From the former Head of Brand Strategy at Reddit, Joe Federer, explains the way our brains process information and how brands can use this to connect to their audiences.
We’ve all heard the tropes about our right and left brain hemispheres: right brain emotion, left brain processing. Right brain creativity, left brain logic. These pseudo-truths originated following the split-brain experiments of the 1960’s. Having found that complex tasks like logical and creative thinking actually require both hemispheres, most brain anatomists abandoned the right-left brain dichotomy research.
Recently, however, new analysis of decades of data reveals something fundamental about how we process the world. As communicators, marketers, influencers, and brands, understanding the right-left brain split provides incredible insight into the impressions we hope to make on our audiences.
We have two almost separate consciousnesses living in our heads
Biologists often say that “evolution is a conservative force.” Even if something isn’t optimal, if it’s good enough, it stays. The hemispheric brain structure is very old—other mammals, birds, reptiles, and even fish share this structure. The consistency suggests that there is something deeply important about maintaining these two separately functioning brains.
Dr. Iain McGilichrist, a researcher in neuroanatomy and author of The Master and His Emissary, offers a theory as to why evolution favored two separate hemispheres with different specializations. Imagine what it takes to survive as a bird. First, we need to be able to spot seeds on a complex backdrop of gravel, dirt, grass, etc. We need a focused beam of attention suited to particular tasks. But we also need a general awareness of our environment in case of danger. After all, predators, weather, and falling branches each represent danger that may show itself in many different forms.
Dr. McGilichrist proposes that our more complex left and right hemispheres continue to build on the same specializations we see in birds.
The right brain sees the big picture while the left brain focuses on particulars
According to Dr. McGilichrist’s theory, the right brain experiences the world presently, with each moment representing something fresh and new to be explored. Based on these inputs from our right hemispheres, our left hemispheres are able to organize experiences into predictable categories, creating an internal representation of the world.
When we’re in a familiar place like our home, we’re in “known” territory—we let our left brain representations take over because in general, we know what to expect. When we’re somewhere unfamiliar, our exploratory right hemispheres take over to engage directly with the new space. Our minds are constantly fluctuating between these two perspectives of the world—predictable and categorized vs. unknown and novel.
Branding is a split-brain exercise—it requires both novelty and consistency
As brands, marketers, communicators, influencers—whatever we want to call ourselves, we’re in the business of creating lasting impressions. That means when people meet us for the first time, they engage us with their right exploratory hemispheres, suited to predator detection. In those moments, it’s imperative that we come across as interesting, novel, and carry all of the adjectives we use to describe ourselves in our brand strategies—not overwhelming, paralyzing, or predatory.
As people become familiar with us—as they start to recognize our logo, regularly purchase our products, engage with our content, etc.—our audiences engage us through the lenses of their left brain representations of us. If someone bought our product last week, and they buy it again this week, they expect their experience to be about the same. They rely on their left brain representation of us unless the unexpected happens.
Moments of customer service when products don’t work, when we release a new product, when we go through a rebrand—each of these introduce a bit of chaos into the known representations our audiences store. In these moments, it’s imperative that as the unknown shows its face that it feels novel and manageable, and not jarring.
To connect with our audiences, we need to balance telling left brain stories about right brain behaviors
When we talk about social media in industry terms, we often focus on things like our social strategy, our engagement playbook, our approach to content, and so on. Those best practices are certainly important, and they get a fair amount of attention in my book, The Hidden Psychology of Social Networks. There is a more fundamental lesson that social media teaches us, however—that actions speak louder than words.
The delta between brands that drive good engagement and brands that build cult followings isn’t often a matter of video length, strategic post timing, or algorithm decoding. The brands with off-the-charts success in social media tend to be ones that demonstrate their purpose loudly in the world. Sometimes that behavior happens in the real world, and sometimes it happens online.
When Adobe took to the Reddit community and developed a communal graffiti canvas for everyone to play with, they weren’t just talking about creativity. They manifested a brand behavior that demonstrated their commitment to fostering creativity. When Patagonia self-imposes an “Earth tax” and donates 1% of its profits to sustainability, it’s walking the walk. And it should come as no surprise when Patagonia’s social channels drive massive amounts of engagement in announcing their sustainability efforts—it’s not about the creative strategy, it’s about real-world behaviors that show so that the marketing team can tell.
Right brain behaviors create compelling left brain stories
Social media doesn’t just connect brands with people. It enables people to have candid conversations about brands, loudly and publicly. If we’re saying one thing and failing to back it up in our company behavior, it’s only a matter of time before someone recognizes our facade and proclaims it to the world. Loudly and publicly.
To effectively market our brands, we must first demonstrate their purpose in the world through behavior. Sometimes, that means donating massive amounts of money to organizations that align with our mission. Sometimes, that means giving back to the communities in which we operate. Sometimes that means creating fun experiences, even for niche audiences, knowing that the experience we create becomes a series of interesting stories to tell.
Whatever flowery language we use to describe ourselves in our brand manifestos must have a foundation in brand behaviors.