The Psychology of Storytelling: Implications for brands and experiential marketing


Humans are members of the primate family, a large and diverse group of mammals of very ancient lineage. We belong to that subgroup of primates known as the catarrhines, the Old World monkeys and apes. We share with these monkeys and apes a deep sociality that is predicated on relatively (by comparison with other mammals and birds) advanced forms of social cognition. In other words, we have developed complex ways of coping with living in groups and forming intricate social relationships.

Moving forward in time, as humans began to evolve further, we started to live in ever-larger groups, which compounded more stress on social living. As a result, the capacity to exchange information needed to dramatically increase in human beings and it is thought that language was born out of this need.

Consequently, with the emergence of language, so began our long association with story.


Storytelling—from cave paintings, to Greek Mythology, to HBO shows—has been a key feature of human interaction for millennia. Through story humans have been able to pass on information from generation to generation and form complex social bonds that anthropologists have long argued to be a key factor of our evolution into the advanced species we see today.

As a consequence, the human brain is hardwired to relate to story; it has an uncanny knack of trying to see narrative in situations even where none may exist (read about experiment here). It does this because through story our brain attempts to find order within chaos, which we depend upon, rightly or wrongly, to help us better understand the world around us and give meaning to our lives.

Even today, whilst we’re surrounded by technology, story is still the most powerful way to cut through the noise and communicate a message in an interesting and entertaining way. Stories engage our emotions, and this is why they resonate with us and why they deliver information so effectively.

So story is a big deal. And, as a professional working in the field of marketing, you need to fully understand story, how it affects people and behaviour, and how to harness its power to enable you to be more persuasive and move people to action.

Read on to discover how you can begin your journey to become a better brand storyteller.

Yellow page of an old illustrated open book

The book—a tool that transformed the world through storytelling.


Stories are authentic human experiences that allow us to live vicariously through events that we may not otherwise live through. As Media Psychologist, Pamela Rutledge, points out there are several psychological reasons why stories are so powerful. For instance, she states:

“Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truths.

  • Stories are about collaboration and connection. They transcend generations, they engage us through emotions, and they connect us to others. Through stories we share passions, sadness, hardships and joys. We share meaning and purpose. Stories are the common ground that allows people to communicate, overcoming our defenses and our differences. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others.
  • Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.
  • Stories provide order. Humans seek certainty and narrative structure is familiar, predictable, and comforting. Within the context of the story arc we can withstand intense emotions because we know that resolution follows the conflict. We can experience with a safety net.
  • Stories are how we are wired. Stores take place in the imagination. To the human brain, imagined experiences are processed the same as real experiences. Stories create genuine emotions, presence (the sense of being somewhere), and behavioral responses.
  • Stories are the pathway to engaging our right brain and triggering our imagination. By engaging our imagination, we become participants in the narrative. We can step out of our own shoes, see differently, and increase our empathy for others. Through imagination, we tap into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.”

In addition, some interesting research studies have even found evidence suggesting that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone. Stanford Marketing Professor Jennifer Aaker says:

“When people think of advocating for their ideas, they think of convincing arguments based on data, facts, and figures. However, studies show that if you share a story, people are often more likely to be persuaded. And when data and story are used together, audiences are moved both intellectually and emotionally. When telling a story, you take the listener on a journey, moving them from one perspective to another. In this way, story is a powerful tool for engendering confidence in you and your vision.”

No wonder PowerPoint slides generally bore people to death—well to sleep, at least. Narrative, as well as content, is king when trying to engage people.

Furthermore, Daniel Kahneman, a living psychologist of great renowned, along with others developed two theories called duration neglect and peak-end rule. Essentially both these rules suggest that there is a strange relationship between how we experience things and the associated memories that are subsequently generated.

For instance, to paraphrase an example Kahneman talks about on a TED lecture: in a painful situation, like a medical operation, the duration or time it takes has no effect on a patient’s memory of the total pain felt. So, if identical operations were carried out on two patients, where patient A’s lasted for two hours and ended very painfully, while patient B’s lasted six hours, reached the same pain levels, but ended much less painfully than patient A’s, patient A’s memory of the pain would be much worse than patient B’s—even though patient B’s operation was three times longer.

Thus, the ending of an experience is highly important in the formation of memories as it exerts the most amount of influence on the brain. A holiday can be remembered badly if a bad experience happened at the end, or similarly a customer’s experience can be negative if they had poor post-purchase support.

To the human mind life is a story, and it seeks narrative and follows a structure just like stories do.

Lets now look further into story structure and narrative; how it appears to display a universal quality in human society, and what this means for brands and experiential marketers.


I recently read two inspiring books about storytelling: The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker, and Into the Woods, by acclaimed screenwriter and founder of the BBC Writers Academy, John Yorke.

They both put forward the argument that there are some basic plot archetypes that all stories appear to fit into and, correspondingly, the human mind instinctually engages with.

But what are archetypes you may be wondering?

As the great psychologist, Carl Jung, explained in his essay,”The Collective Unconscious and Its Archetypes“, an archetype is an unconscious primary form, an original pattern or prototype in the human mind; archetypes are not learned or acquired—they are with us from birth and are as natural and embedded in us as our own DNA. So they are incredibly important to how we process and understand the world around us.

I thank the great people at D&AD for summarising the two books below via their excellent online course, Brand Storytelling, on the Future Learn MOOC platform. I highly recommend it to anybody looking to improve their storytelling abilities.

Take it away D&AD…

The Seven Basic Plots—Christopher Booker

7 Basic plots

1. Overcoming the Monster

“There is an evil force threatening our hero/their world/mankind. The hero must fight and slay this monster, which often isn’t easy, but they come out triumphant, and receive a great reward. Think Beowulf, Dracula and King Kong.

We see this plot popping up over and over again in the advertising world. Think of the ‘monster’ as an obstacle (very rarely an actual monster!), which the hero has to fight to overcome, usually with the help of a brand.”

2. Rags to Riches

“This one is fairly self-explanatory: at the beginning, our hero is insignificant and dismissed by others, but something happens to elevate them, revealing them to be exceptional. Think The Ugly Duckling, Aladdin and Superman.

In marketing, how could discovering a product/brand be seen to elevate someone, transforming his or her life?”

3. The Quest

“In the quest, our hero must set out on a long, hazardous journey, and will battle all obstacles until they are triumphant. Think The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter.

In advertising, we might see our hero channelling the values of the brand as they forge to do good and achieve its goals.”

4. Voyage and Return

“While also based on a journey, the Voyage and Return is very different from The Quest. Here, the hero travels out of their ‘normal world’ into the overwhelming and unknown, before escaping back to the safety of their home. Think Alice in Wonderland, Finding Nemo and Gulliver’s Travels.

How could a brand take you to another world? Can you represent the experience of a product through a journey?”

5. Comedy

“A story made up of comedic events, normally involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding or confusion, resulting in hilarious chaos. Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Some Like It Hot.

Comedy in advertising is often used to show the unfortunate alternative situation that your customer might find himself or herself in if they don’t use your brand/product.”

6. Tragedy

“This is the story without the happy ending. While our other archetypes have seen triumphant heroes and slain monsters, this plot takes a different turn, and ends in loss or death. Think Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Breaking Bad.

Used with caution, we tend to see tragedy most frequently used hand-in-hand with shock tactics in charity advertising.”

7. Rebirth

“Our final plot type, rebirth, sees our hero ‘falling under a dark spell’ – whether this is sleep, sickness or enchantment – before breaking free and being redeemed. Think Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and The Secret Garden.

When applying rebirth to advertising, you might think of ‘the dark spell’ as time away from your brand/product, or maybe your brand can reconnect or re-inspire people?”

Into The Woods—John Yorke

Into the woods

“There are many theories as to why we tell stories, and Yorke (among others) offers excellent analysis, but what is perhaps more useful for any student of storytelling is to understand why all stories share a similar underlying structure. Why is it that, as much as we try to escape archetypal story structure, every tale can be mapped onto it in some way?

The fact that the formula – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is inescapable in the stories we tell suggests it is in fact a formula for living and learning, hardwired into our brains to serve a far deeper purpose. It isn’t a chicken and egg situation, we haven’t appropriated archetypal story formula into our mental processing, rather at a deep structural level, all stories reflect the natural way our brains work to bring order to the chaos of our worlds.

Here are some of Yorke’s explanations as to why this might be so.”

1. ‘The Societal Reason’

“Yorke suggests that it may be possible for “archetypal stories to carry in their DNA a blueprint for survival”. What does this mean? Well, think about the first time you ever used a cash machine. You approached it with fear and trepidation, thinking at best it would swallow your card, at worst swallow your fingers.

The machine was your antagonist. But you needed to overcome your fear and scepticism to get your money because the bank was closed. So you plucked up courage, did what was required with the machine, and lo and behold you got your money and kept your fingers! And in the process, you came to appreciate the simple ‘out of hours’ service the cash machine offered, and you also learned not to be quite so fearful about technological change in the future.

Inherent in this everyday task then is archetypal story structure – protagonist (you) faces antagonist (cash machine) and overcomes, ‘synthesising’ his or her findings to be born anew (no longer fearful of technological change). The ‘formula’ then is used to get us through life, pure and simple; it helps us to face and overcome challenges big and small every day, helps us to learn and grow, to survive and thrive.”

2. ‘The Rehearsal Reason’

“Archetypal story structure allows us to emotionally connect to characters in stories – characters have to face their antagonist for us to care. We are taken on an emotional journey with that character in a fictional world through which we experience, by proxy, the problems, circumstances, situations, etc., our protagonist faces and overcomes.

Therefore, by learning how to navigate and manage these circumstances in fictional form as the character, it gives us the wherewithal and tools to do the same in real life. Archetypal structure then allows stories to be a rehearsal for real life.”

3. ‘The Information Retrieval Reason’

“Archetypal story structure brings order to chaos, and the mass of information inside our heads is essentially chaos until we give it structure. And structure it we do. In fact, we understand our thoughts, memories, dreams and the ebb and flow of life itself as story. The maxim you learn on day one of every screenwriting course is ‘show, don’t tell’. As soon as we bombard someone with information, as soon as we ‘tell’, they switch off. Wrap that information into story – governed by archetypal structure – and it hits home far more emotionally and effectively. We like people to feel and remember the information we impart, so we deliver it as story.” 

4. ‘The Panacea Reason’

“Life is tough and the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning is hope. Without hope we wouldn’t survive and hope is inherent in archetypal story structure. Just think about this – boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl again. Stories reinforce the fact that although we face challenges daily, we can overcome them and grow. They tell us we are right to believe in hope.”

5. ‘The Procreation Reason’

“If we look at the Darwinian reasons we humans exist – to be the best versions of ourselves and procreate – then archetypal story structure leads us right there. It’s no great surprise that a lot of stories end with the two leads kissing and we all know that one thing leads to another. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl and procreates. Archetypal story structure then suggests that by achieving “balance and harmony as an individual” we earn sexual union.”

6. ‘The Psychological Reason’

“We have constant struggles as humans between our desires and needs, both conscious and unconscious, and also between our internal and external worlds. Thus, stories are a manifestation of inner psychological conflict and all external antagonists are really projections of the inner divisions of the mind. Archetypal story structure – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – ultimately helps us find balance, be healed. The ‘formula’, therefore, helps us to find where sanity lies.”


Traditional storytelling, whether this is a film, a game, or a novel, generally follows a three act structure—beginning, middle and end—and feature common story elements such as character, conflict, resolution, and plot.

Characters, in particular, are very important, as they’re shortcuts to emotional engagement—they are very effective at delivering a message or point of view to the audience.

The story arc

The classic story arc

So we can create a story following a very simplistic formula.

Beginning of a story: Introduces the protagonist and the first crisis. For brands, we need a character with a problem that our product or service is going to help solve.

Middle of a story: A series of additional crises must be confronted, each building on the last add to the dramatic tension and keep the audience engaged. For brands, we should involve a character adopting a solution the brand is offering.

End of a story: One final crises leads to a triumphant climax; the denouement. For brands, we should show the character benefiting from using the solution.


It should be apparent now how important story is to both brands and experiential marketers even in a twenty-first century full of technological innovation.

A brand needs to continually carve an identity for itself so it needs to make clear to its audience exactly what it stands for. Storytelling does this in a memorable way that engages customers’ minds.

But it’s not just about the mind; it’s also about emotional connections. If a brand follows through sincerely on its promise of what it stands for, the customer believes in it, and becomes loyal. The brand builds a relationship—one with potential to last.

Below is a great talk about brand storytelling in the digital space (beware of the colourful language, however).

As Gary Vaynerchuk mentions in the above YouTube video to be effective brand storytellers in marketing we need to pay particular heed to where individuals’ attentions are at any given moment. Invariably this is more on their smartphones and social networks, and less watching TV or noticing billboard ads whilst they walk down the street.

Particularly interesting is how he says we need to focus on the psychology of each social network and change our content, tone and storytelling to best suit the platform—whether on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, our expectations, actions and how we share across the various social media platforms differs.

Consequently, if done well, experiential marketing offers a unique way for great brand storytelling that connects with modern consumers. Not only can it create opportunities for more intimate, emotive and attention-grabbing brand experiences via live events, but it can also generate high-quality, sharable content that people want to engage with.

So experiential marketers need to start thinking more like storytellers.

The advertising industry, for instance, has long known the power of a good yarn to create captivating TV ads. Just think of any John Lewis Christmas ad for compelling storytelling in a bite-size timeframe.

Celebrated storytelling in experiential marketing is arguably more difficult, however, due to the challenging environments we work across—festivals, streets, parks, shopping centres, train stations, etc.—then say a cosy film studio. Nonetheless, as we have seen in this article, there is a basic story structure and narrative that our brains are wired for and, subsequently, we can tap into.

As a result:

  • We need to pick plot archetypes that best fits a brand’s identity and objectives
  • We need to make sure we use strong characters to effectively get across a brand’s message;
  • We need both antagonists and protagonists—these can be obvious or more abstract concepts
  • We need inciting incidents to create tension and suspense
  • We need resolutions so we can learn vicariously
  • And we need find creative ways of delivering the story in a compelling and engaging way across face-to-face and digital touch-points drawing guidance from the story arc

A great example of storytelling through brand activation was by AirBnB at Sundance Festival. They not only told an interesting story at the experiential event, but also allowed people to become storytellers themselves by sharing content across social media. This is what Airbnb had to say about the activation.

“Beyond homes, Airbnb connects travelers and storytellers with locals and their neighborhoods. By showcasing local characters, we not only included the Airbnb community as creative partners, but put the Sundance spotlight on their stories. In addition to our community storytelling, we partnered with other respected creative storytellers to reach an even broader audience. Our partners included Adobe, Shared Studios, Local Murmurs and Vimeo.

We leveraged these partnerships by having them create content along with us including programs like Pillow Talk, Portals, and Pocket Stories. Through the power of social media, we communicated the magic of these partnerships with those who were at Sundance and those who were following along from afar. Each channel was used to share the kinds of stories we felt would make the most sense for the audience. When showcasing the experience of Shared Studio’s Portals and Adobe’s Pillow Talk, we used Periscope to capture real-time moments and pushed additionally messaging through Twitter to invite all those who couldn’t make it to watch along with us.

The result was a campaign that was driven, created, experienced, and shared by our creative community in Park City and around the world.”


Airbnb Haus—brand activation at Sundance Festival

I shall leave you with some final words of wisdom from John Yorke to help us remember the simple formula needed to construct stories that evolution has wired the human brain to engage with.

“The protagonists’ battles against their antagonists, their journey to victory through crisis, climax and resolution; these are the building blocks of every story.” 

Get involved by leaving a comment below, or by following me on Twitter. You can find me @EventPsychology.


Psychology of Persuasion: Experiential Marketing and The Reciprocation Rule

The reciprocation rule is hugely powerful. Sociologists and anthropologists have found evidence of its existence in every human society, with it being deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.

Indeed, this rule could very well be the basis of how we, as a species, succeeded above all others, as it allowed individuals to form robust and complex relationships by building trust, allowing for collaboration, and encouraging the exchange goods and services—all without the fear of loosing any investment.

The influential French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, described social pressures as: “There is an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation to repay”. In other words, a favour would be guaranteed with a favour in return and, importantly, would be received, or else society shuns the individual who does not obey the rule.

In particular, there are two situations in which research has suggested the rule mainly takes place. Firstly, as before mentioned, it can be employed by providing a person with a favour and then asking for one in return, and secondly, by making a concession to an individual who has already made a concession to us. Lets take a look at the two in a little more detail and how it relates to experiential marketing.

The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” scenario

This is the more obvious situation and is commonplace in everyday life, business and politics. It is invoked by the feeling of the need to return a favour and, is so powerful, psychology research has shown it enhances the chance of compliance even in a situation where you may dislike the person who originally gave the favour, or you did not want the favour in the first place.

I, for one, used to be terrified of taking a bit of free Comté at the cheese stall for fear of being trapped into spending a small fortune (No longer a problem and now love the freebies, rule-free… ish). No wonder product sampling is still such an important marketing strategy for brands. Lets look at a simple, but very famous, example of an experiment from Cornell University to better understand how the rule can be exploited.

The study pretended to be about rating art paintings but its true purpose was to test the rule. It was carried out multiple times with different participants, but it always only featured a confederate (a person in on the experiment) and one participant for each of the two conditions.

In the first condition, the confederate would leave the room for a few minutes and, upon returning, would state that they had “bought two cokes in the vending machine” and offer a free one to the participant (all the different participants in the tests excepted the coke). In the second condition the confederate would leave the room for a few minutes again but this time would not return with any soft drink to offer the participant.

Later on, the confederate asked the participant in the different conditions if they could do him a favour by buying some charity raffle tickets. In the condition where the confederate had given the unwanted gift, the free coke, the participant was under the rule’s spell and purchased many more tickets when compared to the other condition. Thus, in the first condition, they felt obligated to return the earlier favour and, in most cases, spent much more money on the raffle tickets compared to what the confederate spent on the coke.

The “Okay, you won’t do that, but how about doing this, instead” scenario

This is a much more subtle way the rule can have influence. It is built on the premise that people will be more likely to become compliant from a non-compliant position. In other words, when a larger request changes to a smaller request it appears as a concession on the part of the requester—the so called rejection-then-retreat technique. For example, one psychology experiment demonstrates this rule perfectly.

Students walking around a university campus were picked at random by the incognito researchers and asked whether they would be willing to help a “County Youth Counseling Programme” by chaperoning a group of juvenile delinquents for a day-trip to a zoo without any payment. Not surprisingly, out of the group asked only 17% said yes.

Next, the researchers added an additional variable when asking a new sample of students. Firstly, they asked if they would be willing to sign-up for a programme of two hours per week to be a counselor to a juvenile delinquent for a minimum of two years without pay; unsurprisingly, they all refused. They then asked the smaller request about the zoo-trip and magically the results went up to 50% compliance from 17%, earlier.

As is evident, the reciprocation rule can be used very cleverly in the right hands. Shrewd negotiators and high-performing sales people are fully aware of this persuasive trick. One thing to note about this tactic is that it can backfire if used poorly. For instance, if the initial request is too extreme, or obviously unreasonable, then bargaining will breakdown as it will be seen as not being in good faith.

So… is experiential marketing built on the foundation of the reciprocation rule?

I would say, yes, most definitely. As we know, experiential marketing is a form of advertising that allows brands to create experiences for consumers—via live events, shopping experiences, or product sampling, for example—which brands hope to generate customer loyalty and influence purchasing decisions. Arguably, these all engage the rule, as it creates a platform where individuals can be influenced. Lets take an example from an excellent experiential event I wrote about in a previous blog post.

The brand was Campo Viejo, a Spanish wine brand, and took place in the Southbank in London. The event had many characteristics that offered the potential for the rule to influence people in attendance.

  1. The event was free;
  2. it had lots of Spanish pop-up food stalls, which, although were not free, provided people with delicious, genuine Spanish cuisine from Barcelona;
  3. it had wine priced very reasonably;
  4. it provided a free sensory experience, which allowed people to take part in a world-first experiment called Soundscape;
  5. it had free wine blending classes;
  6. it had free live music in the day and DJs at night;
  7. and generally created a great street festival atmosphere that all attendees seemed to be enjoying thoroughly.

All these things combined left me feeling very warm and friendly about the brand, with a positive sense of indebtedness—as if your friend had invited you around to their house for a dinner party. I shared the experience via social channels, as did many others, and I am not ashamed to admit it influenced the purchase of a few bottles since. And judging by the huge numbers in attendance one can only imagine a large amount of these people were influenced by the rule, too. When you get to attend a great experiential event, especially with the magical word “free”, you can’t help but feel some obligation to the brand and form a bias to them over their competitors.

How the rule can directly benefit your next experiential campaign:

  • Generate better brand loyalty
  • Improve amplification through media channels
  • Influence the future decision process
  • Encourage behavioural change
  • Get people to give you £5 (Only joking)

As we can see, the rule is hugely influential within experiential marketing, even if we are not always perhaps aware of it when creating and delivering activations and campaigns. Consequently, if you can take one thing from this blog post, it is to not just let things happen accidentally or by chance, but pay close attention to the rule in both the design and delivery phases and plan to influence by using the power of this persuasion technique.

These ideas have been borrowed from the pioneer in the science of persuasion, Robert Cialdini, and his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Get involved by leaving a comment below, or by following me on Twitter. You can find me @eventpsychology.

Neuromarketing: Could it be a useful tool for Live Events and Experiential Marketing?


Are you drawn to this image? If so, is it your conscious or unconscious mind that draws you to it?

What do you get when you cross advanced research technologies of neuroscience with the drive and ambition of marketing… you guessed it, neuromarketing! Also known under the name of consumer neuroscience, but this is generally a term used within the realms of academia. In recent times it has even been heralded as the tool to find the Holly Grail in marketing: the”buy button” in the brain. No pressure then neuromarketing. All jokes aside, neuromarketing is surely something to be taken very seriously; particularly with the rise of more cost-effective and accessible options coming into the marketplace in the future, balanced with big-data analytics that ensure the insights are used in the most strategic and effective ways.

I first came across the subject whilst searching for an online course to take on the P2P educational platform, Coursera. Here, Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, a leading academic in the field from the Copenhagen Business School, was offering an online course entitled An Introduction to Consumer Neuroscience and Neuromarketing. I was captivated, and straight away thought how this could be applied to live events and experiential marketing. But what is neuromarketing, you may be wondering after all my waffle.

The nice people over at had this to say about the field: “Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience to marketing. Neuromarketing includes the direct use of brain imaging, scanning, or other brain activity measurement technology to measure a subject’s response to specific products, packaging, advertising, or other marketing elements. In some cases, the brain responses measured by these techniques may not be consciously perceived by the subject; hence, this data may be more revealing than self-reporting on surveys, in focus groups, etc.” In other words, it uses neuroscience technologies to monitor psychological changes in our bodies, which is very useful in order to dig deeper and predict behaviour and influence decision-making. Watch the YouTube video below for an entertaining and insightful introduction to neuromarketing by Patrick Renvoise at a TED X talk.

Neuromarketing Technologies

To gain a deeper insight into the human brain and consumers’ decision-making, nueromarketers use a number of research technologies. For example:

EEG Tests: Electroencephalography (if you can pronounce it give yourself a pat on the back) is a technology that measures fluctuations in the electrical activity directly below the scalp, which occurs as a result of neural activity. When electrodes are attached to willing participants’ heads electrical patterns of their brainwaves can be evaluated, shedding light on the inner visceral responses we humans have.

EEG Sensor Cap

EEG Sensor Cap

The intensity of such things as anger, lust, disgust, excitement can all be detected. Indeed, all very useful in order to design and test for emotional impact on live events and experiential marketing before launching campaigns, don’t you think?

FMRI: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine measures brain activity by looking at changes in the blood flow to the brain.

FMRI Machine

FMRI Machine

When a brain area is more active it consumes more oxygen and, to meet this increased demand, blood flow increases to the active area. FMRI can be used to produce activation maps showing which parts of the brain are involved in a particular mental process. Although they offer exceptional opportunities for insights into our brain, these machines are very costly to use.

Eye Tracking: In the simplest terms, eye tracking is the measurement of eye activity. Where do we look? What do we ignore? When do we blink? How does the pupil react to different stimuli? The data are collected using either a remote or head-mounted ‘eye tracker’ connected to a computer, which needs to be analyzed. The fields of advertising, entertainment, packaging and web design have all benefited significantly from studying the visual behavior of the consumer.

Eye Tracking Technology

Eye Tracking Technology

Facial Coding: The concept of facial coding is that we reveal our emotions through our facial expressions. Even if we feel that we are revealing no expression, the ultimate poker face, micro-expressions are taking place. So if facial coding was to be hooked up to you on Christmas Day there would be no hiding the disappointment on your face after receiving another pair of socks from your sister-in-law.

Interesting research studies

A landmark piece of research within the field is the Coke vs Pepsi study. The study was conducted by researchers exploring the motivation behind brand preferences, using brand rivals Pepsi and Coke as their experimental apparatus. The experiment was simple, using only two taste tests. One would be a blind tasting of the two fizzy drinks, and another tasting where the subjects were aware of which of the brands they were drinking.

When the participants in the study drank each of the highly sugared drinks without knowing the brand, activity was recorded in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is believed to be the reward epicenter in the brain. As a result, there was an even split between the subjects’ preferences for both of the drinks — about 50/50. However, when the test subjects knew the identity of the brands a significant difference occurred. For instance, in the taste tests, there was no change in brain patterns for Pepsi when sampled knowing the brand when contrasted with the anonymous task. In comparison, for coke, the brain showed activity in the hippocampus and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; both of which have been implicated in modifying behavior based on emotion and affect, and are commonly associated in aspects of cognitive control, including memory. Even when a double-blind taste test was conducted (Coke in both samples but only one showing the brand) much more activity took place in the brain for the sample that the subjects knew was Coke. Consequently, this highlighted that when people drink coke they attach more importance to the emotional connection and memories they have with the brand as they do to the taste of the cola. This, for the first time, illustrated the power of a brand’s identity and how it communicates and connects with consumers subconsciously.

Another interesting study was carried out at Emory University. Here, neuroeconomic researchers found evidence that activity in reward-related regions of the brain, notably the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum, is predictive of future purchasing decisions of popular music. They used fMRI to measure the brain responses of a small group of adolescents while listening to songs of largely unknown artists. Then, the researchers analyzed the music sales for the three years following the original experiment. It showed very accurately that certain songs that had shown more neural activity in the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum sold more songs than those that had less activity. Thus, the researchers concluded that “these results suggest that the neural responses to goods are not only predictive of purchase decisions for those individuals actually scanned, but such responses generalize to the population at large and may be used to predict cultural popularity.”

Hollywood has also embraced neuromarketing. A Boston-based consumer neuroscience research firm established a link between box-office opening weekend takings and its emotional connection it made with test subjects. They were wearing “biometric belts” that captured their “emotional engagement” by sensing related skin sweat, heart rate, breathing, and motion responses. It found that if a film’s trailer failed to reach a specific emotional engagement threshold (65), it will very likely generate less than $10 million in revenue on opening weekend; a movie whose trailer exceeds a certain level (80) will very likely earn more than $20 million the first weekend.

All very cool, don’t you think? I certainly do. I really find it fascinating, and these tools could certainly be used to improve design, creativity and, overall, provide more consistent results and ROI within the experiential and event industries.

The Verdict

When compared to other marketing research techniques the cost versus the benefit is the big issue. Although costs are sure to come down in the near future, for agencies it will still be hard to get their clients to cough up for the extra expense of neuromarketing. That being said, I still feel that opportunities are abound to design and create more consistently engaging and immersive experiences by using these types of technologies. This is cutting-edge, and will surely be a wow factor in a pitch if you could offer this kind of sophisticated research techniques, by partnering with a neuromarketing agency. It could be particularly interesting for global brands wishing to activate large-scale live events or experiential campaigns.

Furthermore, if we look more holistically, by focusing on the overall brand experience in comparison to just a one-off experiential event, even more benefits become apparent. When you can dig deeper into the unconscious mind and accurately test how people are going to experience your brand through various touch points — mobile, face-to-face, advertising, for example — a complete strategy becomes clearly evident. Any weaknesses it the connecting chains can be identified in the development stage, whether this be digital or live, by monitoring activity in the relevant parts of the brain. Focus groups and surveys are not a reliable source for true insights, as people can’t be trusted to tell their true feelings about products and services. The brain, however, is a much more trust-worthy companion and a far better predictor of behaviour. So, events and experiential professionals out there, lets embrace neuroscience and boldly go where no experiential campaign has gone before.

Neuromarketing Agencies

For those of you who might be interested in exploring further and partnering with a neuromarketing research agency there are several neuromarketing companies out there, such as California-based Sales Brain and Oxford start-up Neurosense, who are using FMRI and other techniques to gain insights into consumer thought and behaviour for brands and agencies.

Sensory Psychology: Campo Viejo’s “Streets of Spain” Experiential Event at Southbank, London

IMG_0431Billed as a multi-sensory Spanish fiesta experience, I decided to head out into the field with my psychology hat firmly on to judge for myself at the Campo Viejo’s “Streets of Spain” experiential event. In its third year now, and boasting impressive stats from 2014, the festival kicked off with a bang on a cold May-Day Friday at the Southbank in South-East London. Miss Jones & Co were the agency behind the event, again trusted by Campo Viejo’s parent company, Pernod Ricard UK to deliver the goods. For the theme, food and wine took centre stage (unsurprisingly) with a sprinkling of art and music for extra spice.

The Sensory Experience


The first thing to hit your sensory pallet was the visual spectacle. Spread out along the banks of the River Thames was an expanse of street food tents serving all kinds of tasty Spanish food — A sight for sore eyes, indeed. And each tent was branded excellently too, offering a uniform look that made for a striking scene. Added to this, the London Eye in view, as well as House of Commons and The National Theatre close by, the Southbank is truly a great setting for an event of this kind.

Street vendors alongside the River Thames.

Street vendors alongside the River Thames.

A large part of our unconscious mind is used to process the data that our eyes gathers everyday resulting in about a third of our brain handling vision. Evolution has seen to this as a key survival tool to avoid danger and forage for food. This is why we form split-second first impressions via our eyes. Consequently, it’s paramount to provide aesthetically pleasing venues, spaces, as well digital platforms for events and experiential marketing. Thankfully most of us in the business are well aware of this — I hope!


The next sense to be tickled was smell; the aroma swirling around the fresh spring evening air was simply amazing. Sizzling beef, spicy pádron peppers, paella, churros, patatas bravas, all providing a smell sensation, which recalled fond memories of a time when I lived in Spain for a year as an inquisitive seven-year old boy.

A powerful connection exists between the olfactory system (smell) and memory. For example, research into the subject has provided strong evidence that scent-encoded information achieves far greater longevity with individuals’ memory when compared to other sensory cues. In addition, another study in the area found memories triggered by scent were rated to be more emotional for individuals in an experiment compared with the other senses. The close neural proximity of the system dealing with smell and memory in the brain plays a large part in this strong relationship. For instance, the limbic system is home to the olfactory bulb (which is the area of the brain that processes smell), the amygdala (primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions), and the hippocampus (short-term and long-term memory); all of which heavily influence our emotional life and has a great deal to do with the formation of memories.

Street food

Street food


At an event like this, taste is obviously going to be an important sense to invigorate. I was drawn in by the smell and sound of fiery pádron peppers being cooked at a tent selling a dish described as the “Barcelona Bomb”. The ingredients were Wagyu beef served on a baked potato bed, with a sauce similar to alioli, which certainly did blow my taste buds away — delicious. Later I tried some seafood paella, which looked fantastic cooking in a massive dish.

Taste, more so than any of the other senses, we experience through those other senses. How something smells, how something looks, how it feels, even how it sounds, all influence our brain’s ability to process what something taste’s like. In particular, up to 80-90% of what we think things taste like are down to smell. This is because our taste receptors are limited by just five primary taste qualities: sour, sweet, salty, bitter and umami. Thus, alone, we can find it very hard to distinguish subtle flavours. This is why clever food-sellers prime our anticipation with lots of descriptive adjectives on menus and pay close attention to a dish’s presentation.


My ears were constantly immersed in the event; it appeared that most of the food tents were run by Spanish vendors, and many Spanish people were in attendance, resulting in the language being heard all over the place, as well as other Spanish dialects. If you closed your eyes, hearing the food sizzling, and the loud noises of people having fun on the street, you could indeed be in Barcelona, Madrid or San Sebastian. A music stage with bands during the day and DJs as night, as well as the Soundscape experiment (discussed below), provided further stimulation for the ears.

The significance of audition has been long recognised dating back to the 1950s when marketing and advertising began to sell us desires and wants as opposed to needs. Music jingles, music in T.V. and radio ads, connecting music with spaces such as hotels, retail outlets, restaurants, and airplanes, to create an atmosphere, as well how a product sound, all have been put to use to target our hearing sense in order to have emotional impact and influence behavior. Sound is also a key feature in most events and experiential activity; whether through music or microphone, this is a must to get right, but this is certainly not always the case, sadly.

The hustle and bustle of market street.

The hustle and bustle of market street.


How did the touch fare? Probably the hardest of the senses to plan for in order to stimulate event-attendees compared with the others already mentioned. The main object consistently in my hand was a wine-cup (Well, it is being organised by a wine brand, so no judging please). The cups chosen for the event did give me nightmares. Perhaps it is due to my University days where many a bottle of wine were smuggled into the theatre, cinema or ballet (What, you’ve never smuggled wine in to the ballet?) and all one could use to drink from was a take-away coffee cup that invariably got soggy.

Haptics, the scientific term for touch, was believed by Aristotle to be the most highly regarded of the senses. He put it sitting above the other four in a hierarchical fashion set out in his theory, “aistheis”, meaning sensations, due to touch providing a true picture of the intrinsic nature of any given object. Interestingly, touch is also the first sense we experience inside the womb, and the last sense to fleet us upon dying. In infant monkeys, research was carried out to see if a mother’s touch or basic nutrition was more desired. It found that infant monkeys always chose a warm, comforting surrogate mother (warm blanket wrapped around a wire mannequin) over a cold, nurturing surrogate mother (wire mannequin with milk bottle). Moreover, strong infant-parent touching in humans has been shown to increase attachment levels and enhance the baby’s emotional and physiological health.

For products, it has long been established that touch is hugely important in how people perceive an item they wish to purchase, with there being both a functional and emotional aspect to touching. They can have fun by touching a product or judging its quality and value. In particular, there exists strong evidence that the mere shape of a wine glass has a direct influence on the taste experience. Hence, my surprise that Streets of Spain had used take-away coffee cups to serve their wine in. I know to serve so many people in a cost-effective way may be the reason, still, I think that plastic cups with which a deposit is given and returned would be a much better system to showcase the wine and create less waste.

The Soundscape Experience

Inside the Soundscape Experiment room.

Inside the Soundscape Experiment room.

I was very intrigued by this aspect of the event. It was an opportunity for people to go deeper with the brand and experience something different and new. Soundscape was an experiment into the relationship between sound and taste; the first of its kind in the world. Nick Ryan, a world-renowned pioneering composer, was tasked with interpreting the taste of the wine and creating a musical journey for people to take when sampling a Cava, a Reserva, and a Gran Reserva; which would mimic the condition known as synaesthesia; where the stimulation of one sense evokes the sensation of another.

The room provided a feeling of immersion, and four Funktion One speakers aiming at us added to the experience (I love Funktion One sound-systems). Nick created three different compositions to accompany each of the wines. For each of the pieces there were three cues to indicate the stages of tasting: smell, initial taste, and finish.

For me, although an intriguing experience, I found the sounds distracting, which made it hard to find my own subjective opinion about the taste of the wine. That being said, I did feel like Nick’s vision of the wine came through the music, which nonetheless, resulted in a very interesting experiment.


Quiero todo el vino por favor

Final Thoughts…

We experience and interpret life through our senses by physiological methods of perception, so a sense is a faculty by which outside stimuli are perceived. They are a complex mechanism designed to aid our survival — well, back in our more primitive days at least. No longer just for survival, our senses allow us modern humans to seek pleasure in the world. This is why our senses are so important. Now I know what you may be thinking, that these things just happen naturally, and that the senses are as well serviced in an iconic street market such as Borough Market, for instance. However, that is not the point. Experiences like Borough Market have been around for many years, and as a result, have grown a sensory atmosphere organically. For producers of experiences, we need to replicate these types of immersive and authentic atmospheres with limited time and resources. Subsequently, plan for multi-sensory experiences in the design phase, harness their influence, and watch your live events gain deeper emotive and immersive qualities, enhanced memory retention, and ultimately, improve the chances of creating a positive impact on your target audience.

Overall, I found “Streets of Spain” to be an excellent example of a well designed and executed multi-sensory experiential campaign. The event felt genuine, paid attention to how our brains works, and created a great platform for brand engagement. Well done to all involved.

Look out for my future blog post on the topic of sensory psychology. Get involved by leaving a comment below, or by following me on Twitter where you can find me @eventpsychology.