Do Creative Ideas Work Better than Data-Driven Ones?



Seven years ago, while working for an ad agency, I presented a billboard campaign to my client, Russell Fisher. After reviewing the work, he sat back and asked me this question, one that would deeply impact my career for years: “What proof can you give me that these creative ideas are more effective for my business than just a straightforward message? And I’m talking real proof, not the usual marketing jargon.”

Russell’s question remains profound—and one the ad business has been battling over since the 1970s and the birth of creative advertising. Put in more simple terms, it comes down to: “Do creative ideas work better?”

To best answer this, let’s first look at the mother of all hard drives—ours brains.

Emotion Versus Logic

The age-old battle over creative advertising starts with a few basic elements—emotion and logic. Usually, we equate these with the two major hemispheres of our brain: the left, logical half and the right, creative half. The left helps us with denotation, or the literal meaning of things. And the right offers connotation, or the connection between things, such as understanding the punchline of a joke.

But the part of the story that we often overlook is the front of the brain versus the back of the brain. The large frontal lobe (the area just behind our foreheads) is what sets us apart as humans versus other animals. This chunk of the brain, often referring to the prefrontal cortex specifically, controls our executive function. It helps us manage time, delay instant gratification, and provides us with rational thought.

What Damasio learned by studying these patients was this: a brain that can’t feel, can’t make a decision. We need emotion, not just logic alone.

Understanding the relationship between logic and emotion is critical. And they are more intimately connected than we think. In their famous study “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,” psychologist Leda Cosmides and anthropologist John Tooby examined the relationship between animal instincts and human logic. They reasoned that we have more emotional instincts than animals, like our ability to love, have morals, and fear disease. And these emotions are what make us human.   

Another interesting study comes from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who worked with patients who had damaged a small area of their brains that controlled emotions. Even with this chunk impaired, he found his patients were still rational humans. But when he would ask them to make even the smallest decisions, they struggled. What Damasio learned by studying these patients was this: a brain that can’t feel, can’t make a decision. We need emotion, not just logic alone.   

Two Systems, One Brain

But because logic and emotion are so interconnected with all parts of the brain, many psychologists and neuroscientists prefer to speak about the brain’s functions in terms of two systems—your slow, logical system and your fast, emotional system. To me, it makes sense to call these your conscious and subconscious brains.

Several studies have been done to understand the capacity of these two systems. For our slow, conscious brain, psychologist George Miller found that our conscious brain can only hold around seven variables (“the magic number”), plus or minus two. This is why phone numbers are split into small chunks of three or four.  

As for the capacity of our fast, subconscious system, a recent study by the Salk Institute shows that our brains have the hard-drive capacity to hold the amount of data in the entire Internet. Imagine every YouTube video, every tweet, even the entire audio track from Zombo.com. Every human brain is capable of storing that much information.

How We Make Decisions

This brings us to the decision-making process. When making a decision, we first run any new experience past our library of previous memories to see whether there is a match. If there isn’t, our conscious brain becomes engaged. Our frontal lobe slows down and figures out this new experience. Once a new choice is made, the executive order is sent back to the subconscious through another burst of neurochemicals. These neurochemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, are the regulators of our emotions and are how one neuron communicates with another.

The stronger the emotion, the greater the chance of creating a memory.

The memory is then filed away for future use through a series of neurons firing in a pattern, called a memory trace. It’s just like the 1’s and 0’s we use to burn a file on a hard drive—except the pattern is powered by a small burst of emotions between the neurons. This is our biology. Memories are created with emotion, and when we make or remember a decision, our brains are flooded with emotion.

Once a memory is created, we retrieve the memory in the same way. The stronger the emotion, the greater the chance of creating a memory. And if a strong emotion is present during retrieval, there’s a greater chance we will remember it. That means creating brand memories and lasting loyalty with customers is all about the amount of emotion that’s present when those experiences are formed.

What This All Means To Marketing

So, should we as marketers place more value on logic or emotions when making decisions? The answer is they are equally valuable. We need both to successfully communicate to customers, to have them believe our message, and to retain their love and loyalty.

The marketing gut is not dead. Some say that data-driven marketing gives us all the answers and we don’t need all that creative crap. Don’t be fooled.

Here’s an interesting thought: If emotions represent a massive amount of past experiences, memories, and rational decisions, then emotion is logic. Lots of it. And all summarized in a quick emotional burst. Which means it isn’t creativity versus strategy, or art versus science, but a combination of both. Perhaps a simple marketing choice with only a few variables should rely more on logic. But a more complex purchase might require more emotion, like listening to our guts.

That brings me to this: The marketing gut is not dead. Some say that data-driven marketing gives us all the answers and we don’t need all that creative crap. Don’t be fooled. Data inspires ideas. Metrics drive creativity. They are not mutually exclusive.

Our guts have a wealth of past experiences and rational decisions that we can combine with digital data to make amazing experiences for our customers.

When making good marketing decisions, we should use all the data we can find, including the insight we get from our mysterious, subconscious guts. Our guts have a wealth of past experiences and rational decisions that we can combine with digital data to make amazing experiences for our customers.

However, far too often, business decision makers ignore the emotions. They don’t give creativity a seat at the logic table. If they think creative ideas are marketing fluff, they don’t understand how humans think. If you want to avoid risk, look at our biology and make sure strong emotions are present in all communications. If you want a sure bet on your marketing dollars, you need to embrace a balance of both. More often than not, this means understanding the value of emotional ideas in a sea of data and logic.

As we better understand how the mind uses emotion to function, it gives new insight into why emotional marketing campaigns are more successful. For decades, marketing pros have known that emotional messaging pulls better. But they couldn’t explain why. They just felt it in their guts. Now that we know how the brain ingests data, how it uses emotion to process it, and how emotion plays a pivotal role in decision making and creating memories, we have a universal answer that explains why emotional marketing is more effective. It’s based on biology. If we remove emotion from the equation, the results are suboptimal.

Once you better understand the science, you not only know the answer to Russell’s question, but you also can see applications where the right balance of logic and emotion can help you craft more meaningful experiences for your customers. If you want your brand to succeed, the question now becomes: Why wouldn’t you use strong emotions and creative ideas in your marketing?

This article was adapted from Morgan’s upcoming book Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business: Proving the Value of Creative Ideas with Science.





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