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HeyHuman’s Neil Davidson: how neuroscience can find new ways to tell ad stories

We’ve been telling stories since advertising’s embryonic flutters, baby steps and terrible teens – as such, some of the industry’s most memorable moments have been narrative-heavy.

And traditional storytelling still demands attention. No matter what you think of them, those John Lewis Christmas ads get people talking every year, and there is a reason for that. Even as storytelling is increasingly informed and enabled by technology and data; as we’re bombarded with so much more stuff on a daily basis, our brains are still partial to an old-fashioned tall tale.

And it can be proven – with neuroscience.

Neuroscience testing tells us that people are 22 times more likely to remember information when it’s woven into a story. More recently, research has shown how stories can stimulate neural coupling, which basically means a link is created between storyteller and listener. As the advertising space becomes more cluttered with the aforementioned stuff, that link between brand and customer is vital.

And as the choice of platforms available to us grows, the concept of a story is becoming ever more fluid. A story is an arc, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be carried out via traditional methods – experiential and social are both prime examples.

But first, let’s look at more traditional storytelling spots like John Lewis’ ‘Excitable Edgar’ or Apple’s ‘The Surprise’; both are cracking displays of narrative, with the product and brand taking a few steps back. Instead, it’s the loveable characters, heartwarming stories and lengthy run times leading the way, melding the art of advertising with short film. These are powerful stories and they evoke powerful reactions.

But you don’t need to create a five-minute mini-epic to connect with consumers. If you can condense your narrative down, you stand a better chance of capturing people’s ever-shortening attention spans. For example, YouTube’s pre-roll ads are a real creative challenge for advertisers – with just six seconds to promote products (possibly even less time than that, when scrolling is taken into account.) Brands have to be more efficient than ever to convey messages.

And yes, although there’s only really seven basic plots, there are more than seven ways to memorably execute said plots. The current advertising landscape is well placed for experimentation, and if you can begin to toy with the storytelling format, then you stand a better chance than most. Pushing the boat out can be scary, but there’s a way to anchor it. And it’s called…drumroll…neuroscience.

Last year, we worked with Guinness Africa on its Flavour Rooms project. The brief was simple enough: engage Africans aged between 18 to 34-years-old, with the brand through a physical experience. Why? The ‘legacy’ Guinness story wasn’t resonating with that younger demographic. Naturally, we used neuroscience to conduct research on our target audience, and discovered words like “bold,” “rich,” “refreshing” and “bittersweet” to be the most motivating.

That all fed into our multi-sensory Flavour Rooms activation, which comprised a room dedicated to each of those Guinness characteristics. These ranged from an eye-popping room celebrating the boldness of African culture to a room adorned with lavish, silky textures – all of which enhanced different aspects of the famous Guinness flavour.

It was a new way to tell an old story. It was what I like to call unusual everyday: using unconventional methods to frame an established drink in a completely different light. It completely switched up the narrative.

It’s always good to have a story that you think your consumers will engage with, sure. But it’s better to have one that you know they will. In a world where campaigns potentially live or die based on their narrative, why wouldn’t you want to know what consumers are thinking before you embark on yours?

Neil Davidson is CEO of transformative communications agency HeyHuman.

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