Human beings have a remarkable capacity for emotion. Our ability to process and experience such a wide range of feelings is part of what sets us apart from other species. It’s no wonder that businesses use this to their advantage—in fact, it’s a tried-and-true method that dates all the way back to ancient Greece (pathos being the emotional component in Aristotle’s triad of persuasion).
Some business owners shy away from utilizing emotion in their branding and marketing for fear of coming across as manipulative or cheap. And while some emotionally charged ad campaigns do indeed come across as clunky or tone-deaf, the truth is emotion is a powerful tool you can use to your brand’s advantage.
Let’s take a closer look at why tapping into emotion is an effective brand strategy, and how you can make the most of it without being disingenuous.
Puppy Pathos: An Emotional Branding Example
To illustrate the power of emotion in marketing, let’s start with an example. In 2016, Budweiser, the beer brand long known for its iconic Clydesdales, went in a different direction with a PSA-style ad whose powerful emotional component took social media by storm.
The advertisement opens with an undeniably wholesome sight: a young man walking through his front door with an adorable Labrador puppy nestled in his arms. “Welcome home, buddy,” he says fondly, as a jaunty guitar tune plays in the background. The audience is then treated to a short montage of the man raising his puppy—playing in open fields, snuggling on the sofa, and going for joyous car rides. Clearly, this is a prime example of man’s best friend at work.
Next, we see the man walking out his front door, accompanied by a few friends, and carrying a six-pack of Budweiser beer.
“I’ll see you later, buddy,” he promises, scratching his dog’s head.
The next thing we see is ten seconds of what can only somewhat melodramatically be described as agony. The guitar strikes a minor chord as the dog lies alone on the couch, despondently raising its head at passing headlights. He whines, and text appears on the screen: “For some, the waiting never ended.” Immediately, we fear the worst… until the text shifts to “But we can change that.”
Suddenly, the guitar music picks up again, and the audience is relieved to see the young man re-enter his home in the hopeful morning light, greeted enthusiastically by his furry friend. The owner explains to the poor pup that he decided he should stay the night at his friend’s house since he had been drinking, and reassures his tail-wagging companion that he’s back home safe. We see one last round of text: “Make a plan to make it home. Your friends are counting on you.”, followed by the Budweiser logo and a hashtag: #FriendsAreWaiting.
Even though the advertisement is only sixty seconds long, it packs a powerful emotional punch. The audience experiences a whirlwind of highs and lows: the irresistible cuteness of the puppy, the tender relationship between the pup and its owner, the sinking feeling as we realize the potential impact of the owner’s night out on his innocent pet, and, finally, the blessed relief at their reunion.
But there’s more going on here than just emotional manipulation via canine. By unmistakably linking this pathos-packed roller coaster with their own logo and name, Budweiser is making a bold statement about itself as a brand. Whereas other advertisements for alcoholic beverages present glossy images of partying and revelry, Budweiser is saying that, while it certainly hopes you use its beer to fuel your good times, its main concern is with the welfare of its customers and their family members—including the four-legged ones. Even though the viewer’s immediate reaction might be, “Aww, what a sweet advertisement,” the lasting implication is, “Budweiser is the beer brand that cares about you and your loved ones.”
Why Emotional Branding Works
Taking advantage of human emotion in marketing can do wonders for building a brand’s loyalty. After watching the aforementioned ad, even if you had never tried Budweiser beer before, you might be inclined to pick up a six-pack over a competing brand the next time you’re at the store, because you’d remember the cute puppy and important social message associated with the name. Meanwhile, longtime Budweiser drinkers will feel validated in their choice of beer, and will continue to support the brand.
Memory plays a huge role in emotional branding. Countless scholarly studies show that memory and emotion are linked—humans are more likely to clearly remember situations associated with extreme emotions. Similarly, if an advertisement or brand campaign strikes an emotional chord with you, chances are you’ll remember it for years—and you may be more likely to buy from or engage with that brand. A single advertisement that effectively utilizes emotion can create an ROI that lasts for decades.
Methods For Making Your Brand Connect Emotionally
Now that we know that emotional marketing works, let’s take a closer look at specific strategies you can use to make sure your brand establishes an emotional connection with your audience.
Storytelling is humanity’s oldest oral tradition, dating back thousands of years. We tell stories to our friends and our loved ones, to strangers we meet, and to the world at large.
If you’re building a brand, you can take advantage of the power of stories and immersive storytelling to help your brand connect with your audience. Marketing pro Donald Miller developed a wildly successful framework for turning your brand into a story, with your customer as the hero. But don’t think that you need to rework your entire brand structure to take advantage of humans’ love for storytelling.
Take the Budweiser ad, for instance. In just sixty seconds, we were given a full, character-driven story, from its origins (the man arriving home with his new puppy) to its development (the man raising the puppy and bonding with his dog) to its main climactic conflict (the man leaving his dog to party with his friends) to its satisfying conclusion (the man returning home safe and sound to his pup). The story was extremely simple, yet compelling enough to linger in the minds of its audience.
Some brands engage in a longer story strategy, complete with recurring characters. Allstate Insurance’s “Mayhem” advertisements are a great example of this—actor Dean Winters is so recognizable for his Mayhem character that, from the moment the audience sees his face, they can be sure they’re about to witness some suburban catastrophe, bookended by the catchphrase “Be better protected from mayhem like me.” These repeated, structured ads are effective because they capitalize on our preference for predictable story arcs.
Whether it’s a one-minute ad or a consistent campaign with a recurring character, associating stories with your brand is a powerful way to emotionally connect with your customers.
All branding and marketing goes back to one simple question: What is it that the customer wants?
The obvious answer is, of course, that they want whatever product or service your company offers. But there’s usually a deeper, emotionally driven motivation behind their desire to purchase.
Motivation and emotion are closely linked in that we tend to make decisions—and purchases—that we think will result in positive emotions such as happiness, satisfaction, or relief. In fact, when people respond to your brand emotionally, they can even be psychologically more inclined to make a purchase, since emotion and motivation register in the brain differently than regular cognition. So, if you can tap into the emotion behind your customers’ motivation for purchasing, you’ll have access to a whole slew of new strategies.
Say you run a financial advising business. It’s safe to assume your clients want help organizing their money—but why? Is it because they’ve accumulated heavy debts over the years they need to pay off? If so, you’ll know to create advertisements and other materials around the financial freedom and higher credit scores that come with becoming debt-free. Or maybe your target audience is family-focused, and wants to save money for their parents’ retirement or childrens’ college education. In that case, your branding should emphasize the rewards of creating generational wealth and financial security.
For those of you with products, this example of a company that makes and sells vegan leather goods illustrates how you can use this concept. Obviously, your customers want to purchase synthetic leather products—but why? Is it because they are concerned with animal and environmental rights? If so, you’ll know to create advertisements and other branding materials around themes of sustainability and eco-consciousness. Or, maybe your audience wants a cheaper alternative to genuine leather, in which case you can focus your branding on your product’s affordable price point.
As we’ve said, the Budweiser advertisement took a different approach from standard alcohol branding, which assumes that audiences are mainly motivated by having a good time. Instead, Budweiser created an ad that spoke to its customers’ desire for an empathetic and responsible brewing company—and it certainly paid off.
Gone are the days when businesses could exist in a separate sphere from politics. Over the past few decades, it’s become increasingly common for brands to align themselves with sociopolitical causes and to speak out against perceived injustices. While the trend perhaps speaks to a growing sense of social responsibility, it’s also an extremely effective marketing technique.
Customers want to feel good about their purchases, so it makes sense that they show increased loyalty to brands that openly align with and support their own social and political views. For instance, ice cream titans Ben & Jerry have long been outspoken advocates for social justice issues, going so far as to create special names and flavors to commemorate certain events (such as “I Dough, I Dough”, which was temporarily released to celebrate the 2015 SCOTUS decision to legalize gay marriage). This has contributed to massive brand loyalty from young progressives, who otherwise might reject the cartons in favor of cheaper alternatives.
But while brand activism can be an incredible force for good, it comes with certain dangers. Pepsi’s 2017 advertisement, which featured Kendall Jenner seemingly single handedly solving racial tensions by offering a soda to a police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest, was met with swift and intense backlash by audiences who felt Pepsi had trivialized serious social issues to turn a profit. Instead of feeling that they were supporting a good cause, some consumers probably felt alienated or even guilty for purchasing Pepsi products—and that’s the last thing you want your customers to feel.
So, how do you use your audience’s capacity for emotion to your advantage without feeling insincere? The key is to always stay true to your brand’s values, no matter what. It should be clear from every piece of your marketing what your company thinks is most important.
Not only does this help gain your audience’s trust, it attracts the customers who are the best fit for your brand. Even before its advertisement with the puppy, Budweiser had branded itself as a respectable brewing company that valued tradition and stoicity, as demonstrated by their stately Clydesdales and often patriotic imagery. Budweiser certainly isn’t interested in attracting customers who will try to drive home after a night of drinking, and its emotional advertisement reflected that. Ultimately, the company’s emotional appeal allowed them to make a deeper, more lasting connection to their audience.
So, when designing or updating your branding, consider what emotions you want your product or service to evoke in your audience. You might go so far as to specify your brand’s core emotions—how you want your audience to feel during every step of their journey with you (for extra clarity, try designing them alongside your brand’s core values). Tapping into your brand’s emotional side can have a major impact both on your bottom line and on your overall brand vision.
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About Miss Details
Founded by Tanya Gagnon in 2004, Miss Details is a full-service branding and design firm which helps entrepreneurs and companies launch, adjust and reinvent key aspects of their branding and business marketing strategy. With a background in all aspects of interior and experiential design and a passion for data-backed design, Tanya leads the Miss Details team to guide her clients through everything from a refreshed website to a full rebranding, helping them put the pieces together to create a consistent, authentic, unique brand image.