Brain Science and Brand Trust

Last weekend in my Change Management class, we learned that using social media causes a release of oxytocin, a hormone that is known as the “trust molecule” or the “bonding molecule”, because it’s released when we interact and bond with others. It was originally thought to be released only in relation to childbirth and breastfeeding (i.e., for bonding between mother and child), but has since been shown to be released by many different stimuli, including all sorts of human contact (e.g., hugs, cuddling, massage, and sex) and other times of connection among people (e.g., weddings). In addition, even watching things like an emotional video clip can increase oxytocin levels. Studies show that oxytocin causes us to trust others, as well as to be more generous.

In an interview posted by Fast Company, Dr. Paul Zak, an oxytocin researcher, talks about how building trust within your organization will extend over to a customers, as happy employees will make for happy customers:

As Zak notes, companies have been trying to build trust for a long time – a trusted brand is a valuable commodity. So, if social media causes an increase in oxytocin, and increased oxytocin makes us trust someone, wouldn’t a brand being on social media be a short cut to gaining customers’ trust?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. The research on social media increasing oxytocin is preliminary. Very preliminary. The Fast Company article mentions just one person being tested and Zak’s TED Talk refers to someone whose oxytocin levels sky rocket while using Facebook, but then notes that the person in question is interacting on his girlfriend’s Facebook page 1Some more digging revealed a further description of this experiment in a different article in Fast Company – it included just 3 participants – still far too small a number to be drawing any conclusions..  The only other reference I could find to this was a brief mention in a Prevention article that says that all the participants in 3 studies saw increases in oxytocin when using Facebook and Twitter, but they didn’t provide any reference to the studies they were talking about, say how many people were in the studies 2So it’s entirely possible that the “studies” in question could include the 1 person or 3 person studies I’ve just mentioned. or with whom they were interacting on those social media sites. So saying that use of social media generally (or theorizing that an interaction with a brand on social media specifically) causes a release of oxytocin is a bit premature, though I’ll certainly be watching the scientific literature for when full reports of studies on this topic are released.

While searching the literature for the effect of social media on oxytocin, I did come across another article by Zak that I thought was worth mentioning: “Oxytocin Increases the Influence of Public Service Advertisements “, published in the scientific journal PLOS One 3Lin PY, Grewal NS, Morin C, Johnson WD, Zak PJ. (2013). Oxytocin Increases the Influence of Public Service Advertisements. PLOS One 8(2): e56934. Full text available at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0056934.. This paper reported on two experiments. In the first one, they showed that when people were given oxytocin before watching a public service announcement (PSA), they gave more money to the cause than those who had received placebo. In the second experiment, they showed that some people who saw a PSA (but who weren’t given any hormones) experienced a natural increase in both oxytocin and ACTH levels (another hormone, which served as a measure of “attention” being paid by the viewer to the ad) and those people donated more money than those who didn’t experience an increase in both oxytocin and ACTH 4Not everyone showed an increase on oxytocin from viewing the PSAs. And those who had an increase in oxytocin but not ACTH did not donate more, though the authors noted that the level of oxytocin reached was not as high as the level that was given to participants in the first experiment.. This research suggests that if advertisers find the right combination of things that attract a viewer’s attention and cause a release of oxytocin (including showing an emotional video clip), it might just result in more donations. The authors also go on to note: “This approach indicates that effective marketing campaigns should be seen as ways to build relationships and solve customers’ problems rather than focusing on a one-time sale. Marketing that causes OT release is a step toward building an emotional relationship with a product or brand.”

So, while the idea of treating your customers well and building a relationship with them so that they trust your brand isn’t rocket science, we are starting to understand better the brain science underpinning it.

For more in-depth information about oxytocin, check out this TED talk by Dr. Paul Zak:

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Some more digging revealed a further description of this experiment in a different article in Fast Company – it included just 3 participants – still far too small a number to be drawing any conclusions.
2. So it’s entirely possible that the “studies” in question could include the 1 person or 3 person studies I’ve just mentioned.
3. Lin PY, Grewal NS, Morin C, Johnson WD, Zak PJ. (2013). Oxytocin Increases the Influence of Public Service Advertisements. PLOS One 8(2): e56934. Full text available at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0056934.
4. Not everyone showed an increase on oxytocin from viewing the PSAs. And those who had an increase in oxytocin but not ACTH did not donate more, though the authors noted that the level of oxytocin reached was not as high as the level that was given to participants in the first experiment.
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