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Brand Stories + Brain Response

A View from Connie Smith:

It’s no secret that emotional connections drive brand success and good brand storytelling is pivotal to this. Stories have always been at the core of human experiences, shaping our identities and helping us to communicate our understanding of the world around us. When told effectively, stories can inspire loyalty, change habits and ignite social causes. But why do they work so well?

Last week, mobile phones across the UK buzzed as we were notified with of a grim statistic. The news that we’d reached a COVID death toll of 100,000. A shocking figure, which left most of us despondent, but it was just that, a figure. In stark contrast, over the weekend, the BBC aired interviews with families who have lost loved ones; heart-wrenching stories of final goodbyes over Facetime and parents having to bury their children. One woman spoke of the empty space in the bed when she reached over out of habit, expecting to find her husband. It’s safe to say, these moving accounts left many of us sobbing through the sports segment.

But why can stories invoke such a visceral emotional response whilst data, no matter how shocking, fails to cut through without being framed in the context of a story? The answer, neural coupling.

What is neural coupling? 

Neural coupling is when the neurons firing in the brain of someone listening to a story begin mirroring those firing in the brain of the storyteller.1

It’s not just auditory stimulation in both individuals. When told the story in Russian, no neural coupling is detected.1 This is a true convergence of brain activity between speaker and listener which is routed in understanding, empathy and sharing a ‘lived’ experience.

Brain imaging studies have revealed that when presented with facts and data only the Broca and Wernicke’s areas (small regions of the brain associated with producing and understanding speech) are activated, but when we listen to stories all four brain lobes light up.1 These are linked to things like movement, smell, taste, hearing, vision and touch. Our brains respond to the events of a story as if they’re actually happening to us.

Compelling stories bring us on the journey. They engage listeners emotionally and command attention through emotional connection and empathy.2

Empathy, Oxytocin and Trust

What’s even more exciting, is that studies show that empathy may garner increased trust in the storytelling source.

Empathy leads to the release of oxytocin in your brain, sometimes referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’ and typically linked to warm, fuzzy feelings – it’s also linked to lots of prosocial behaviours and one of those is trust. 3 4 5

Karen Eber talked about this in her recent TED talk, stating ‘The more empathy you experience, the more oxytocin is released in your brain. The more oxytocin you have, the more trustworthy you actually view the speaker.’ Eber concludes that the world’s best leaders earn trust and invoke action. 6  They don’t just present data – they also tell great stories. But the brain’s response to stories isn’t limited to visionaries inspiring a crowd.

What are the implications for brands?

Brands can harness the power of storytelling to create empathy by developing a robust brand story and finding compelling ways to tell it through meaningful campaigns – the ‘chapters’ of your brand’s story. There are a number of advertisers who have been successfully storytelling in their campaigns for years, like Dove, Nike and Apple, as well as some recent newcomers to the table.

Take Iceland’s advert with Greenpeace in 2018 about the girl with a ‘Rang-tan’ in her bedroom. It didn’t make it past Clearcast but did make it onto 30 million peoples’ screens online. It’s an excellent example of how a well-told story can spark neural coupling, creating empathy and encouraging action. Over 800,000 people signed Greenpeace’s petition.

When a brand tells a compelling story which makes you laugh, or cry… not only has an emotional connection been forged, but trust in the brand has been elicited.

This triple-whammy of trust, empathy and emotional connection is a powerful foundation on which to build fierce brand loyalty.

A new era for storytelling.

Through digital innovation, we’re in a new era in storytelling. Increasingly immersive technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree video are changing our ability to communicate due to the unique ability to inherently merge the roles of the listener and the storyteller. Whilst the ingredients that make stories resonate aren’t likely to change, if brands are to capitalise on this opportunity they must understand how and when to weave digital reality content into their marketing mix.

National Geographic has employed VR to drive its brand storytelling of exploring the natural world through a series of immersive travel experiences. For example, people can now learn about the struggles of growing up as a young male lion, while they’re sitting in his den!

Compared to traditional media, stories told using augmented and virtual reality are often considered more credible and result in more powerful emotional customer reactions. This represents a huge opportunity in 2021 for brands to be early adopters of this form of storytelling and attract new customers, whilst reinvigorating their relationships with existing ones.

Where do compelling stories come from?

At YOU Agency, we invest time and effort in customer research and market analysis to select the right stories for our clients to tell. Furthermore, we make sure the role a brand plays in a story is aligned with its strategic objectives. Without this due diligence, brands run the risk of their advertising being unoriginal, off-putting and potentially damaging. Regardless of the storyline, brands should always aim to be credible and to gain customer trust and buy-in.

There are limitless stories to tell and one of the first steps in selecting a shortlist is to establish what your customers care about and which stories and mediums are most likely to drive empathy, trust and your desired actions. The expanding potential of storytelling for brands cannot be understated.

In summary

  • Compelling stories create empathy (demonstrated through neural coupling in the brain) which leads to emotional connection, trust and behaviour change.
  • Brands can harness this to their advantage to cut through the noise, command attention, encourage brand trust and establish a solid foundation on which fierce brand loyalty can be built.
  • Use digital tools such as AR, VR and 360-degree video to differentiate from competitors and create a deeper customer relationships and loyalty.
  • Establish the most compelling stories through research and proposition testing involving real customers.


  1. Stephens G, Silbert L, Hasson U. Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2010;107(32):14425-14430. doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107
  2. Why Storytelling Works: The Science | Ariel Group. Ariel Group. https://www.arielgroup.com/why-storytelling-works-the-science/. Published 2017. Accessed January 30, 2021.
  3. Procyshyn T, Watson N, Crespi B. Experimental empathy induction promotes oxytocin increases and testosterone decreases. Horm Behav. 2020;117:104607. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2019.104607
  4. Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak P, Fischbacher U, Fehr E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature. 2005;435(7042):673-676. doi:10.1038/nature03701Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak P, Fischbacher U, Fehr E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature. 2005;435(7042):673-676. doi:10.1038/nature03701
  5. Xu L, Becker B, Kendrick K. Oxytocin Facilitates Social Learning by Promoting Conformity to Trusted Individuals. Front Neurosci. 2019;13. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00056
  6. Eber K. How your brain responds to stories — and why they’re crucial for leaders. Ted.com. https://www.ted.com/talks/karen_eber_how_your_brain_responds_to_stories_and_why_they_re_crucial_for_leaders. Published 2021. Accessed January 30, 2021.


Cancel Culture

A View from Daisy White on the Forbes article on #cancelculture: shorturl.at/gmT19

“It’s crucial, now more than ever, that #brands start taking responsibility. Culturally, ethically or socially – brands should be striving for inclusivity in today’s society. In my opinion, this welcomes the arrival of cancel culture – withdrawing support for a person or company, often on #socialmedia, based on their views or actions. Brands are now coming under scrutiny for tone-deaf marketing; luckily that’s where we come in. It’s about time we welcomed a little awakening. Time to put a stop to ignorant societal evolution and come together as one. No excuses.

64%+ of consumers claim to boycott a brand based solely on its position on social / political issues; brands must welcome and lead the change. Recent cultural movements (eg #MeToo and #BLM) have been led more so by today’s youth and their social media savvy, rather than by the powerhouse brands themselves, who are soon to follow suit.

All #PR is not good PR. ‘Publish now and apologise later?’ Read the room – it’s getting bigger, and your outdated ideas are getting smaller.

So…revolutionise your #marketing strategies, embrace everything (within reason), and broaden horizons. The future is now – get involved or expect to be #cancelled.”


Influencer Watch Outs

A View from Shuku Egerton:

Influencers are a key tactic to effectively gain brand awareness with your target demographic, promote products and gain genuine insight and engagement.

Unfortunately, as a result of influencer’s often meteoric rise to fame, and a lack of regulation, we often see confusion around disclosing incentives for product promotions. The Competition and Markets Authority provides guidelines for this. These include requiring influencers to include #ad or #spon in the first 125 characters, so audiences do not have to ‘see more’ and risk missing the true aims of these promotions.

@SocialMediaToday has highlighted Instagram’s newest “prompts” feature, allowing influencers to confirm receipt of their incentives for posting, and is currently developing a new algorithm to detect posts that have not been disclosed.

As these regulations evolve, we must ensure our client’s customers and custodians are protected, we must constantly evolve and adapt to align with the channels, and, with this in mind, we must continue to push the boundaries of influencer marketing. How will these new channel features adapt and influence the Instagram of the future? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. Watch this space!


Creative Media

A View from Rupert:

I’ve always been a big fan of creative media planning – going above and beyond the signed off media schedule and delving into the contextual environment and not just negotiating the most competitive media rate, which can often be seen as the be all and end all.

Where possible (and I appreciate this cannot always be the case), there should be more collaboration with the media owners themselves to investigate creative media placements and ideas to deliver relevance and impact for the brand / product in question.

Take this example – where Netflix used the relevant station Baker Street to promote its new film Enola Holmes, centring on Sherlock’s lesser known sibling!

In addition to running more traditional #OOH formats, they used the obvious Holmesian link with the station/road to create silhouettes of the Enola character on the platform walls, together with clever tagline – “Adventure has a new Holmes…”.

(Deerstalker) hats off to Netflix! #creativemedia #mediaplanning #enolaholmes #netflix #bakerstreet #punchaboveyourweight


Ageism in Agencies?

The extreme youthfulness of agencies (is bad for business)

A View from Simon Derungs:

Here’s a shocking statistic – the IPA estimates that just 5.9% of people working in UK agencies are aged 50+. The average age is 33, and has remained like this for the last decade.

I find this shocking not only because I’m in that age bracket myself; I simply can’t understand why agencies place such little value on experience, because I can tell you that it’s what clients value most. And I’m lucky enough to have found an agency that understands the importance of striking the right balance.

In a recent survey of senior marketers, one of the top ‘client gripes’ was “Fewer people but more experienced, please”.

Clients appreciate the advantages of having a small number of highly experienced and effective agency partners who understand them, their business, and their customers, and who have the expertise to deliver great solutions to their thorniest problems. A couple of grey hairs beats a beard and rolled up jeans any day of the week.

The extreme youthfulness of the people who work in agencies, and bias against age and experience, is surely the last great taboo in the industry. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand how agencies thrive on the energy and creativity of youth. But in my experience, that energy and youthfulness doesn’t disappear as these people get older; indeed, their experience only makes them smarter and often more effective still.

In short, there’s a total imbalance, one that is not only unjust, but that makes absolutely no business sense.

source: https://marketoonist.com/

Why is this bad for business? Well, it means that agencies have little understanding of the most important audiences to whom they should be talking. The over 50s make up 35% of the UK population, and account for 70% of the UK’s household wealth. That’s over £6 trillion. Yet a recent YouGov report revealed that 80% of those aged 50 and upwards believe brands’ representations of their age group are NOT accurate.

In short, it’s the over 50s who have all the money and buy all the stuff, and yet this highly lucrative audience is hardly represented at all in agencies, except in the occasional lazy and condescending stereotype to promote funeral plans, erectile dysfunction and walk-in bathtubs.

More on that next time!

The Death of Display


A View from Jordan Phillips:

At the tail end of 2020, Google shocked the field of advertising by announcing that Google Chrome, the world’s leading web browser, will stop tracking third-party cookies.

This is significant because cookies allow advertising platforms to track the activity of internet users on the web, so it can be measured, quantified and used to improve the performance of marketing campaigns.

However, why is it that third-party cookies only are targeted, and not the other types?

Well, to answer that, we first need to go back in time. To 2018 in fact. Where Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook, was put in front of a committee of his peers, charged on the grounds of abusing the safety and sanctity of his platform’s users’ data, in the Cambridge Analytica case.

Ever since then, privacy has been a hot topic in the corporate world; and as a result, all the major players (who are data storehouses) have scrambled to give the public the impression they hold privacy as their utmost concern.

source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VaDfAVFxGQ

The reason why third-party cookies have been given particular scrutiny is because third-party cookies, by nature, undermine the likes of Facebook and Google to tighten their reigns on data security.

The impact of this is going to be worst felt by advertising platforms which solely rely on this third-party data. Most notably display platforms. And considering they’ve already been locked out by Safari, and now Google, these third-parties now have 71% of the web browser market closed to them.

There is no denying that Google may have done this for reasons other than the pursuit of self-righteousness. Because, even though they’ve made steps towards safeguarding their user’s data, they have also wiped out a significant number of marketing platforms, who would otherwise pose as their competition.

Most notably, competitors in the field of Display, a market Google already holds a 90% stake in through their Display Network.

How are these third-parties going to survive? These are uncertain times. Not just in the field of digital, but also in this (dare I say) post-covidalyptic world?

Personally, I believe they’ll be a way for them to march on. But what do I know? I’m just a Digital Manager with high hopes! But what are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below…