Is it OK for brands to have emotions?

Aug 10, 2016

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

Millennials increasingly demand meaning from the companies they engage with — not only those they work for, but buy from. Thus, we’ve seen the rise of companies like Toms where philanthropy — buy one, give one — is central to the brand.

I can see where Millennials are coming from. Having seen extreme corporateerism nearly destroy the economy as you entered the job market, you might not want to be a part of that world. If you’re giving your time and soul to a company that is not going to return the favor, you might not only demand the company be a good corporate citizen but one trying to make the world a better place. And it’s not a far stretch to demanding this from all the companies in your life, including the ones you buy products from.

Yet I was taught that philanthropy is a private thing. I donate time. I donate money. But celebrating my own giving seems like a really self-serving thing that is antithetical to the meaning of philanthropy.

So if a retailer has a corporate giving program already but it’s not central to their brand, what do they do with this demand from Millennials? How do you marry these different perspectives?

In an address on entrepreneurship at the Sage Summit, Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group’s founder, had the answer. He basically said it’s okay for companies to have emotions. It comes out of an entrepreneurial core — in order to solve a problem, you have to understand the problem. In design thinking terminology, you have to have empathy — and that means feeling the problem; living the problem.

Brands need to have emotions too. They increasingly don’t have much choice. They’re more often being called to take sides in things like what signs they put on the bathrooms or whether they have toy aisles segmented by pink and blue. But just like with anything else — if you don’t have a plan for the emotional components of your brand, then it’s not that your brand has no emotions associated with it. What happens is you cede the definition of your brand’s personality to others. Or it emerges by default — and the default may not be what you intended.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think it’s become more important for retailers to infuse emotion and “meaning” into their brands? How do you view the different perspectives between Millennials and older generations around philanthropy and branding?

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"Every brand does not need to stand for something philanthropic, but its core story must emotionally resonate with consumers."

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18 Comments on "Is it OK for brands to have emotions?"

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Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Absolutely! Customers don’t want goods and services. Instead, they are seeking solutions to problems and/or good feelings. This is particularly true of Millennials. They are a generation that is made up of confident, optimistic young people who feel valued and wanted. In addition, almost four in 10 Millennials agree with the statement, “The majority of companies don’t know how to market to my generation.”

Brands need to have authenticity, make an emotional connection and make sure they tell their unique story, whatever delivery platform is used.

Max Goldberg

Brands have always needed to stand for something; something more than profit for the parent company. It all goes back to the core story of the brand. Why does a brand exist? And why does it matter? Every brand does not need to stand for something philanthropic, but its core story must emotionally resonate with consumers.

Cathy Hotka

Brand marketing is all about emotion. Coca-Cola didn’t brag about its mix of ingredients, but instead sang that it would like to teach the world to sing. Lotions in a jar promise to make you feel younger. Millennials prize authenticity, but they’re not straying too far from the brand identities their parents chose as well.

Ken Lonyai

Having emotions (brands) and touching emotions (consumers) are two different things. It’s crucial to touch a shopper’s emotions and core values, but not necessarily for a brand to have emotions. It really depends on the product, brand and audience. Whatever a brand does, it needs to be authentic and not create fake emotions — a sure way to fail.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

As character is the expression of identity, which encompasses vision, comportment and presence, emotions that are expressed, supported and triggered are integral to the brand. Emotions are the key touch point in human interaction and are the essential element — the soul of living existence and inter-relationship – of alignment.

As emotional expression provokes response, retailers and brands must underpin all communications with the expression of their emotions toward their patrons and partners. And they are wise to acknowledge the sentiment (i.e., emotions) of those patrons and partners in the authentic, organic development of the relationship.

When media guru Marshall McLuhan declared “the medium is the message” he was in part pointing to the importance of message delivery to embrace and manifest the key that emotions contribute to the development of an alignment with views.

Emotions in brand expression? I’m lovin’ it!

Ed Rosenbaum

I might be looking at this through a different set of eyes, but if you have ever had the opportunity to see a Publix commercial during a holiday season you would understand why I think brands and emotions can be intertwined. They promote the emotion of family. This has been their focus and selling point for many years. It does appear to be a generational thing favoring us older folks. But who cares.

Matt Schmitt

Brands have always leveraged emotion. Increasingly, we’re seeing a movement beyond “feel-good” messaging to “do good” positioning, with brands choosing to convey where they stand on issues. Coca-Cola may choose to mostly cover the well-worn path of conveying the athletic spirit in their “feel-good” campaign during the Olympics, while Nike is running a spot that tells the story of a transgender athlete’s journey to winning a place on an elite running team.

With messaging channels and mediums being so fragmented, it’s likely that we’ll see some brands tell their traditional “feeling” messages to older audiences, while they simultaneously announce their positions on issues or talk about the causes they support to Millennial audiences through targeted campaigns. Young consumers may indeed demand more from the brands they favor with their business. Perhaps they will “ask not what a brand can do for them, but what it can do for the world.”

Mohamed Amer, PhD
Mohamed Amer, PhD
Independent Board Member, Investor and Startup Advisor
6 years 14 hours ago

Ken Lonyai is on to something here. Playing (and twisting) off of that, I see brands as reaching out and touching emotions and core values that consumers already have. A brand’s ability to connect deeply not only depends on the message and medium, but on the actual interactions that consumers experience which reinforce the brand, making it real, relevant and authentic (walking the talk).

For those consumers that connect emotionally with the brand, they will come to see the brand as standing for a value that they care about. It becomes as much subjective at the level of consumer as it is purposeful at the level of the brand.

Instead of looking through the prism of generations, brands need to cater to common affinities that cut across these mega-cohorts. Lifestyles transcend generations and engaging along such dimensions should be more effective than broad-brush painting of birth year ranges.

Ralph Jacobson

This is not a bad thing to consider whether a retailer, brand manufacturer or both. Any emotional sense permeated by a merchant/brand is one more way to make that indelible connection with the consumer. Humanizing a brand differentiates, just like people’s own personalities do. Regarding Millennials specifically, I am still of the opinion that they are NOT all alike. They will have differing levels of commitment to brands regardless of emotional content. And I believe this is true for every generation, not just Millennials.

Tom Redd

Brands must have and share emotions. I think the brand that does this best — in relation to margin gains — is BMW Motorrad (motorcycles). It is amazing what a person (like me) will pay for a BMW vs. a Yamaha. It is about the experience. The motorcycle costs $900 but it does make you feel safer and feel better than others (I have two of them). Millennials who ride are especially quickly captured by BMW. The old riders are fading and BMW is re-working bikes and apparel for the young riders. BMW — it is the experience.

Brian Numainville

Having spent many years leading a corporate foundation for a Fortune 500 company, social responsibility is something that is important to all generations but how they engage in it may vary a bit. But as a whole, people want the work they do to have purpose. And if a brand can connect emotionally with purpose, it turns into a win-win!

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
6 years 13 hours ago

It is certainly okay for brands to have purpose and all these things. But where I’m perplexed by the hype around Millennials is we seem to forget that they have restricted funds. The Millennials in my house care far more for getting products that are good products for the money than about searching around to find the brands that have these high purpose ideals.

Also interesting, the Harvard Business Review reported on research recently showing that Millennials were no different than any other generation when it comes to the values they want in products. They also were no different from other generations in the values they want from work.

Brands and retailers will find their money far better spent focusing on delivering products that are valuable to consumers than spending it chasing ways to claim it has purpose.

Anne Howe

People make most of their decisions in the subconscious mind, primarily based on emotional triggers. So if any brand — retailer or otherwise — doesn’t have a story with strong emotional resonance, it has little or nothing to offer besides the functional product. Today, that’s not enough. In the words of great company called BrainJuicer: “Feel nothing = do nothing” — and that is the kiss of death for any brand.

Jasmine Glasheen
Jasmine Glasheen
Content Marketing Manager, Surefront
6 years 13 hours ago

This comes down to market transparency. A brand has an emotion whether they want to or not. A brand’s treatment of their employees, customers and the environment leaves a footprint. My generation (millennials) knows this.

We only feel good spending if we are doing good by spending. We won’t throw down money on something that causes harm. What we will buy is something that funds a cause we care about. AmazonSmile was genius. I’m not immune. Knowing that .5% of my purchase funds the World Wildlife Foundation steers me to Amazon nearly every time.

Retailers, your company stands for something. Cause-based branding is your opportunity to determine what that is.

John Karolefski

Private label food brands are a separate category. It is challenging for them to compete emotionally with their category’s big name brands, which may trigger an emotional response in shoppers. In private label, then, it is the brand of the retailer that strikes an emotional cord, regardless of product. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Walmart do it successfully for obvious reasons. Most grocers cannot, and that is their challenge when trying to appeal to Millennials.

Lee Kent

Absolutely, and I don’t think it is a new thing. Brands have been playing to emotions through advertising for decades. The thing is that now it is becoming more important that brands actually deliver those emotions during the shopping journey.

No I don’t mean bringing tears to our eyes when we shop a brand, but rather leaving us with a feeling that you care, you are ready to serve, and we are left with a good feeling about shopping the brand.

Regardless of your age, once you have experienced that, you want it from every brand.

And that’s my 2 cents.

Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Managing Partner Cambridge Retail Advisors
6 years 12 hours ago

For Millennials, the buying decision process is more emotion-based than other demographic segments. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Brand Keys, the purchase decision process is 80% emotion-based and 20% rational-based. Developing an emotional connection with a brand also is a strong driver of brand loyalty.

Many retailers are embracing corporate philosophies that appeal to Millennials’ social values and emotions — social responsibility, philanthropy and sustainability. However, retailers’ actions should be authentic and not merely be a self-serving marketing tactic to drive more sales.

Here are a couple examples of companies that are doing social responsibility right: Warby Parker has distributed over two million pairs of glasses to people in need (one pair for every pair sold, Timbuk2’s Full Cycle Collection of bags are made 100% of recycled materials, Raising Canes supports food banks and schools in the communities they serve. I think we will see more and more retailers make social responsibility a part of their DNA, especially as environmental and social concerns continue to be a greater concern of the younger generations.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Patricia Vekich Waldron
Contributing Editor, RetailWire; Founder and CEO, Vision First
6 years 10 hours ago

Some people would not dream of patronizing a brand that is does not demonstrate a like-minded philanthropy, but I don’t know anyone who buys products thats don’t “speak” to them.

"Every brand does not need to stand for something philanthropic, but its core story must emotionally resonate with consumers."

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