Designing Experiences for the Lizard Brain

By Keith Ciampa on 17th April 2014

Even though I work for a company that creates “digital experiences,” that term has always struck me as making a false distinction. The culture of digital technology plays a huge role in what we do, of course, but I’ve never shaken the fundamental notion that we’re in the business of creating experiences, and we do that in whatever way we can. No matter how it’s created, a true experience changes how each of us feel about being alive, about what we can accomplish, and about how we fit in to the ebb and flow of the culture. The only relevant question for those of us trying to create compelling experiences for audiences is: How do we become a meaningful part of the conversation?

At Cibo, we’re all about finding the most meaningful methods of connecting brands with customers. We’ll use whatever way we’ve discovered will trigger the deepest reaction. Sometimes, we’ll go to the heart strings; sometimes the funny bone; more and more, we’re going straight for the brain.

Having a spontaneous relationship with a corporation simply isn’t in our DNA. To evoke a lasting, personal connection with customers, however, companies need an identifiable personality to which they can relate. That’s where brands come in. Successful brands

create rich, layered, personal narratives that initiate and drive real conversations with the people they want to serve.

Our deepest lizard brains are hardwired for narratives. Recent studies in cognitive psychology conclusively argue that our brains literally experience more, across more modes, through compelling stories. Narratives enable our brains to more vividly and viscerally experience abstract concepts and ideas. They provide a deeply attractive method of linking hard-to-imagine elements with concepts the brain has naturally evolved to chase, namely, opportunities to gain physical, social and emotional rewards.

Culturally attuned and psychologically honed stories both promote and evoke immediate relevance in people: they build purpose and meaning faster, and that makes for more profound shifts in behavior. When Cibo was creating Tesla Motors’ Go Electric website, we quickly discovered customers were most concerned with how going electric would affect specific aspects of their own life narratives. By taking those specific concerns into account, we were able to create a simple narrative that helped and encouraged consumers to make the leap. They asked questions like “Will I be able to drive my Tesla to Tahoe?” and “How much am I really going to save?” Simply put: if there is no narrative to your brand, people will make one up for you – and it may not be the positive one you’re looking for.

The enormous success of the Red Bull brand provides us with a quintessential example. Red Bull didn’t become a media juggernaut by strategizing about how to monetize content across media channels. From the beginning, the brand stood for something and was fearlessly acted upon. “Red Bull Gives You Wings” is not just a clever tagline, but a mindset that drives the entire brand experience. It goes straight to the narrative-driven lizard brain. Red Bull produces narrative-driven content to better tell its brand story. The brand’s success is due to clear vision, strong leadership and an irrepressible will to experiment.

With all this in mind, here are a few hopefully helpful suggestions for transforming a corporate brand into a brand experience:

Don’t just give customers something to buy. Give them something to buy into.
Peel back all the jargon, remove all the business speak, and keep your eyes on what are the ascendant ideas in culture, then find meaningful ways to participate in those conversations.

Make sure you create experiences that matter; experiences that people want in their lives, but also work for the brand. It’s never one or the other.

A streamlined approvals process is vital to designing effective and affecting experiences.

Smaller cross-disciplinary teams make for greater flexibility, creativity and collaboration.