Brain Food: Digitally Connected Customers & Emotionally Connected Customer’s Brains

How social networking draws shoppers together into a “force majeure”
Posted January 6, 2017

Most of us think about the technology we use and our brains as being independent from each other. We don’t necessarily see digital devices and our brains as part of a connected, functional unit that extends across the world via the Internet. But, in fact, brains and bytes are both part of a system of interacting, communicating, imagining, creating and learning that all work together.

Neuroscience’s discovery of mirror neurons in humans has led to an understanding that we are wired to “read” facial expressions and body movements to infer others’ intentions. Simply seeing images of other people’s faces can trigger neurobiological reactions in our brains that influence the way we feel. This is true within the context of embodied interactions as well as with experiences facilitated by the Internet and social network sites (SNS). The digital media we are exposed to via our smart devices influences our neurobiology, emotions and connections to others.

The relationship between the brain and the environments we inhabit is truly collaborative in the making of an experience. The encounters we have in the world around us shape our brains and, in turn, the brain shapes our perception of the world. While for millennia we have relied on our direct interactions with others to provide context and meaning to our lives, we increasingly find many of our experiences augmented by our connection to digital media. This may happen through direct engagement in digitally integrated environments or the influence of social networks through which we are emotionally affected by exposure to shared content.

A key driver in the making of great shopping experiences in today’s climate is the dynamic nature of “give-and-make” experiences. Whether through face-to-face interactions or digitally mediated social network sites, the sharing of information and emotion shape the nature of mindset with regard to a branded experience.

The power of digital technology, especially in its use through social media, has the intrinsic ability to extend one shopper’s mind to a multitude of others. While the brain may be physically resting in our skulls, the influence of the Internet extends and exposes the shopper’s relational mind to the world connecting us with other individuals like no other time in our history.

Today the market in the town square has been transformed into a global marketplace, and the concept of family and friends has been redefined to include a multitude of people, rather than a handful of close social relationships. As technology has enabled us to reach out across vast geographic and interpersonal landscapes, we have evolved from close-knit groups, and embraced like-minded individuals to a multidimensional, digitally connected, cognitive network.

As our communication network has grown through the use of digital technologies, the one-on-one relationships with shop owners have been supplanted by digitally mediated social networks of brand loyal customers who connect to each other at the speed of the Internet. The conversation about the store or brand is happening more and more between customers than it is between individual customers and a brand. The collective mindset of customers is a powerful force in establishing brand identity. Because social network sites allow us to share the emotional side of brand experiences, positive or negative customer impressions become increasingly influential. The collective perception of a brand experience has the possibility to alter a customers’ mindset and make it real.

The brand, under the influence of collective customer perception, can become how it is perceived, rather than what it really is. It is therefore imperative that brands stay in the flow of the customer conversation as an influential narrator of the brand story, feeding content into the digital life-stream of the shopper’s extended cognitive network.

As the integration of technology into our lives continues, we will see the emergence of two seemingly paradoxical tracks with respect to the nature of digital communication and brand experience:

On one hand, we will continue to see the cognitive coalition between loyal brand adopters drawing the extended shopper’s network together as a unified whole. This global conglomerate of like-minded brand advocates share a collective energy and emotional connection. As a group, they shift and swerve like a school of fish, driven by their shared affinity for the brands they love (or love to hate).

On the other hand, an individual within the matrix of comingled minds will be increasingly provided with brand experiences that are uniquely crafted to cater to their personal preferences.

The shared perception of a brand or retailer does not start at a single moment in time when all members of the network simultaneously become sentient. It starts with the individual shopper, who, in turn, reaches out across the digitally enabled global retailing landscape to influence others. Minds connect, emotions are shared, relationships are fostered and loyal customers are born. In a shopping paradigm where customers’ minds are connected across a global social network, experiences that don’t meet with a shopper’s needs or expectations produce a shift in the matrix, creating brand detractors more than return customers. The sentiment of a disaffected shopper can be sent cascading through a social network, resulting in a mind-storm of negative consequences.

It’s important for us to remember that what customers’ share is e-motion (energy in motion), not the mere facts of things such as SKU counts or price points. And, when customers do share left-brain details of cheap prices or abundant choice, they do it with enthusiasm of how great it was that they got a deal, how amazing “the selection was, or how helpful the sales associate was. In the end, they share the emotional consequence of an experience, not the dry details.

Our human communication goal is ultimately about the right brain’s search for joy, a sense of belonging and pleasurable experiences. Our business goal then should be to provide every opportunity to engage customers in moments of delight and to use social networks in the service of empathic extension. In a digitally connected world, the energy of a positive (or negative) experience is carried outward from one customer across a web of interpersonal, digitally mediated relationships. Empowered with the tool of social network sites, the individual becomes a force majeure, emotionally connected to other customers whose collective voice can shape the brand and its expression in the retail marketplace.

David Kepron is Vice President - Global Design Strategies with Marriott International. His focus is on the creation of compelling customer experiences within a unique group of Marriott brands called the “Lifestyle Collection,” including Autograph, Renaissance and Moxy hotels. As a frequently requested speaker to retailers, hoteliers and design professionals nationally and internationally, David shares his expertise on subjects ranging from consumer behaviors and trends, brain science and buying behavior, store design and visual merchandising as well as creativity and innovation. David is also author of “Retail (r)Evolution: Why Creating Right-Brain Stores will Shape the Future of Shopping in a Digitally Driven World,” published by ST Media Group Intl. and available online from ST Books. @davidkepron;