Brands that Cross the Blood-Brain Barrier

A client and good friend of mine asked me a very topical question the other day, one that’s on the minds of many marketers, consciously (or unconsciously). She asked whether I believed social media and digital advertising on their own can deliver sales. My answer was a succinct “No”.

But then we went on to examine more closely what it takes to create the ultimate behaviour change, which is the conversion of a customer from one brand to another. (After all, everything we do in this business is about fundamental behaviour change.) And we came up with an analogy that has already proven quite useful…

Medical scientists and physicians like to talk about how chemicals that enter our bloodstream can only truly affect our behaviour when they cross the “blood-brain barrier”. In literal terms, this is the permeable barrier that separates the blood in your general circulatory system from the blood in the central nervous system. It is not easy to cross this barrier – it is in some ways like a mountain pass ringed with sentinels. It is essentially designed to prevent most pathogens and toxins from entering the blood, and even most antibodies cannot fit through.

Imagine I have a container of alcohol and I’m trying to somehow use it to change your perception and behaviour. I could try applying it topically, but the skin would prevent it from entering your bloodstream. So, best that I get you to ingest it. Once ingested, if you drink it in sufficient quantity, eventually some of those molecules will cross the blood-brain barrier and voila, you’re drunk. I have effected a change in your behaviour.

To use this analogy in our world, then social media and digital tend to work more at the level of the skin. Today’s 21st century citizens have developed thick skins on their consciousness that protect them from most stimuli in the digital environments we spend so many hours of our day in. It would be entirely inefficient if every social media post and digital ad changed our behaviours and preferences. Our days would be chaos. So our minds have developed a strong protective coating, like the skin, that lets us disregard most signals in this realm. By themselves, they have a light to negligible effect on us, much like rubbing alcohol on the skin will evaporate almost immediately.

Marketing, then takes things into the bloodstream, if done successfully. Strong brand positioning with an effective marketing mix is valuable in that it infiltrates the consciousness of our intended audience and gets them to do more than just “like” a post or page. Perhaps at this “bloodstream” level, they’ve subscribed to our YouTube channel or newsletter, they’ve signed up for a membership of some sort. We’ve gotten into their systems a bit.

– W.