Communicator in ADMAP

Whether it’s real, digital or virtual, the modern world is a busy place. Distraction and choice can be so overwhelming that even the best targeted, most personalised and timely marketing messages can evaporate without trace. And, as technological capability continues to develop on an almost minute by minute basis, how can brands cut through the noise to communicate their message? 

Social attention, as a term, is often used without explicit definition. Generally, it is understood to describe what modern marketers aim to elicit from their audience – attention to a specific form of communication in preference to other distractions. Even though the concept of social attention has not yet been officially explained, because of its high degree of relevance, many scientific findings in this domain can offer exciting insights to marketers. These findings can shine a light on what predisposes us to focus on particular actions, traits and behaviours when surrounded by an orchestra of competing signs and signals. The disparate nature of the evidence is a reflection of the complexity involved in understanding why humans show preferences for one marketing approach over another. 

High tech imaging techniques have allowed researchers to gather a lot of information about the importance of gaze, eye contact, body language, emotive imagery and context when the human brain reacts to external stimuli. Perhaps more importantly, this research has also revealed a surprising biological basis for human empathy in the form of mirror neurons. These are neurons which fire when an activity, for example a researcher eating an ice cream, is observed rather than experienced. This mirrored pattern of neural activity has paved the way, not just for theories like social attachment and learning, but for progress in marketing, due to its interest in social connectivity. Mirror neurons offer a biological explanation of what is happening when humans engage with people, stories, characters and all the multiple communications that they experience both onscreen and off. 

Mirror neurons were posited by V.S. Ramachandran, speaking at the Silver Jubilee meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, as being the biological basis of ‘empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language’. This makes a very strong case that we cannot escape our predisposition to connect and attach in a uniquely human way. The biological mechanism of human empathy was eloquently described by distinguished neuroscientist, Marco Iacoboni, in an interview with Scientific American:

‘When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing.’

Brands that can harness the innate human desire to connect will succeed in an overwhelming marketplace. Furthermore, the significance of doing so is amplified by research which reveals that whatever the means of delivery, the more humanised the message, the more receptive the audience. Research using fMRI imaging techniques has shown that if a brand’s personality has human traits and the interactions with the consumer have an adequately human tone, then these interactions activate areas of the brain associated with implicit affective processing. These are exactly the same areas that would be activated if the consumer was thinking about or interacting with another human.

Communication that takes these findings on board will obviously prioritise the human to human dimension of getting seen and heard. Some future-focused marketers already recognise this and have used it to create the sort of brand personalities that stand out in a crowded space. Here at Communicator, we have identified this approach as ‘thinking human’ and believe it offers both a way to get noticed, and also gain the trust that is so vital to consumers.

The marketers we studied to create our own Top 50 Human Marketers report may have diverse, unique and nuanced personalities, but we have been able to identify certain key traits and core ideas which unite them. In each case, listening and responding to customer needs, values and aspirations is central to the messages communicated, and delivering on this was top priority. In turn, this responsive, human-centric clarity has proved it can inspire consumer confidence, recognition and trust. Mirror neuron theory predicts and studies show that it is irrelevant whether the trust that leads to brand empathy is experienced on or offline, Mutual attachment to values is a human-centric motivator that feels real to customers regardless of how it comes to their attention. What matters is that brand messages are empathetic, responsive and relevant. 

Great examples of how human to human strategies have worked for two very different brands are offered by beauty start-up Glossier and challenger bank Monzo. For both these young companies, marketing and online community are pretty much one and the same thing. Without the trust engendered by the explicit, value-driven focus of their brand identities, businesses like these simply wouldn’t exist.

When an array of products can meet the needs of the consumer, having a brand identity that conveys shared values can make all the difference to cutting through in a busy marketplace, something that holds true for L’Oréal. Its True Match campaign demonstrates how responding to the needs of a diverse and non-stereotypical community of consumers can generate a stellar marketing message which clearly positions them as a brand that cares about the needs of all its customers. 

Modern tech, data and social media are all tools that can link brands to customers, but it’s the underlying message that can build a community. Ultimately, it’s human intelligence that designs and maintains responsive systems and relationships. The key component is empathy.

Heritage brand Keds used the power of empathy to help position their product within the modern, intensely busy, marketplace by forming a collective of inspirational women to literally walk the walk with customers for Women’s Equality Day. Aspiration, inclusivity and shared female experience are human concerns to which any brand or customer can relate, respond and attach. 

On the face of it, the frenetic marketplace in which cutting edge technology operates seems to be an entire digital world away from humans. Nevertheless, even tech giants need to recognise that empathy is the key to consumer connection. Samsung’s ‘Look at Me’ and ‘Back-up’ apps demonstrate a response to human problems that defy dismissal of the brand as being too big or too remote to care. Providing apps that respond to the fully human consequences of autism and Alzheimer’s disease communicates a brand that doesn’t just dazzle customers with the latest technological advances, but also cares about significant human problems in the real world.

In a tech-dominated future, connectivity will continue to be a defining feature of the marketplace. Its potential to build marketing opportunities and facilitate responsiveness for brands is increasingly evident. It is vital that brand responses are personalised and consistent across multiple channels to make best use of the multiplicity of consumer touch-points which are now intrinsic features of customers’ lives. Soon, the boundaries between the digital and the physical worlds will blur even further and brands need to synchronise their response in both domains. By not focusing solely on the technology that will enable and develop this, the best marketers are already maximising the brand building human connections that multiple channels already facilitate.

Just consider the success of global brand Airbnb which bases its marketing strategy on prioritising the humans that use the service, rather than fixating on the technology that makes the company, and its astonishing success, possible. Airbnb owns, supports and responds to its unique online community stressing the offline opportunity to ‘belong anywhere’. Tech giant Dell’s “Future Ready” series, told through dramatic episodes, shows how a mix of data, the Cloud, and Dell’s network helped a girl get a heart transplant and return to school. These brands know that presenting a human-centric identity is a productive way to harness the power of social media and the communities it is so good at creating. Increasingly, these are the communities customers want to be part of.

The biology that links all humans is an important factor in trying to understand what predisposes customers to engage with certain types of communication above others. The discoveries of neuroscience can help to explain and invigorate the messages that marketers use to stimulate connection with their customers. To succeed in a future filled with tech and connectivity, these need to be empowering messages that build trust, confidence and interest by foregrounding the shared values and points of human interest that inspire an empathetic response.

Facebook is in the process of establishing an entire neuroscience centre dedicated to marketing studies in Manhattan. A major project will look at heart rate, facial and eye movements of subjects as they scroll through profiles or consume TV content. This represents an attempt to understand what subtle biological signals predict about behaviour offline. Such work has obvious potential to extend our knowledge of observed behaviour, what it cannot do is change the biology that underwrites that behaviour in the first place. Even before Facebook and neuroscience have pieced together a definitive explanation of social attention and how it works, the biology tells us that thinking human has to be the right way to go.

This article originally featured in the October 2017 edition of ADMAP.

Chris Falconer