The Emotion Behind the Brands We Love

Smirnoff Vodka Marketing Manager Nyimpini Mabunda believes we are intimately connected to the brands around us.

“Customers define themselves through brands they use. The branded clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the drinks they consume, university they attended, favorite spots to hang out, and so on.”

I believe the same. Brands aren’t just platforms that companies use to define and sell their products. Instead, they are personified entities that we relate and connect to, entities we use to express our personalities.

My relationship with Nike is a prime example of this intimate connection. As a varsity college track athlete, I depend on Nike to help me perform my best daily, both at practice and in competition. Nike supplies my entire team with free gear that helps me sprint faster and jump higher. Nike’s ads motivate me to train harder through inspirational messaging delivered by elite track and field athletes. And with their slogan “Just do it”, Nike reminds me that I am capable of much more than I realize. In my eyes, Nike is comparable to a reliable, inspiring track coach who is always pushing me to reach my potential. Part of my identity as a track athlete is wrapped up in the Nike brand.

Brands as Your Best Friends

This trope of brands as animate objects with which we can form complex relationships has been widely explored by psychologists. But, it wasn’t always an accepted theory. Marketing expert Susan Fournier’s seminal study on brand relationship theory changed the marketing game, suggesting that relationships with brands are analogous to relationships with people. Before her insights, cognitive psychologists thought of brands as “economic sources of information” that communicated product attributes and benefits to consumers. Then, based off these attributes, consumers would use rational cost-benefit analysis to make decisions.

However, this theory left an important aspect of decision making out of the equation: the socio-emotional story of the consumer. Fournier’s research explored this neglected component, demonstrating that people actually have highly complex, emotional relationships with brands. One woman interviewed in the study, Jean, saw the brand Estee Lauder as being similar to childhood friend. She found that Estee Lauder provided her with comfort and security by evoking memories of her mother, who loved the brand. Though Jean used the brand’s products infrequently, it continued to occupy a special place in her heart (as childhood friends often do). Another woman in the study, Karen, had a relationship with Tootsie Pops that was analogous to a secret affair. She loved Tootsie Pops and would sneak them at work when no one was looking — her relationship with the candy was highly emotive and private, a relationship she considered risky to reveal to others.

Fournier proved that brand connections are intensely nuanced and emotional. Previously, marketers tended to characterize brand connections on a bipolar scale, describing them as “strong” versus “weak.” But Fournier suggested that people’s brand connections are as complex as human relationships, varying from person to person based on individual identity and experiences. She helped to refocus the marketing paradigm on socio-emotional components of brand connection rather than rational decision-making.

The Role of Emotion in Branding

This paradigm shift gave birth to a marketing tactic called “Emotional Branding.” As the name suggests, emotional branding appeals to consumers’ emotion rather than reason to create strong brand bonds by using tear-jerking storylines, emotive music, and compelling images. Sportswear brand Under Armour uses this marketing method in most of their advertisements, often showing a hero prevailing against the odds to tap into our ethos. To get a taste of Under Armour’s emotional branding, check out this ad depicting Michael Phelps’ tough Olympic journey, selected by AdWeek as the №1 ad of 2016.

The emotional branding technique has proved quite effective — in fact, the 20 most shared ads of 2015 all contained highly emotion content (think puppies, true love, and soccer stars). The subconscious and irrational mind plays a larger role in our decision-making processes than we realize, often overshadowing rational thought. Though we shouldn’t neglect cognitive content completely in branding, it is important to realize how influential affective content really is.

It seems that emotional branding, combined with some cognitive messaging to appeal to our more rational selves, has the potential to create a formidable marketing force.

Written by

Documenting insights about humanity, culture, and design. // Self-experimenter, UX Designer @ Google.

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