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From The Art To The Science Of Emotional Branding

Two years after a ship called the HMS Beagle completed its circumnavigation of the globe, its star naturalist found himself distracted from his writings about the species he had observed. Charles Darwin was in love, and the object of his affection was his cousin Emma Wedgwood.

In trying to decide whether to propose marriage and being of a scientific disposition, Darwin filled two pages of his notebook with the pros and cons of marriage. In a document that is now preserved at the University of Cambridge, he weighed such prospects as “female chit-chat” with a “nice soft wife on a sofa” (remember, this was the 1830s) against “banishment” from London were Emma not to take a liking to the city. Darwin had no scientific algorithm to help him resolve this choice, and in the end emotion guided his choice to marry.

The choices we make every day, while not all as consequential as marriage, follow a common decision-making process—one that is more instinctive and impulsive than reasoned and deliberate. Generations of marketers have been trained to craft messages that showcase the unique value propositions of their brands to draw a sharp contrast against competing offerings.

But today’s winning brands secure their positions based on a natural “feels right” connection with the consumer. To wit, in 2011 Daniel Kahneman popularized the idea of an emotional actor’s “fast thinking” trumping a rational economic decision maker’s “slow thinking,” and Richard Thaler shared the limelight this year as the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on behavioral economics.

It’s not that the marketing world has been oblivious to emotion. The lost puppy in from the rain, Christmas cheer around a shared Coca-Cola, the thrill of a BMW taking a hairpin bend—these are all indisputable nods to emotion. But marketers have infused emotion primarily as an art form, a feel-good veneer atop creative expression.

An emerging science of emotion, however, has added much more texture to this area, which in turn has increased the potency of emotion-led marketing and branding strategies. For example, in a Forrester case study, we showcase the work that Honda has been doing with Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience to use eye tracking, facial coding, and electroencephalograms to measure emotional activation and optimize the effectiveness of its advertising creative.

Emotion isn’t limited to advertising creative either; it must pervade every aspect of a brand. The emotional connection is the primal pull of a great brand—the kind that makes you walk a mile in the freezing rain past a McDonald's and a garden-variety coffee shop for a $5 Starbucks latte. Awareness and relevance can make brands strong and big, but it’s the emotional seduction that makes brands great. Intuitive CMOs have long built brands that created emotional connections at every customer and prospect touch point.

Despite the importance of emotion, the science of traditional brand measurement has shied away from quantifying emotions, instead keeping to safer territories of awareness, consideration, preference, and various measurements of satisfaction. At Forrester, we designed a quantitative brand framework to capture the power of emotion. In our model of “brand energy,” which we think of as a brand’s power to influence consumer choice in its favor, we found that emotion accounts for about half of a brand’s energy.

As we probed the emotional activators of choice, three emotional territories leapt to the forefront as the most potent. First, the best brands made a commitment to work in the best interests of the customer, to be an ally, to be on their side. Second, they brought this commitment to life with service that was not merely efficient but also warm and empathetic. And third, the best brands mobilized the first two territories to bring to market an offering that was unique—what marketers know as differentiation but with the added texture and clout of emotional activation.

Brands including USAA and Nordstrom occupy these three emotional territories with panache, crafting a brand experience that sets them apart from their peers. Customers drive an extra 10 miles to Trader Joe’s despite a limited inventory compared with most grocery stores, and they pay a premium for a Patagonia jacket that stands for more than outerwear. They do so not because these brands are big but because there is something beautiful about how they have created a force of attraction, an energy, that draws their customers closer.

We’ve come a long away since marketers measured the effectiveness of brands by sketching out a rudimentary funnel that spanned awareness to action. Today’s CMO has lost none of the rich creativity and intuition that has always infused the best brand marketing; what she has added to her toolkit is a rich new understanding of the science of marketing spearheaded by the likes of psychologists and social scientists. And she has added a bevy of technologies that peek into the erstwhile impenetrable human mind in an attempt to decode some of our instincts and impulses that draw us toward some brands and away from others. The art of creativity has melded with the science of decision making to provide CMOs a formidable marketing arsenal.   

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