All The Feels: Emotion’s New Place In The Customer Experience

This is an indisputable truth in the marketer’s handbook, one that has been proved time and time again by the world’s most loved brands: Emotion sells.

From Nike’s inspiring “Never Stop Winning” spot during the US Women’s soccer team’s 2019 World Cup run, to Gillette’s controversial “The Best Men Can Be” campaign, emotion-driven ads can strengthen a company’s connections with customers—and its bottom line.

The numbers bear it out. Recent research reveals that people who feel emotionally connected to a brand deliver 306% more lifetime value, and 71% of consumers would recommend a brand they love to their peers.

But is an emotional customer experience the same as a good customer experience? With so much time, effort, and budget being poured into making audiences feel something, brands risk creating content that no longer serves its fundamental purpose—which is getting people to do something.

Tap Into Emotions That Matter

Emotional ads work when they move customers to take action, and that comes down to relevance. The world’s most heart-wrenching advertisement might leave millions of people in tears, but unless the message speaks directly to a brand’s audience it amounts to nothing more than emotional manipulation at scale.

Following the success of Dove’s “Real Beauty” sketches in 2004, every brand in the world was suddenly in the tear-jerking business. Their efforts paid off, too—the media even coined the term “sadvertising” to encapsulate the trend, which continues to inspire marketing teams around the world.  

The best ads do, indeed, tap into people’s feelings, but customers have evolved. They see through emotion for emotion’s sake and expect companies to speak directly to their needs or to a real concern in their daily lives. Nike’s “Never Stop Winning” video worked because it appealed to the passion that drives aspiring athletes to prove themselves, in addition to showcasing the US Women’s Soccer team’s historic victory.

Even small gestures, if they strike a relevant chord, can help brands build emotional equity with their audiences. In 2018, Rice Krispies released a series of Braille love notes that parents of vision-impaired children could stick directly onto the packaging of their Rice Krispies Treats. The story was not only highly emotive, it also tapped into the love that parents pack into their children’s lunches every day.

Sometimes it takes a grand gesture to establish an emotional connection with customers, especially with a new audience. Gillette kicked off 2019 with its “The Best Men Can Be” video, which saw the company reflect on its reputation as a champion of macho ideals and shift gears entirely, taking a stand against passive chauvinism in solidarity with the #MeToo movement.

The ad, however, created a divide among Gillette’s customers, many of whom felt judged and switched to other razor brands. But as Gillette’s CEO, Gary Coombe, explained, the fallout was worth it for the company’s long-term success. Gillette had been losing market share to new competitors including Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s—which continue to attract younger customers with a fresh, irreverent voice—and needed to rebuild equity with this generation. To quote Coombe, “Gillette quickly became the brand of the millennial generation’s dads.”

With its eyes firmly set on what customers want, rather than on what has worked in the past, Gillette managed to wrap sincere emotion into a relevant and timely message, and is now rejuvenating its brand with this crucial demographic.

Purpose and empathy are not the only emotions that resonate with people. Humor is an incredibly powerful ally for advertisers, which is why Super Bowl commercials have evolved into a comedy showcase, with brands paying top dollar to celebrate the lighter side of life with their audience. For example, Tide’s “It’s a Tide Ad” from 2018 was not only the undisputed winner of the night, it has become a case study for funny, self-aware creative that hits the mark. 

Know Your Audience

Digital channels have changed the dynamic between brands and their audiences. Gut feel can still inform highly effective ads, but the scale of content that brands create today requires a more scientific approach to creativity. Brands need a deep understanding of the people they are trying to reach, built on hard data.

The challenge is that audiences are larger, more varied, and more dispersed than ever, on top of which they bounce around between channels when interacting with companies. This is in large part why data-driven personalization now sits at the center of modern customer experiences.

Consider McLaren Automotive. McLaren owners have a visceral connection to their vehicles, while the company’s broader fan community is enamored with the brand and its reputation in the world of auto sport. Today, McLaren is looking to foster the same emotional response on its digital channels as its cars do in real life, a challenge the company is tackling by using customer data to drive more targeted and emotional storytelling. 

“We’re great at storytelling, but it’s rare that we combine both pieces for our customers,” said David Mattingly, McLaren’s global customer experience manager, in a spring interview with CMO by Adobe. “We need to lasso everything up and package it in a way that ensures everyone gets an amazing experience, whether they want to buy a car, see which events are coming to their town, or just soak up the beauty and power of our vehicles.”         

Using AI To Build Real Connections

Artificial intelligence (AI) has opened up new possibilities for brands using data to appeal to customers on an emotional level. This may seem ironic, given AI’s reputation as a robotic task automator, but as the technology has evolved, so, too, have its applications.

Brands and artists have already experimented with AI to create paintings, advertisements, and even films. Ad agency McCann Japan appointed the “world’s first” AI creative director, AI-CD, built entirely by a team of millennial employees. This is in part a gimmick, but the move also reflects a shift in attitude toward AI’s potential as an engine for quality creative that resonates on an emotional level. The robot’s lead creator, Shun Matsuzaka, said it’s important to remember that AI algorithms are still based on human ingenuity.

“Innovation only happens when the traditional barriers of partnership are broken down,” Matsuzaka said when presenting his creation in 2017, referring to the importance of man and machine working together to create effective content in this new era of advertising.

On this point, it’s important to remember that emotion is about human connection—it can be approximated by a bot but is always the result of hard work by a team of talented creatives and marketers.

Today’s leading brands view AI as an ultra-powerful assistant, helping them to speed up and improve the creative process. Mercedes-Benz uses AI to streamline workflows between its creative and marketing teams, helping the company to develop assets more quickly and deliver fully responsive digital experiences that automatically adapt to whichever device its customers are using.

AI also helps brands get the right message to the right people at the right time. Japan Airlines invested in the technology to better understand where and when to direct its ad spend. The airline has since seen viewability rates for its digital content jump 81%, while click-through rates have more than doubled.

These examples might not scream “emotion” on the surface, but the format and timing of an ad play a major role in determining whether it resonates, particularly for an audience that is being pulled in thousands of directions by an endless stream of content each day. Combined with a strategic approach to analytics, AI will be an increasingly powerful tool in the race for attention and engagement.

Can You Feel It?

Emotion still sells—this mantra will always hold true—but not at the expense of a relevant story or experience. By combining the art of creativity with the science of data, brands will keep finding new ways to deliver poignant messages that cut through and rouse customers into action. 

This dual focus is crucial. As we saw at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, ads can be edgy and win major awards but still fall flat with customers if they don’t resonate at an emotional level. Meanwhile, data is not a differentiator on its own. To paraphrase Bruno Bertelli, chief creative officer at Publicis Worlwide, if we rely solely on algorithms to create preference among customers, we will find ourselves in a very rational and boring world.

The real aim for brands today is to bring their data to life in a way that feels natural. “Humanizing data allows us to become more human marketers,” said Deloitte Digital CMO Alicia Hatch, speaking at an Association of National Advertiser’s event last year.

In other words, it’s time to view technology as a means to get closer to customers rather than simply targeting them more efficiently. Only then will emotional ads make a lasting impression.

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