The Triune Brain of Consumerism

Our job as storytellers is not only to entertain, but to change thought patterns in the human brain. We employ various tools to create cognitive dissonance, forcing disinterested consumers to pay attention and engage. Moving the consumer brain from disinterest toward loving our brand requires more than a rational argument woven into a story structure. Effective branding requires emotional disruption.

Although we know disruptive storytelling  can build emotional connections with consumers, we don’t know exactly how it works. We’ve found that certain kinds of stories consistently create emotional responses that correlate to increased brand preference and sales. Beyond that knowledge, our models become hazy at best. This is because the consumer brain relegates some of its most sophisticated thinking to unconscious processing. This is where the mystery of emotion resides. Somehow the consumer brain trusts its emotion to be more intelligent than its own conscious cognition.

Because the unconscious brain can be a bit of a black box, various imperfect theories and models are used to help us understand these “dark” processing patterns. One popular theory among psychologists is the “Triune Brain” model. This model suggests that the unconscious functions of the brain are made up of three components: The basal ganglia, the limbic system and the neo-cortex. This belief system asserts that the most successful storytelling engages all three of these components, therefore it’s important to understand their individual functions.

The basal ganglia, also known as the “reptilian complex,” is the primal fight or flight mechanism of the brain that responds to disruptive sensory input such as loud sounds, falling, threatening movement or any exciting visual stimulus that could pose a threat or promise the brain a reward of pleasure. This is the critical function of the brain that Hollywood film producers use to engage people and bring them into a story. Emotional disruption is a cheap but effective trick. For action films, directors use fast and erratic movements or surreal special effects. In romance films, directors use beauty and seduction. In comedy, the actors fall to the floor to coax laughter, etc.

The second component of the brain, the limbic system, is most commonly associated with the human need to engage social relationships. As we’ve discovered, social identity can be the most powerful driver of decisions. If consumers can’t find a social relationship to the story, they disengage emotionally. However, even building a strong social purpose isn’t enough to create this connection, especially if nobody knows about your cause or embraces it. That’s why using bold creativity to deliver the brand story can be as important as the message itself.

This brings us to the third part of the brain, the neo-cortex. Unique to humans, this is the most complex and advanced component of brain processing. It’s the part of the brain that stores complex concepts in the form of metaphors. By converting the brand promise into a concrete visual, we cement a “theory of brand” in the consumer brain. This visual metaphor becomes stored in the consumer psyche, providing an actionable belief system that will become available for efficient recall at the time of need.

According to the Triune Brain theory, when we employ all three components, a highly engaged and emotional response will become triggered. This is how brands achieve the proverbial “wow factor.” However, engaging all three components at once is the most difficult job in communication.  We need to be disruptive, purposeful, and metaphorical.

– Excerpt from: Surfing The Black Wave: Brand Leadership in a Digital Age