What Neuro Can Teach? Relationships with Brands in the Digital Age

Relationship Capital: 

What neuro can teach us about relationships with brands in the digital age


As researchers we often find ourselves in conversations about brands. And if you can bet on one thing it is that strong emotive words like “love”, “hate”, “boring” or “reliable” will sneak their way in – words we would also use to describe personal relationships. Why is that?

The cognitive processes underlying relationships are largely unconscious, so exploring them with traditional methods of self-report or observation can have its limitations. Therefore, we were on the look-out for new and interesting methods to better understand brand relationships and we decided to run an EEG study. EEG – Electroencephalography – allows us to measure changes in voltage across the scalp, telling us about what is going on underneath. More specifically we looked at neurological measures for:

  • attention paid towards visual brand assets
  • emotional connection towards brand related information
  • formation of a memory of the information presented

In order to explore how people’s brains react towards brands we invited 100 respondents, wired them up with EEG equipment, and exposed them to visual brand assets of Uber, Spotify, Lidl, Ford, Radio 1 and many other brands.

We also collected self-reported data so we could slice the EEG data along different sub-samples with different frequencies of brand usage, degrees of brand affinity, brand relationship histories, and life stage relevance of a given brand.

While there were many interesting insights for the individual brands, there also were two main overarching learnings about customer-brand relationships + one point for further investigation:


  1. You swipe left more than you swipe right

The brain is very proficient at filtering out what is irrelevant to you. This process is called sensory gating and means that the brain is more likely to “tune into” information that already established its relevance in past experiences. We found this to be true for brands as well. Respondents with a high affinity towards a brand were more likely to pay attention to that brand’s messaging.

This finding can be relevant for how a brand could act in or out of character. If you aim to defend your position and market share, then sending out familiar cues could make your existing customers and brand loyalists more likely to listen. But similarly, even if your aim is to grow and attack rather than defend, it could be valuable to appeal to themes and concepts that your target audience has experience with – and for which their brain has already established relevance.


  1. You have to keep things fresh

One surprising finding of this EEG study is that for the vast majority of brands tested, length of relationship didn’t equate to a higher emotional connection with a brand. So it seems that, while familiarity is important in directing our attention, brands have to work hard to keep things fresh. Each activation is a little bit like a date night, a chance to renew and refresh an existing relationship. Brands need to find a way to reimagine the thing they are most known and loved for. Take Baileys for example - Baileys is a brand that we enjoyed working with over the last three years as it has experienced impressive growth. And even before this phase of growth, Baileys used to be a brand that everyone loved. However, most people only drank it once or twice a year; mostly at Christmas. Its success has come from converting that latent love for the brand into actual consumption of the product.

The team have done this by creating a stream of content and innovations, bursting with new ideas and new contexts for Baileys: Baileys freak shakes, Baileys French toast, dairy-free Baileys, and Baileys flat white martinis to name just a few.

In the words of the Baileys team the change in marketing was about “banning the blockbuster”. The focus was no longer on a few, big, set-piece activations. Instead their new marketing model was called “millions of triggers” consisting in a steady and constant stream of ideas and inspiration.

This approach has turned around a brand, once in long-term decline of up to 8% yr/yr, into one of the stars of the Diageo portfolio, growing impressively across all regions of operation.


  1. Your brand is a relationship omnichannel

From our research we saw how people’s brains react towards visual brand assets. But of course visual brand assets are not the only touch points between (potential) customers and a brand. This is why we partnered up with the Data Science Institute at Imperial College London. In collaboration we are on the path of exploring whether there are different cognitive reactions associated with different brand touch points.

This is motivated by a pattern we can observe across many projects we’re conducting at Sparkler – it feels increasingly false to think of the brand experience as being distinct from the user experience or wider customer experience. It seems more likely that all brand touch points influence and shape the brand-customer relationship.

Just like we conduct our relationships with people across a range of different channels, we relate to brands by a lot of different means. All interactions are different aspects of the same experience and same set of associations for people out in the real world. Brands don’t just live in the marketing world, in a 30 second TV ad, or within packaging designs. Equally the job of User Experience isn’t simply to reduce keystrokes and smooth out any wrinkles. UX is also increasingly influencing how people build up an impression of the brand they’re using.

Overall, we think any brand can benefit from thinking about their brand-customer relationships along the same lines as they would for personal relationships. Be consistent but interesting, engage with them in many different ways, be personally relevant… and make sure to go on a date night every now and then.



Sparkler is a leading digital insight and strategy consultancy and are experts on how consumers think and behave in the digital world.


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