OPINION2 August 2022

Does ‘belonging’ influence brand success?

Behavioural economics Inclusion Opinion

The concept of ‘belonging’ is a powerful one in human psychology. Dr Simon Collister of Unlimited looks at how brands can use our need for ‘belonging’ to connect with consumers and foster greater diversity and inclusion.

Diverse group of people

Professor Gina Rippon, in her recent book, The Gendered Brain, demonstrates how brain imaging proves that traditional sex and gender stereotypes in advertising produce harmful effects. 

Highlighting evidence that despite the traditional perspective that our brain is ‘hard-wired’ to a particular view of the world, Rippon explains that our brains are continually evolving and adapting to the events and situations happening around us through-out our lives.

She describes this as the ‘social brain’ – a powerful ‘tool’ designed to ensure we are safe from external threats to our survival. 

One key concept at the heart of this process is ‘belonging’. We feel safe when we are recognised and feel like we are part of a group where we ‘belong’. Conversely, self-esteem and self-worth drop when we feel unrecognised or rejected. 

Fascinatingly, Professor Rippon described how studies have proved that these negative feelings are not just psychological – brain-imaging shows that such feelings activate the same parts of the brain as physical pain. When we feel rejected it’s not just our emotions which are hurt, these experiences are inflicted on us as if we were in physical pain.

Perhaps most importantly, these processes are active from childhood. From a young age we are constantly seeking out belonging – choosing to connect with groups where we belong; and rejecting those where we don’t.

So far, so fascinating. But how does this affect the way brands should act? 

Engendering and nurturing belonging may help brands
The issue of brands doing more to foster greater diversity and inclusion is a topical one, with the majority of the marketing industry believing that increasing diversity and inclusion is the right thing to do. All too often, however, the reasons behind can be seen as superficial. 

A quick review of recent reports on diversity and inclusion explains it as being due to the growing expectation among consumers, particularly those in younger demographics, for brands to be perceived as authentic or to better reflect wider society.

While these explanations are still important, they don’t necessarily get to the deeper, underlying insight around the added value tackling diversity and inclusion can unlock. 

Instead, Professor Rippon’s research tells us that fostering a sense of ‘belonging’ among consumers is vital for creating a sense of safety and boosting self-esteem. 

In the world of cognitive neuroscience where, as Professor Rippon tells us, our brains continually make ‘go’ and ‘no go’ decisions, brands that are built on belonging are more likely to build positive emotional connections and stimulate ‘go’ actions.

In short, there are powerful commercial reasons, as well as important social ones, for ensuring your brand is inclusive. 

Putting neuroscience into action
Rippon’s work raises important issues for brands and marketing professionals which we believe should be explored in greater detail.

Our neuro and behavioural science platform Human Understanding Lab has identified three ways brands and their agencies can get better at improving society while delivering more powerful marketing outcomes:

  • It’s not just a Gen Z thing. It seems true that younger demographics value authenticity from brands, but no matter what age neuroscience tells us that consumers’ brains are wired to feel the need to ‘belong’. To get diversity and inclusion right based on deep human insight, brands must ensure their adoption covers all demographics
  • Focus on common denominators. While any successful creative platform should be distinct and say something meaningful about the brand, it should strive to be as inclusive as possible. Even with mass market consumer products there are opportunities to be inclusive. Finding and focusing on features common to everyone – physical attributes, values or emotional states – can help create a shared sense of belonging across diverse audiences
  • Use campaign activation to be inclusive. Beyond ensuring your brand platform is inclusive and enables a sense of belonging, think how your creative and media activation can target the right assets and messages to the right consumers. The growth in personalisation at scale and sophisticated targeting options present opportunities for brands to use media as a tool for driving inclusion.

Rippon’s work then acts as a call to everyone in marketing. We need to recognise that cognitive neuroscience reveals the fact that deep down our ‘social brain’ makes us highly attuned to the world around us. 

This makes it all the more important that we are aware of how our brand is presented – from its culture and public portrayal, the assets and stimuli we create, to the messages we launch and language we use. Ensuring these all foster a sense of inclusivity and belonging means we can not only help enrich society, but also ensure that our brands build stronger, emotional bonds with consumers.

 Dr Simon Collister is director at Unlimited’s Human Understanding Lab