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David Kepron

Brain Food: Novelty

Why "new" is important in customer experience

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Say the word “dopamine,” and most people recognize it as the “pleasure chemical.” It is one of the neurotransmitters released in the pleasure center of the brain and is largely responsible for making us feel good. This powerful substance, also tied to addictive behaviors, gives a jolt of pleasure when you get a good deal, receive a gift-with-purchase or see something new at the store you love to shop. In other words, something we didn’t expect – a moment of novelty – can change our brain chemistry and the way we experience retail.

But more than simply making us feel good, the dopamine-producing neurons are also experts at helping our brains predict the outcomes of everyday situations. A study of the brain patterns of monkeys by Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University (“Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons,” Journal of Neurophysiology), discovered that when a ringing bell was paired with a subsequent squirt of juice in the animals’ mouths, dopamine neurons expectedly pumped the pleasure chemical into the brain.

Initially, dopamine was only released when the monkey got juice; the sound of the bell didn’t have any direct effect on the neurotransmitter’s release. However, Schultz discovered that subsequent pairing of the sound and the administering of juice began to change the timing of dopamine release.

With repeated trials the dopamine, which had previously only been released after the stimulation of juice, began showing up before the monkey got the reward itself. But, what was really happening? Dopamine-producing neurons were learning that there was a pattern – a loud sound indicated that a squirt of juice was about to come, so the brain’s pleasure center would kick into gear. Within a few tries, the monkey’s brain had made the connection between the sound and the good feeling/reward, and was producing dopamine with no reward eliciting the response.

Schultz called these neurons prediction neurons, since they could help predict the arrival of juice and, in the end, they seemed to be more interested in predicting the arrival of juice than getting the juice itself.

What Schultz determined through his experiments was that while dopamine neurons are good at predicting the future, they’re even more adept at raising a red flag when things don’t go as expected. If the monkey didn’t get the promised juice after the sequence of stimuli it had become used to, the dopamine neurons stamped their proverbial feet and shut down, sending an error signal into the system.

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This key “wake-up” signal, called error-related negativity (ERN), is thought to be a unique electrophysiological marker that reflects changes in dopamine when people make errors in cognitive tasks. ERN is the basis for noticing changes in patterns in our environment and experiences, and therefore, aids in learning.

When changes occur in an experience, like when novelty is factored into the equation, you mess with the predictions these neurons have made about what to expect. Once the brain takes note of the error it made in reading its neurochemical “tarot cards,” it begins to ramp up dopamine production. In these moments of recalibration, or learning a new pattern, the brain is bathed in feel-good chemicals.

Applying these observations in monkeys to humans, a 2015 study published by Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigenson (“Observing the unexpected enhances infants’ learning and exploration,” Journal Science) examined how babies are effected in their ability to learn when shown events that deviated from expectations about object behavior or events. This study, too, has direct application to providing novel experiences for customers in retail places.

Each of our brains are coded with what is called “core knowledge” – information that has been built into our collective DNA through millions of years of evolution. As the brain predicts what we would consider the natural outcome of certain situations, but gets it wrong, a whole neural process kicks into gear that activates the limbic system, dopamine production and, in the end, learning.

The study on babies concluded that, one, babies are surprised when impossible things happen; two, babies who saw a surprising event learned new information more efficiently than babies who saw an expected event; three, babies choose to explore objects that defy their expectations; and finally, babies can use their sophisticated knowledge about the world and about the way things behave to guide their future learning.

In every case, we could substitute the word “customer” for “baby.”  And yet, many of the retail environments we shop don’t place novelty as a leading component of customer experiences.

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If customers continue to experience things the way they always have in stores, then they're likely to say, “Yeah, I get that already,” and move on without any interest in further consideration or learning more about the product or brand. If, on the other hand, we infuse retail places with novelty, customers naturally are intrigued about investigating, learning, and ultimately, buying more.

Changes in the environment or experience – even in the smallest way – attract attention, increase curiosity and enhance the likelihood of a potential purchase. Retailers and brands can change their floor sets, merchandise, graphics, music or the entire store experience to capture the interest of the novelty-seeking brain and make shopping trips more enjoyable and memorable learning moments.

Want to better teach brand ideology or increase assortment awareness and get customers to return? Give them moments of novelty. Their brains can’t resist it and they’ll learn a thing or two about the brand, too.

David Kepron is the creative director of Little’s Brand Experience Studio and 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. His retail design work focuses on the creation of relevant shopping experiences at the intersection of architecture, sociology, neuroscience and emerging digital technologies. @davidkepron; www.retail-r-evolution.com; www.littleonline.com

Be sure to see David's session (“Design is Not a Department: Understanding and Engaging the Creative Mind in Retail Place Making“) at IRDC this year, Sept. 9-11 in Austin, Texas! For more information about IRDC, visit IRDConline.com.

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