Creative Thinking

What the Psychology of “Flow” Can Teach Us about Brand Storytelling

By Nicola Brown on March 17, 2016

Have you ever been so absorbed in something that you've lost track of time?

Maybe it's your favorite book, a page-turner that keeps you up at night in a swirl of emotion and ideas long after you should be asleep. Maybe it's playing the piano, being surrounding and absorbed by the sound and striving to get a little further with your beautifully complex sheet music. Maybe it's hiking, feeling the rhythm of your boots as they climb higher up the mountain, one gratifying step at a time.

In all these experiences, you've found what psychologists call "flow."

What Is "Flow," and What Does it Have to Do with Happiness?

Psychology tells us that we are happiest when we become so absorbed in something that we lose ourselves to the "flow" of the moment. Another way to describe it is being "in the zone." But this is no superficial or fleeting definition of happiness. Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that the kind of happiness we experience in the flow state is a deep sense of satisfaction that eating a whole box of cookies just doesn't tap into (sorry).

Csikszentmihalyi describes flow like this:

"Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Here's a great crash-course in flow:


Csikszentmihalyi explains that there are two important conditions for achieving flow:

  1. The challenges of the activity must be equally matched to the skills of the person engaged in it.
  2. The activity must have clear goals and provide immediate feedback about progress.

The flow graph shows that only when there is high challenge matched with high skill do we experience flow

This graph shows what the outcome of different levels of challenge and skill are when we're engaged in an activity. With a big challenge and a low skill level, the result is anxiety. With a low challenge and a high skill level, the result is relaxation. Only when there's a big challenge and a big skill level do we enter flow.

Why Flow Should Play a Central Role in Your Brand Storytelling

The complex and properly balanced environment necessary for experiencing flow is akin to the emotional connection we try to evoke through brand storytelling. Just as we need a balance of challenge and skill to achieve flow, we need a balance of conflict and resolution to build an absorbing and satisfying story with which our audience will feel that deeper emotional connection. Combine flow with good storytelling and you get a winning content marketing strategy.

GoPro is the perfect example of a company whose brand story is all about flow. GoPro puts its customer at the heart of its narrative with the slogan "be a hero." This slogan establishes the protagonist of the story, you, and then sends you on a compelling visual adventure through the "flow" moments of your life. GoPro relies on aspirational, goal-oriented messaging like "This is your life. Be a hero" and "Epic. Inspired. Engaging." These are all adjectives you could use to describe the sensation of being "in the zone," or in a flow state. In tapping into the emotional connection we feel in flow, and putting that feeling for its own sake at the center of its marketing strategy, GoPro accesses a deep level of brand satisfaction.

Let's take a look at how this works:

Some recent scientific findings regarding flow shed light on the depth of this emotional connection. A recent study in the International Journal of Advertising showed that experiencing flow while gaming (an environment where an individual is immersed in a good story) contributed to better memory of brands and more positive brand attitudes for in-game brand placements.

Why? The researchers explain that the effects of flow mean that players are intrinsically motivated to pay attention to brands that fit seamlessly and prominently within a compelling story. They also point to the positive effect that an increase in focused attention in the flow state has on memory for a brand. Additionally, as flow produces a rather unique and powerful feeling of deep enjoyment and intrinsic satisfaction, that positive feeling gets transferred to in-game brands too, even ones with subtle placement.

In a nutshell, feelings of flow can boost the power of good brand storytelling.

Feelings of flow can boost the power of brand storytelling

Where Will Flow Take Us?

I predict imminent technology advances like virtual reality will change the content marketing landscape yet again. Flow experiences are set to become much more central to compelling storytelling strategies through the use of increasingly immersive content environments.

Next time you're designing a content strategy or brainstorming creative ideas to tell your story, consider the compelling feeling of flow. How can you help your readers envision a flow experience with your product? What kinds of multimedia storytelling can you do to help immerse your readers in your story even further?

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Nicola Brown

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at