Simon Glynn, Director of Europe & the Middle East at Lippincott, sat down with Branding Magazine’s contributing editor, Chuck Kent, to discuss the role of emotion in brand strategy. Here’s what he had to say…
Q: To begin… how do you define emotion in the context of consumer/customer attitudes and decision making? What do you consider to be its key components?
A: Emotion is when customers know what they want, over and above what any objective and analytical scoring system would tell them. In this strict sense, it is not subject to reason and is generally not rational; but that does not make it either unreasonable or irrational in the everyday sense of those words. We all do it, because we care; there are some things we don’t care about, and those we can decide about purely mechanically, which is fine. For everything else, there is emotion.
In a brand context, we see three broad emotional needs that brands help to fulfill: to simplify the frenetic world around us so it is more manageable; to believe in something bigger than what is in front of us; and to belong to a group beyond our family and friends. Of course, there are also emotions around products and services in their own right — I want a movie that will make me cry, or a yellow jacket because it’s my favorite color — but these three needs transcend those specifics, and provide a useful lens for looking at brands in any category.
Q: Relative to the global brand and marketing world we must all – are emotional considerations universal, culturally specific… or both?
A: In our experience, the broad emotional needs I mentioned earlier, to simplify, to believe and to belong, are universal. Where you might go to fulfill them, though, is more culturally specific. This is not only true between brands, and between product categories, but also between the commercial world and broader culture. All these needs can be, and often are, met outside the world of commercial brands. People identified themselves with sports teams, countries, cities, and faith groups long before they used brands for cultural self-expression in the way many do today.
Tapping into emotions means understanding what matters to people in different places at different times, and how different brands are perceived against what matters. For example, luxury tastes in some western segments has turned towards discreetly labeled brands, only recognized by those in the know. This is partly to distinguish the wearer from the image of the new Asian luxury consumer brandishing their Louis Vuitton or dressed head to toe in Burberry. But the same trend has also hit parts of China, with only 9 percent of survey respondents saying they are willing to buy goods with conspicuous logos in Beijing and Shanghai, compared with 45 percent in the rest of the country. And brands may be pigeon-holed differently in different places. In Beijing and Shanghai, for example, we see high-end German car brands all over-index on “allowing you to achieve greatness,” while high-end Japanese car brands all over-index on “letting you indulge.”
Q: What is the relationship – and relative importance – between reason and emotion in branding?
A: Emotion is becoming more important. Not because the balance is necessarily changing in how people are thinking, and what matters to people. But because brand is becoming less critical in helping people with the rational part of their choice, and more critical in helping people with the emotional part.
Go back to the three ideas of helping you to simplify, believe and belong. Brands’ original role was as a stamp of quality and authenticity: reassurance that you were buying the real thing. They guarantee a performance that you can’t test for yourself before purchase. With the rise of artificial intelligence and connected devices, many of our things will act on our behalf, deciding based on a database of quantified performance. The robots won’t need brands, they’ll have metrics. Even for the purchases still left to us, we won’t need brands to simplify our choices. We already see ourselves willing to buy an unfamiliar brand on Amazon if it comes with a five-star rating. Through the objective, crowd-sourced insight of thousands of users, now we can know what the performance will be before purchase, so we don’t need the same guarantee. Because of this, “simplify” brands will become unseen commodities.
But the core human needs that have driven our bond with brands aren’t going away. Brands that fulfill other needs will be more needed than ever. “Believe” and “Belong” brands will become essential, beloved tribes and will play an even more critical role in our lives in the future.
Q: Must brands possess inherent emotional content – that is, at their strategic core, in their purpose, mission, vision – or can they effectively leverage emotion purely at the tactical level, in communications, advertising and such?
A: Emotion needs to connect with the brand’s strategic core, not just communications tactics. Engaging communications can get attention, drive recall, get talked about. Those things are valuable. In a few sectors, they dominate. That’s why the British insurance aggregator comparethemarket.com has been so successful with its contrived, but endearing, Russian meerkat character Aleksandr. This works well for an aggregator because recall is everything, and the actual brand promise and guarantee that ultimately matters to the customer comes from the insurance company, not the aggregator. But for brands that want an emotional bond that gets to the heart of a consumer, it needs to come from the heart of the company and manifest itself in everything the company does: the experience as well as the communications, the spontaneous as well as the scripted. Think about how you currently feel about your bank, cellular provider, whomever you stream movies from and your grocery store. Now think what makes you feel that way. Whatever your emotions, good or bad, I doubt they come mostly from the advertising.
Q: How can brands best understand the emotional content and context(s) of their customers’ lives?
A: There is plenty to learn from ethnographic research and immersing yourself in what customers do. Observing what customers actually do can be revealing, but it misses some big factors. One is about their motivations. Another is about the time before and the time after the experience you are focused on. Much academic study has shown that happiness can come as much from people’s anticipation before an experience, and the afterglow beyond it, as from the interaction with the experience itself.
A while ago, we researched the appeal of Dubai as a holiday destination for affluent travelers from India. On paper, it has plenty to offer — some of the world’s finest luxury accommodation and service, great shopping, a great climate at the right time of year, all accessible in a direct 2-3-hour flight on arguably the world’s best airline. What is not to like? The problem turned out to be that last part. It is so accessible that everyone has already been there already, using it as the Emirates hub airport. And a main driver of holiday choice, for this segment, is the afterglow of telling your friends about where you have been. And however good the holiday in Dubai might be while you are there, because it’s Dubai, there’s no afterglow.
Q: Are there any categories in which emotion is not a critical factor?
A: Only categories in which the choice is not made by humans (which there will increasingly be some of). But even there, emotion will be a factor if the purchasing robots are relying in part on star-ratings. To get a high star-rating, you need not only to provide a good service, but also to motivate your users to rate you which is where the emotion comes in.
Q: Does emotion function differently in B2B than B2C environments?
A: First, we need to recognize the role of brand in B2B, which is actually often greater than in B2C. This may seem unintuitive, because businesses are supposed to be rational. But there is nothing irrational about making choices based on brand.
We were able to compare the two directly a while ago, when we quantified the drivers of choice for an IT product used by both consumer and business customers. We found that in this like-for-like case, brand was a bigger driver of choice for business customers than for consumers. One way to explain this is to understand the more strategic nature of the decision. As a consumer, I could buy from Samsung this time, and from LG the next. No big deal. I am probably not going to deal with either company anyway, just use their product which I can compare on the tech spec. But for a business, it is a bigger and longer term commitment. I don’t want to keep changing brands as that would lead to a mixed fleet of equipment to maintain.
Brand matters in B2B, but is it emotional? Does it go beyond the adage about not being fired for buying IBM? For many B2B companies, we have done quantitative research to understand customers’ perceptions of their brand, and — through a correlation analysis or choice modeling — have determined the attributes that influence brand equity most strongly. Time after time, the single attribute that tops the list is “I enjoy doing business with them” — a finding we have replicated in diverse B2B companies from hi-tech electronics to commodity chemicals.
Q: What are the biggest potential pitfalls of using emotion in branding?
A: The biggest is insincerity. Emotion in branding works at a deep level, helping to forge a bond between the brand (or, better, the company behind it) and the customer. So like in any emotional relationship, you had better mean it. Plenty of brands have come unstuck by making claims to emotions that are not true to them. And these days that truth cannot be limited to the marketing department. It must be true to the organization behind the brand.
Another potential pitfall that people cite is polarization. The more of an emotional profile I have, the more some people may like me, but others not. We see this as a is a risk to be managed, but not a pitfall, as the answer almost certainly is not to play it safe and be bland all of the time.
Q: How do you see the rise of a “post-factual,” increasingly emotional environment in politics and culture impacting the use of emotion in branding?
A: We live in interesting times. This is both a challenge and a liberating opportunity for brands.
The challenge is obvious. When you step into political and cultural territory, you risk polarizing people, you risk being seen to overstep your mandate (where is the line between a Facebook brand story and a Mark Zuckerberg political manifesto?), and you may be judged in ways you were not expecting (many Uber customers did not accept the company’s rationale for why its CEO should have a role and influence in the Trump administration).
But there is also an important and exciting opportunity. Companies that previously felt duty-bound not to speak, have recently felt duty-bound to speak. I have experienced genuinely well-meaning companies dress their activities in the language of self-serving creation of shareholder value, so they were not seen as too soft. Now, many are sensing a new alignment between “doing what’s right” and what their customers want to see. Of course, there is a perverse hurdle they now face, created by this alignment itself. But overall, the open and constructive way in which some leading brands are engaging in previous taboo areas has the potential to change how we see the social role of multinational corporations. It’s still only potential, but it’s an exciting prospect.
Q: What successful brand(s) would you point to has having a particularly high emotional quotient?
A: My personal favorite, over a long period of time, has been Virgin Atlantic. Like many of the younger tech brands, they don’t create their emotional bonds with their customers by understanding and adapting to their customers’ lives. They are bolder than that, and create their own, emotionally charged world which they invite customers into. Some of their emotional outreach is blatant, the ‘Hello gorgeous’ greeting on the website for example, but much is more subtle. They introduced the bar in the Upper Class cabin not to give you a place to drink, but to give you a place to meet the cabin crew. Similarly, the spatial layout and choreography of the drive-thru check-in are designed so you first walk side by side with the receptionist, rather than meet across a counter. Their inflight safety video 15 or more years ago started the trend of putting emotional engagement in parts of the experience that had previously been purely functional, and their recent remake takes it to a new level.
Article originally published on Branding Magazine on April 28, 2017.