How Hackathons Can Help Brands Appeal to Consumers’ Lizard Brain Need for a Challenge

It provides them with a feeling that they accomplished something

Consumers want to be challenged, and brands that recognize that desire will see a rise in interest. Getty Images

Until recently, brand strategy centered on appealing to the lizard brain in us all, influencing our behavior to drive sales with well-known levers of manipulation: vanity, fear, pride, greed, the desire for love, safety, control and power. But brands and the consumers they court have evolved. It turns out both parties want more from this relationship than a quick 30-second ad can give them. They crave something deeper.

Millennials and Gen Zers, the digital natives, have replaced the passive viewer experience of network television with the participatory power of the interactive web. This journey has brought us full circle to our biological default mode, the state of being we were live-wired for. And while this is not the life-or-death rush our ancestors experienced on a mastodon hunt, the state of flow, of being fully present, challenged and immersed in new stimulus can be recreated today through well-designed live experiences. Forward-thinking brands get it and are designing live experiences around a phenomenon called the “hackathon mindset.”

You may be thinking, “But wait, hackathons are about programmers with fast fingers and heads filled with code competing to solve commercial problems for fame, money and love, right? What does this have to do with brands and brand experiences?” To answer this, let’s pull back a bit and look at what it is that makes us all tick.

At its core, an authentic brand believes in our potential, our desire for true meaning and our inherent goodness.

Renowned philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described our desired state best: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” That “something difficult and worthwhile” speaks to our innate desire for purpose or meaning. This is where the evolution of the marketing consumer comes in. If an attendee in a live setting is empowered to pursue a non-ordinary state of consciousness, or flow state, they can tap into their highest potential and most rewarding and pleasurable state of being. And the brand that enabled this state gets to develop a deeper, more meaningful connection with that person.

Tough Mudder competitors get this. They talk about tapping into a new value set, discovering a capacity within themselves to transcend what they otherwise would think to be impossible, all with the help of others. People helping people. These runners form a tribe built around a shared purpose. Hackers get this, too, and this analogy rings especially true given the intersection and dependence on technology. Let’s explore what a hackathon is all about and the mindset that makes it all possible.

Hackathons are living laboratories, with the hackers serving as both explorer and creator seeking to answer questions such as, “What purpose can I serve? What can I create? What can I become?” They enter a hackathon knowing they will work with people and tools they don’t know. For 24–48 hours, they will be taken out of their comfort zone and into their stretch zone. They will be sleep-deprived. They will encounter challenges and the unknown. And yet, they’re willing to sacrifice a weekend of relaxation to sign up for these events. Why? There’s two main reasons.

If the environment, tools and people have been designed and curated for optimal pleasure and performance, the groundwork for achieving a flow state is set. In this non-ordinary state of consciousness, where the mind and body are fully present, time flies and normally difficult or impossible things become easy and real. This is the stuff that makes us feel alive and human.

The understanding that by putting forth their best efforts in the spirit of open collaboration toward a purpose we collectively agree to be worthwhile will leave them as better people than when they entered. That’s a promise, a purpose worth chasing. Throughout the process, hackers discover new ways of doing things and new errors in their doing. They seek to transform perspective. To create and deepen relationships. To build and fire new synapses, form new neural pathways and expand the realm of possibility.

The hacker mindset reflects the highest potential in all of us. Enlightened brands will recognize the value of amplifying our ability to derive purpose from experience and to undertake this journey at the peak of our powers. This is a far cry from the base-level attempts to manipulate our lizard brain for profit. Brand experiences that embrace the hackathon mindset will enable, empower, accelerate and amplify the best in us. They will cultivate worthy missions and inspire collaborative, inclusive action. They will design experiences for our optimal performance and pleasure, accelerate learning and doing via new tools and knowledge and apply things we create to solve real-world problems.

This is the stuff that establishes value, and in turn loyalty, with and within the best of us. Because at its core, an authentic brand believes in our potential, our desire for true meaning and our inherent goodness. In turn, authentic consumers will seek this from brands and the experiences they create. The brands that ignore this demographic will do so at their peril. Why? Because this ideal is not just for the coveted 16-year-olds to 30-year-olds, it is for all of humanity. It is all of us.

Marc Pomerleau creative strategy vice president at Freeman.