How your customer feels about your brand will determine what they think about it, whether they tell other people about it and of course, whether they buy it themselves. Getting them to feel a certain way means sparking an emotional connection in them and that comes down to chemistry.
Two prominent public figures from wildly different professions have written books recently about how humans are ruled by neurotransmitter chemicals that our brains naturally create: Simon Sinek (Leaders Eat Last) and Ruby Wax (Sane New World).
They both talk about how each of these neurotransmitters determine and control how we are going to feel when they are released, and what makes us release them in the first place:
Your body’s natural opiates. These pain masking chemicals can be activated by exercise, sex, even eating hot peppers. They play a key role in central nervous
This is our pleasure controller, we release dopamine in anticipation of a reward. This, according to Simon Sinek, is the goal-achieving chemical. It is also linked with addiction due to the effects on dopamine from substances such as cocaine and amphetamines. Social media’s endless scroll and bright colours also make us release dopamine (more about this later).
This is our natural happiness juice. It also controls social behaviour, appetite, digestion and sleep. Evidence suggests a link between serotonin levels and depression, disordered eating and insomnia.
This chemical of love helps us bond with our children, fuels our generosity, empathy, trust and is an antidote to depressive feelings. However, oxytocin has a dark side. While it’s the hormone of love, it also bonds us with those who share our characteristics and instigates prejudice against those who do not.
It doesn’t matter who you are, where you were born, how you were raised or how you were educated, if you’re human, these chemicals control how you feel.
There are massive social questions around the part these chemicals play in why the world is the way it is. But these chemicals do not only control our reasons for choosing our spouses, going to war or why some people suffer from anorexia.
In more domestic terms, they control everything we decide to have in our homes, the TV shows we like, why we eat more sugar after a bad night’s sleep and how we respond to brands we see every day.
For marketers, they present enormous possibilities for engaging people in the most natural, human and influential way: in person.
Dopamine in the digital age
The common factor linking our four key neurotransmitters is that it takes something in the physical world, something that stimulates one or more of the senses, a direct human need or direct human contact, to fire them up.
The exception to this rule – and in part only – is dopamine.
A recent Panorama documentary on BBC2 explained that dopamine is released when we anticipate receiving a reward. This is why the endless scroll on our smartphones works so well: our anticipation that something great might come next never ends.
But sitting at home with a smartphone is not enough to keep us happy because our relationship with this chemical is far more complex than scientists first thought. Far from keeping us isolated, dopamine drives us to seek social interaction and is likely to have played a critical role in our evolutionary success.
As reported in Science magazine in January 2018, a study at Kent State University Ohio, USA, led by Mary Ann Ranghanti showed that human brains contain dramatically more dopamine than any of our most closely related primates.
This could be a key factor in what drove us to explore the world, develop our societal structures and even the need for language.
What about serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin?
Dopamine is interesting because it is released by both digital and real-world interaction. But there are three other key neurotransmitters that we know of at work in our brains; and they only fire when stimulated by a physical change
in the body: light, certain foods or exercise, for instance.
Endorphins make us feel good when we move around, so we leave the house. Seeing other people activates our oxytocin, our cappuccino and muffin fires up our serotonin, and anticipation of what the day might hold gives us our dopamine kick.
We are literally hard-wired to crave everything we will find at a shopping centre because the experience of going there has all these feel-good factors built in. Digital does not.
Yet we live in a world where digital is increasingly important to all of us, for some of the time. When
we want something, almost all of us will start our search online. Yet what lies at the end of that search? 90% of digital journeys end up with acquiring a physical object in the real world.
It’s not a case of having to choose between the digital and real world: we live in both. What marketers have to understand is how to best interact with the people they want to engage both digitally and physically.