

1 Don’t let technology overwhelm the way you communicate with customers; human emotion and psychology are neglected at your peril.

2 Financial brands that avoid social media are just allowing everyone else to have a one-sided conversation about them.

3 Old-fashioned businesses often reach out to customers by focusing on logic and rationality, overlooking the powerful triggers of the primal and emotional brains.

4 The next big developments will be the ‘internet of things’ and the quantified self. How is your brand gearing up to tackle these opportunities?

5 Hyper-personalisation is going to be a bone of contention. The brands that succeed will be the ones who open a discussion with customers rather than robbing them of their privacy.

6 Financial brands, just like humans, should collaborate more.

Welcome to your brain

Think your laptop is an impressive piece of technology? Well, let’s put it into context. Your brain is capable of 200 million billion calculations per second. Inside your skull sits a 1.3kg mass of extraordinary complex neural circuitry. Consisting of around 100 billion neurons, each with 1,000 connections and a firing rate of 200 calculations per second, this singular organ is responsible for your every move, behaviour and decision — and much of how it works remains a mystery.

In terms of online psychology, it’s useful to think of the brain in terms of three metaphorical areas: the primal brain, the emotional brain and the rational brain. If you want to be truly successful in developing relationships with your customers online, you’ll need to target all three.

The Primal Brain
This comprises the brainstem, believed to be one of the most primitive structures in the brain. Common to all animals, the brainstem is responsible for our basic vital functions, such as breathing, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure, as well as sexual arousal. It keeps us alert and gives us the ‘fight or flight’ instinct that often takes over when we confront danger.
Ways of stimulating the primal brain include the use of sex. In terms of financial brands, this would obviously be subtle, such as images of healthy, attractive people.

Food also works well in this context. So does contrast. Our ancestors had to make quick, stark decisions that often meant the difference between life and death — so contrasting images that provide choice appeal to our primal brain. This part of our brain is also interested in getting to the nitty gritty fast, and reacts with interest to talk of scarcity and ‘what’s in it for me?’

The Emotional Brain
Our emotional system processes feelings such as happiness, sadness and disgust; it decides whether or not we trust someone’s face; it acts as an interchange for information passing from all the senses (except smell). This is the part of the brain that is susceptible to impulse buying — it’s interested in reward and risk-taking. It’s the part of you that says: ‘Yes, I will have that piece of chocolate cake.’

Effective ways to target the emotional brain include the use of empathy. That’s why so many websites use images of people having fun, although this can backfire as it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution — the cultural perceptions of your audience have to be addressed. Most of us have seen clumsy websites with a cheesy stock image of somebody smiling at us, and immediately felt put off. But when it’s done well, its very effective on a sub-conscious level.

Another technique that very much appeals to the emotional brain is storytelling — one of the oldest, most powerful forms of communication. People are very receptive to hearing stories, they understand how they work and their brains rapidly tune in. That explains how great orators use stories to rouse entire nations into acts of incredible violence or love.

The Rational Brain
This is the system that helps us to plan, organise and solve problems. It’s open to social learning, language, abstract thought and imagination. The rational brain comprises the neocortex, the defining feature that sets us apart from other mammals. But what makes us really special is the combined interaction between different regions.

Most of us like to think we make logical decisions all the time. The reality is that we make instinctive judgements and then use logic to post-rationalise and justify our gut feelings. This is where the rational brain kicks in, looking for evidence to back our judgement. Financial brands often focus largely on appealing to the rational brain (‘this is why you should invest in this product’), but a far more effective approach is to target all three regions together.

This story is taken from the first issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the website.

Nathalie Nahai lectures widely on the subject of Web Psychology and is author of Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion. Clients include Google, the BBC, The Guardian, Unilever and Nokia.

Poppy Magazine

Brain food for communicators in finance.

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