Getting Back to the Basics of Human Connection

Research shows that marketing often overlooks a fundamental truth about how our brains are wired

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Advertising is the only language of communication between the consumer and the brand. If you personify brands, and a consumer’s experience with a product is the equivalent to a romantic courtship, then advertising is really about establishing the trust that gets you there. It’s about uncovering, understanding and linking the needs and aspirations of one (the consumer) to the attributes of another (the product proposition).

Yet with all the available data, technological advances and decades of best practice at our disposal to improve that vital communication between consumer and brand, so many are failing to connect. The operative assumption from marketers is that the commercial environment has become so saturated, cluttered, disjointed and confused that the only way to engage consumers’ attention is to capitalize on someone else’s 15 minutes (or seconds) of fame. And still, consumers feel less and less connected—to each other, to institutions and, most importantly, to brands. Self-reported happiness scores continue to slide, and documented incidence of anxiety, depression, suicide and stress-induced illness grows. Three years of a pandemic have left people feeling powerless, polarized and transient.

To reinvigorate brand-consumer relationships—and perhaps even make them better than they were pre-pandemic—we need to return to the first principles of advertising. We need to get back to the basics of a deep human insight that compels action—those fundamentals we compromised at the hands of speed, volume, marketing fragmentation and data that we so blindly use for the sake of justification rather than true insight.

Becoming a subconscious-brain marketer

We’ve all heard of our industry’s favorite word—”consumer-centricity”—a rather useless buzzword if you don’t invest in understanding the consumer. The past 5,000 years of philosophy and the 100 years of neuroscience tell us that 90% of the human decision-making takes place in the subconscious—by definition, it is not consciously accessible to ourselves, let alone trying to access someone else’s. With almost $800 billion spent on advertising every year, we’re relying too heavily on self-reported, conscious data through surveys and focus groups to understand our consumers.

No one understands better than marketers that consumers observe and absorb so much more than the pictures or the words themselves. There are subconscious associations we have with behaviors, places, imagery and words that help us build character sketches of the people (and brands) we encounter. Dating profiles, Instagram posts and messaging tell you who this person is, what they like to talk about, what they stand for, what they value about themselves, what their worldview is and whether they’re date-worthy. The same can be said for brands—take Patagonia weaving sustainability and responsible sourcing and manufacturing through the literal and figurative fibers of its product and brand.

The only way to get back to the roots of advertising is to tell stories that uncover, understand and link the needs and aspirations of the consumer to resonate at a deep subconscious level. Only then will we be able to establish a long-lasting connection.

The importance of memory to making real connections

If you truly endeavor to decode human behavior at scale, you need to do that by looking at the subconscious drivers of what propels us to act as we do. Neuro-Insight’s patented technology, Steady State Topography (SST), allows us to measure second-by-second brain responses, while simulating a natural viewing experience with 60 individuals of any given consumer target. The output is data that breaches the conscious and allows us to understand exactly what individuals are encoding into long-term memory.


Memory matters because what we subconsciously decide to store in our memory today becomes the base for our decision-making in the future—in fact, it has an 86% correlation to predicting behavior change and sales. In other words, if it’s not in your memory (conscious or subconscious), you don’t have that information to react to in the moment of action. But there is so much more to creating that memorability. It is about whether the idea, the story, the characterization appeals to the deepest needs and aspirations of consumer.

No cow, all wow

Take Oatly’s Super Bowl debut—the ad ranked dead last in USA Today’s Ad Meter, with many a brilliant marketing mind proclaiming the ad a disaster when it aired for the Big Game. While the conscious mind of the marketer and layman alike may deem the vocal stylings of Oatly’s CEO only effective at proving he shouldn’t quit his day job, to truly gauge its effectiveness we must dive beyond our conscious perception. While rankings and traditional metrics placed this ad on the bust list, we saw something quite different in our neuro data: several spikes in detail memory—especially at end. In all, while deemed completely ineffective by traditional tools and pundits alike, according to our measurement, this ad was immensely successful because it told a story that drove the brand into memory:


It was us versus everyone else, but we continued to track the impact of this ad on Oatly’s perception and sales. Here’s what happened in market:


What now?

Despite our frivolous attempts at having hundreds of friends on social media, most people tend to find comfort with two or three friends who truly get us. There is a parallel here: We can be bombarded with thousands of messages (while browsing through reels of our fake friends), and the messages that truly drive action are the ones that “get” us.

Our highest vision of marketing is the collective synergistic manifestation of the fundamental rhythm of civilized life. We demand this of ourselves, and we call on every company, brand and the people who staff the company and support the brand to join us in the process of co-creation. Even if the above might sound too revolutionary, there is science that will help you identify what resonates, and there is science that correlates to predicting behavior at levels unheard of in the marketing industry. This is the future for your profit, if not for your purpose.

This post is the first in a regular series on neuromarketing in practice.

This story is part of Adweek’s Advertising Redefined digital package, which spotlights all the ways that the industry is evolving as brands face greater challenges than ever in reaching consumers.