Could neuroscience help prove that belonging influences brand success?

By Dr. Simon Collister | 13th July, 2022


Recently, Walnut Unlimited hosted our 10th Brainy Bar alongside WARC, at which renowned cognitive neuroscientist, Professor Gina Rippon, discussed her recent book, The Gendered Brain, and demonstrated how brain imaging proves that traditional sex and gender stereotypes in advertising often produce harmful effects. 

As important as the issue of gender is, however, it’s also important to explore the implications of Professor Rippon’s work on the issue of diversity and the effect that this has for brands and marketing professionals.

Highlighting evidence that despite the traditional perspective that our brain is ‘hard-wired’ to a particular view of the world, Professor Rippon explained that our brains are continually evolving and adapting to the events and situations happening around us throughout our lives. Professor Rippon describes this as the ‘social brain’ – a powerful ‘tool’ designed to ensure we are safe from external threats to our survival. 

One key concept at the heart of this process is ‘belonging’. We feel safe when we are recognised and feel like we are part of a group where we ‘belong’. Conversely, self-esteem and self-worth drop when we feel unrecognised or rejected. 

Fascinatingly, Professor Rippon described how studies have proven that these negative feelings are not just psychological – brain-imaging shows that such feelings activate the same parts of the brain as physical pain. So, when we feel rejected it’s not just our emotions which are hurt, these experiences are inflicted on us as if we were in physical pain.

Perhaps most significantly, these processes are active from childhood. From a young age we are constantly seeking out belonging – choosing to connect with groups where we belong, and rejecting those where we don’t. So far, so fascinating. But how does this affect the way brands should act? 



The issue of brands doing more to foster greater diversity and inclusion is a topical one, with the majority of the marketing industry believing that increasing diversity and inclusion is the right thing to do. All too often, however, the reasons behind this can be seen as superficial. 

For example, a quick review of recent reports on diversity and inclusion explains it as being due to the growing expectation among consumers, particularly those in younger demographics, for brands to be perceived as authentic or to better reflect wider society. 

While these explanations are salient, they don’t necessarily get to the deeper, underlying insight around the added value that tackling diversity and inclusion can unlock. Instead, Professor Rippon’s research tells us that fostering a sense of ‘belonging’ among consumers is vital for creating a sense of safety and boosting self-esteem. 

In the world of cognitive neuroscience where, as Professor Rippon tells us, our brains continually make ‘Go’ and ‘No Go’ decisions, brands that are built on belonging are more likely to build positive emotional connections and stimulate ‘Go’ actions. In short: there are powerful commercial reasons, as well as important social ones, for ensuring your brand is inclusive. 

This is a point neatly made by another of our Brain Bar 10 speakers, Nicola Dean, Shopper Insight Lead for Northern Europe at Colgate-Palmolive. Nicola observed that:

“Globally there is so much diversity, but you wouldn’t necessarily get that from looking at many adverts out there today. There are many brands that need to move away from this “one idea” of perfection, or this idea of societal norms. Our equity campaign talks to underrepresented, often overlooked individuals with the common thread that your smile is your strength. We put the emphasis on your smile, not the idea that there is only one type of perfect smile.” – Nicola Dean – Shopper Insight Lead for Northern Europe at Colgate-Palmolive.

 Having battled with the legacy of demographic screening, including limitations around gender, Nicola concludes: “Toothpaste is a gender agnostic product. If you have teeth or skin, I want to speak with you. Why were people over 65 being screened out? Why could you only be male or female? The rest doesn’t really matter!” 

These are all important insights from the day-to-day reality of ensuring a sense of inclusion and belonging is being designed into brands’ marketing outputs from the start of the planning process. But what practical steps can brands and their agencies take to kick start this transformation?



Professor Rippon’s work raises important issues for brands and marketing professionals which we believe should be explored in greater detail. Here at the Human Understanding Lab, we use neuro- and behavioural science to get to the heart of human decision-making and behaviour. It means we can identify how brands and their agencies can get better at improving society as well as delivering more powerful marketing outcomes:

·      It’s not just a Gen Z thing – it seems true that younger demographics value authenticity from brands, but whatever the age, neuroscience tells us that consumers’ brains are wired to feel the need to ‘belong’. To get diversity and inclusion right based on deep human insight, brands must ensure their adoption covers all demographics.

·      Focus on common denominatorsWhile any successful creative platform should be distinct and say something meaningful about the brand, it should also strive to be as inclusive as possible. Even with mass market consumer products there are opportunities to be inclusive. Finding and focusing on features common to everyone – physical attributes, values or emotional states – can help create a shared sense of belonging across diverse audiences.

·      Use campaign activation to be inclusive – Beyond ensuring your brand platform is inclusive and enables a sense of belonging, think about how your creative and media activation can target the right assets and messages to the right consumers. The growth in personalisation at scale and sophisticated targeting options present opportunities for brands to use media as a tool for driving inclusion.

Professor Rippon’s work acts as a call to everyone in marketing. We need to recognise that cognitive neuroscience reveals the fact that deep down our ‘social brain’ makes us highly attuned to the world around us. 

This makes it all the more vital that we are aware of how our brand is presented – from its culture and public portrayal; the assets and stimuli we create, to the messages we launch and the language we use. Ensuring these all foster a sense of inclusivity and belonging means we can not only help enrich society, but also make sure that our brands build stronger emotional bonds with consumers.


This article was written by Dr. Simon Collister, Director of Human Understanding Lab. To get in touch please contact