In the Insights category, we’ll be sharing the fundamentals of our guiding philosophy at d+m, helpful tips that we’ve picked up along the way, and generally interesting concepts for you to ponder, if you’re so inclined. To start this category off, lets look at the neuroscience of engagement, and how an understanding of the mechanisms at work can lead to a smarter way of communicating with your audience.

To start, lets dissect the term “branding” (which we’re not fans of, outside its use as a term people relate to), as it exists in the modern lexicon, as well as how it fits into traditional marketing schemes. Branding implies an explicit – as opposed to implicit – ownership over something, and characterizes a thing as a possession, belonging to some larger entity. In essence, it’s the act of inserting meaning and value where there was none before, or at least a meaning and value system not based on the thing’s intrinsic qualities. For instance, two for-the-sake-of-this-analogy identical cows are bought at auction: Cow A is bought and branded by Farm X, and Cow B by Farm Y, but Cow A is immediately worth more, as it has the legacy of Farm X applied as substitute for any intrinsic meaning. Yes, this analogy borders on hyperbole, but for the sake of brevity, lets assume establishing an economic credibility and worth is the only reason for visually branding the cattle. That’s all for semantics – now on to the fun stuff.

For the past century or so, much of marketing philosophy has been enacted from within this “legacy” framework; that the most desirable companies are those that are the largest, the oldest, the highest-rated. The belief is that holding those positions will indefinitely attract and retain a loyal base. With this in mind, branding is applied as an outward-facing facade to keep up an appearance that matches these goals. In the mid-20th century, cognitive psychology research became implemented in marketing strategies, and companies attempted (and succeeded at astonishing levels) to subliminally influence buying decisions in the consumer through subconscious, Pavlovian-esque conditioning methods, which usually involved manipulating color (there’s a reason the golden arches are a particular hue of yellow), sound, and proximal association stimuli, with the fundamental directive of establishing and reinforcing a brand legacy.

branding example - conditioned dopamine shift

This type of conditioning takes time. Initially, the brain releases the pleasure chemical dopamine after a reward is experienced. It’s only after repeated exposure that the dopamine release shifts to the time a stimulus is presented, resulting in a conditioned behavioral response. Here’s a simplified example. Imagine you have no concept of chocolate cake (and that chocolate cake is unarguably and universally desirable), and you are presented with a slice for the first time – this is the stimulus. After you taste the cake, you get a little hit of dopamine, and your brain decides chocolate cake is a good thing. Over time, every piece of chocolate cake you’re given shifts that hit closer to the time of stimulus, and eventually you get a rush of dopamine when you first see (or hear about) the cake. This whole process takes time, and it’s only effective if the initial stimuli can be presented to a large population, which can be expensive – cake or otherwise.

Recent studies in neuroscience and cognitive processes, however, have shed light on a more engaging way to attract and retain attention: human narrative. In the mid-90s, researchers examined the seemingly addictive quality of video games. As it turns out, when presented with a chronological problem and resolution scenario (think 2D plumber hero jumping over a 2D reptilian bad guy to save a 2D princess), a significant and instant release of dopamine occurs, establishing a positive reward neural circuit in the medial temporal lobe, and increasing the player’s desire to continue playing. Considering the number of obstacles in a given level of the game, general consensus is that the interval release of dopamine directly contributes to the retained attention of the player.


OK, but not every brand can have its own video game. Building on this same concept, however, researchers have shown that the same mechanism of engagement occurs in other types of narratives as well, such as books and films. In fact, it is likely that this periodic hit of dopamine is the reason we can’t put certain books down, keep late night television on, and go on time-consuming, hygiene-obliterating, full-season Netflix binges. Further, more recent studies have extended this mechanism of behavior reinforcement to chronological depictions of more sophisticated and uniquely human challenge situations, such as social interactions. Basically, narratives are like presenting the brain with a bunch of pieces of chocolate cake, one after the other. It’s no surprise that one prominent ad agency has reported that their proprietary research shows custom narrative content is twice as effective at increasing awareness and between two-and-a-half and three times as effective at driving purchase preference as traditional television spots – and in research numbers, a two- to three-fold increase is pretty darned significant.

Now, lets bring this new info back to talking about the term “branding” (and why we choose not to use it). We established way up at the top of the page that branding implies that meaning or value has been applied to something that didn’t intrinsically have that meaning prior. If the marketing strategy is based on a legacy, it is subject to the constantly changing trends in attractive and fashionable design, and can only ever be as powerful as the single-level conditioning can affirm the legacy to be. However, if the identity is based on a human narrative, it’s fairly likely that followers will be more intimately engaged with the brand itself, rather than a transient and fabricated representation, and that their engagement will be lasting, as the human brain’s dopamine reward mechanism is a cumulatively reinforcing response to uniquely human situations, and it seems that the human condition is unlikely to change until the human species as a whole experiences a collective evolutionary and neurological change.

Still from Sitka Branding Video Stranded

Lets look at a real world example. “Stranded”, directed by Benjamin Schuetze & Ben Gulliver for Sitka, is less of a lifestyle-marketing piece (another industry peeve of ours, for another article maybe) and more of a great example of using an artfully crafted and beautifully shot human narrative as part of an awareness campaign. Watching it, you would really never know you were taking in what is effectively a 7-minute advertisement, until the packaging and logo shot at the end. And, you don’t feel tricked, mislead, duped, bait-and-switched (can that be a verb?) – the approach was honest and genuine, and the focus was on the storytelling, and because of this, you almost feel refreshed and happy inside (dopamine!), with a new conscious and curious affinity for a brand to which you’ve had no previous exposure. Amazing, this powerful storytelling stuff.

This is the future of communication between brands and the public. No legacy facades, no infectious jingles; no carefully distorted “facts” or deviously misleading “doctor’s” recommendations, and no closed-study-tested trendy association buzz words. These tactics worked splendidly in the past, while uncontested, but the neuroscience shows that they simply won’t hold up to identities crafted with honest, genuine, and uniquely human narratives. We hope this gave you something to mentally chew on today; don’t worry, we don’t plan to be this abstract in every Insights article – we just wanted to start you out with a thinker.