Emotional response

How do you build brand loyalty among the increasingly cynical consumers of today? Mark Wickens of Brandhouse WTS tries to shed some light on the concept

André Malraux (French Culture Minister, 1959-1969) was truly visionary when he stated that “Le XXIeme siècle sera feminin ou ne sera pas!” (Either the 21st Century will be feminine or it will not happen!). Malraux was right, but he did not foresee our inclination to reduce the potential richness of the values and dimensions that “femininity” can offer down to one main notion: emotionality. It seems that at the dawn of this new century, the world can only think in emotional terms.

Emotional response, emotional intelligence, emotional relationships, emotional branding, and so on. You name it: the world of marketing seems to be hypnotised by the issue of connecting to their markets “at a more emotional level”. Marc Gobé’s new book, Emotional Branding, The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands to People, aims to shed new light on this concept.

My initial reaction was that there is something strange in presenting the association of brands with emotions as a novelty. After all, isn’t it the job of designers to transcend the function of the product through a structural, visual, symbolic and semantic language in order to create an emotional message, and engage consumers on different levels? But Gobé’s definition of emotional branding helps re-focus on what the real issues are. He says: “By emotional I mean how a brand engages consumers on the level of the senses and emotions; how a brand comes to life for people and forges a deeper, lasting connection”. Although the book concentrates on the US market, some of Gobé’s views apply to British culture.

Currently, at least two key drivers demand that we revisit our concept of emotional connection to consumers. The first has already been discussed at length in the industry, namely, that consumers are not what they used to be. They have a brain and a heart, reason and passions, and are highly marketing-literate. The old tricks don’t work any more and they increasingly see through and challenge many marketing tactics. They are now more demanding, and no longer hesitate to raise their voices, either locally – a recent Henley Centre report shows the number of customers complaining directly to brands to be on the increase – or globally, through the growing visibility of the Adbusters movement (www.adbuster.org), the No Logo activism of Naomi Klein and the pressure put on mega-brands such as Nike or Gap about their child labour policies. This willingness to interact more directly with a brand is a demonstration of the growing interest in the emotional side of brands.

The other key driver is also quite revealing and underlies Gobé’s notion of “how a brand comes to life”. There is no doubt that we Brits no longer feel that brands are inert, abstract entities. But many US marketers still seek solely to understand their brand in terms of its performance: awareness scores or sales volumes, for instance. Although this information is critical to monitor the brand’s health, it cannot summarise and define the brand.

Brands have a life of their own: the anthropomorphic language we use to describe them shows their potential “humanity”: personality, profile, tone of voice, and so on. But treating brands like people is not enough. Successful brands are, more often than not, the result of company cultures. Companies where people constantly live, act and behave in alignment with the values of their brand.

It’s widely acknowledged, for example, that many service brands are experienced primarily as interactions with people. But the importance of the people behind the brand in others sectors, such as fmcg, can no longer be underestimated. When repositioning Tango eight years ago, soft drink producer Britvic created a separate and unified Team Tango internally to create and ensure the integrity of the new positioning. What emerged was a true Tango culture and attitude. People weren’t working for their brand, but with their brand.

Starbucks, Apple and Volvo are further examples of very differentiated brands that engage their customers at this deeper emotional level. They establish a true resonance between themselves and their audiences, successfully creating a unique, relevant and motivating space in their customers’ conscious and sub-conscious lives, and delivering it with integrity.

Designers play a significant role in shaping a new, softer, more emotional vision of the world. However, it is important to ensure that we don’t encourage brands to become predictable and obvious in the way they try to stimulate and pull the emotional chord. An article in the December issue of ID about the New Bland, states that youth culture is getting ever more cautious towards brands that clinically package their rebellious values to sell them back to their audience. In the new game of emotional branding, qualities such as sincerity, respect and truth are critical.

In his book, Gobé suggests that the language we use about brands and their consumers needs to be re-invented. His view is that we should swap the current glossary of the world of communication for more vibrant notions. For example, from consumers to people, from product to experience, from honesty to trust, from identity to personality, from function to feel. I could not agree more, but think that linguistic change on its own is not enough. It will take more than a semantic twist to create a true brand revolution that engages both the company culture and the consumer.

What does this all mean for designers? A brand is a complex and dynamic set of feelings and beliefs. If an alien were to walk down the aisles of a supermarket, it would only see products in boxes, bottles or cans. A brand is only meaningful when it has a special place in people’s hearts and minds. The designer’s job is to create this special place. The world today is design-led. We all know about the power and meaning of design in our culture. We are now witnessing the revenge of form over function. The iMac, the Audi TT and the Equilibrium scales all dramatise the importance of, and our need for, a multi-dimensional experience from a brand: what Gobé calls a poly-sensory experience. This is a world where the boundaries between creativity, emotion and function are becoming blurred.

This touches on another difference between the US and British markets. The shift of some UK design groups from “pure design” towards a more “total brand” territory shows that British designers acknowledge the need to help clients build brands that trigger an emotional response in consumers. But reconciling emotion and function is not enough. The final product must offer a true relevance and find a meaningful role in consumers’ lives. Trying to hide a weak product proposition with layers of bolted-on emotion won’t suffice.

Creating more emotionally-charged interactions means having a seriously good insight into what makes people tick. A lot of innovation is still needed in this area. How can we possibly create unique, salient and relevant propositions when most brands do the same consumer research and therefore end up with very similar strategic directions? Too many brands still fall into the trap of delivering what they think consumers want, and end up offering almost identical propositions.

When developing brands, designers must encourage their clients to be consumer-focused but not consumer-led. While this may sound like heresy to traditional marketers, an emotionally driven world demands that the brand comes first. International brands must be developed respecting strong cultural differences instead of “averaging” target audiences down to the point of the ultimate “bland”.

People are re-discovering their senses and are much more imaginative than we think when it comes to experimenting and challenging the status quo. Our world is about diversity and people are striving to express their differences. We must encourage brands to speak the language of different groups and attitudes without compromising their values.

Engaging consumers more emotionally is the way forward, but this is easier in the real world than in the virtual one. Gobé doesn’t really touch on how to create emotions in a virtual environment. Too few brands exist on the Web that really succeed in creating truly engaging emotional experiences. Rectifying this falls to designers, an exciting challenge for our industry.

Mark Wickens is chairman and creative partner of Brandhouse WTS

Emotional Branding, The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands to People, by Marc Gobé, is published by Allworth Press, priced $19.95 (£14), and is available on 1 January 2001 from www.amazon.com

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