Brain Plasticity and the new consumer

Brain Plasticity and the new consumer

Will the consumers’ immersion in a world of technology impact on how they feel, think and act? Will they become better at some things and worse at others? Will the delegation of more and more of their daily tasks to gadgets and technologies change them in a material way? Will marketers need to adjust their strategies and tactics to be successful in this future environment? Given rapid technological progress these are pertinent questions. Fortunately, this question has occupied the minds of leading researchers and scientists for some time and this is what they found:

The brain changes in response to regular demands made on it, a feature typically referred to as brain plasticity. More specifically, the brain allocates more neurons to accomplish something we repeatedly make an effort doing and it strengthens the connections between these neurons.

Take the case of London taxi drivers. They are required to pass an extensive training course (known as ‘The Knowledge’), which requires them to memorise not just all the streets in central London but also all the landmarks and businesses on them before they are granted a taxi license. Brain research has shown that London cab drivers have a larger area of the brain allocated to spatial tasks than other people, because they often call up maps of London in their mind as they work out the best route from A to B. More specifically, their hippocampal areas, the part of the brain associated with spatial reasoning, are larger than those in other adults.

Similar studies, delivering consistent results, have been undertaken with blind subjects reading braille; jugglers; violin players; and racket-sport players to name just a few. Given brain plasticity, we can safely assume that consumers’ immersion in the digital world will have an impact on how they feel, think and act.

There are two schools of thought about the impact of technologies on how the brain develops. Some experts claim that the digital environment makes us smarter, while others provide evidence that it has a negative impact. The reason for this divergence of opinion lies largely in what different experts feel is important.

Immersion in the digital world has some upsides because it:

  • boosts our intuitive ability
  • reduces our reaction time
  • trains our brain to switch more quickly between tasks (often referred to as ‘multi-tasking’)
  • engages us with a wider scope of activities which, though likely to be superficial, nevertheless expose us to many different contexts.

However, there are also some downsides:

  • Spending time on social media rather than face-to-face with other people leads to under-developed social skills.
  • As online answers are available to most questions, we spend much less time exploring contexts and options, resulting in a deterioration of exploration skills.
  • The internet’s ability to let us choose exactly what we want encourages us to associate with and get information solely from third parties who hold the same views as we do. This means that our views are constantly reinforced, strengthening our beliefs and, in the process, polarising families, communities and societies. Brexit and the huge gulf between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. illustrate this tendency.
  • Digital equipment that monitors our heartbeat, sleep patterns, nutrition, movement, and other physical and mental functions is dumbing us down. We no longer observe what we are doing or how we feel because have a gadget that tells us. We don’t improve our own intuitive understanding of what is boosting our wellbeing. The gadget tells us, so we give up observing, feeling and thinking.
  • Similarly, the daily use of GPS over long periods of time results in the brain area responsible for navigation shrinking and thus severely reducing the ability to navigate without electronic assistance.

This is particularly concerning when we consider that the technological revolution will take over many more day-to-day functions that are currently our responsibility. Importantly, it will also make the digital world much more attractive and encourage us to spend even more of our available time there – and, with technologies replacing jobs, many people will have extensive leisure time they will need to fill.

Marketing implications

At the most basic level marketers need to consider that empathy is declining, attention spans are getting shorter, and consumers are less able to deal with complexity. In summary, when telling a story keep it brief and simple, and focus on rewarding the audience with a surprise, new insights, positive emotions or an unexpected offer.

Consumers will also experience dopamine hits when they complete a challenge, get praised or at least recognized, find a treasure or experience something worth sharing on social media. This suggests that the future will favour engagement and non-traditional marketing initiatives above the more traditional strategies focusing only on exposure.

When there is a forceful trend there is always also a countertrend – not as strong, but it will create an alternative for marketers. Surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that consumers already feel their life is too busy and they rarely have an opportunity to take a break from the rat race they find themselves in. Of course, their life is only busy because they spend extensive time on social media, playing games and pursuing other leisure activities. In many countries work hours are lower now than ever before. It is the proliferation of leisure activities that is leading to a feeling of being overwhelmed by demands – even though most of these demands are self-imposed.

Regardless, we can expect a growing number of consumers seeking an occasional break, wanting to find some balance and escape from the pressure they experience. A brand that allows the consumer to lower their cortisol levels by reducing tension should find a receptive audience.

Nowhere will change be more dramatic then when it comes to shopping. Sometimes consumers ‘go shopping’, i.e., window or screen shop, explore what’s available, share their experiences with others, spend time and enjoy the activity. At other times they ‘do the shopping’, i.e., get a necessary but largely unexciting shopping activity out of the way. The former is the mode for many consumers when shopping for clothes, holidays, home furnishing and furniture, cars or restaurants, while the latter is typical for grocery shopping, dealing with insurance, banking, utilities and similar necessary, but uninspiring, tasks.

Technological developments will give going shopping a huge boost. We are already seeing virtual, augmented and mixed reality as well as holograms and robots making inroads and the ability to draw on shoppers’ personal data in real time facilitates the delivery of tailor-made surprises when shopping on-line.

When it comes to doing the shopping we can already see massive improvements in efficiency, partly driven by the personalization of shopping tasks (e.g., the shopper can call up their personal shopping list, adapt it and then get the required goods delivered), partly by the use of personal assistants that don’t even require a dedicated shopping effort, but can compile shopping lists over time (e.g., the consumer realizing that butter is running low, asking the personal assistant to put it on the shopping list…), search for the best offer (using the criteria the shopper determines) and organize the delivery of all items.

Of course, for many retailers it will be desirable to migrate from the ‘going shopping’ to the ‘doing the shopping’ bucket. Gamification can help here as it allows the retailer to add excitement and the unexpected to what would otherwise be a rather boring shopping task.

We have started our exploration with a focus on how the consumer is likely to change due to spending more and more time in a digital environment, followed by a brief review of how technologies can help marketers and retailers to engage customers and create a differentiated positioning. Technologies are already changing the world of marketing and retailing, but what we are seeing today is just a small step towards a much more technology-driven world. It is important for marketers and retailers to monitor developments and to gain early experiences with relevant technologies. Technologies will change the market and competitive environment. Keeping pace with change will be essential to survival, while being at the forefront by creatively using new technologies will be essential to growth.

Dr. Peter Steidl
About The Author

Dr. Peter Steidl

Dr Peter Steidl is the author of ‘Time to Give a F*ck! The Technological Revolution and You’ available from amazon and other leading booksellers. He has carried out assignments in more than twenty countries on five continents and has authored or co-authored a dozen books, including several covering Neuromarketing challenges. He can be reached on LinkedIn or via  peter@neurothinking.com

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