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Marketing Brand Strategy Emotion

From Nike to Cadbury, smart brand strategy is about emotion

By Kate Eggleshaw | Head of Strategy



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August 17, 2023 | 8 min read

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but often our primary drivers turn out to be emotional. Here, Definition’s Kate Eggleshaw argues that smart brand strategy is emotive brand strategy.

Eggs in a box, with faces drawn onto them depicting an array of emotions

Brand strategy: all about breaking through the hard shell of rationality to the soft center of emotions? / Tengyart via Unsplash

Emotionally engaged customers are twice as valuable as those who are simply highly satisfied, and up to 95% of purchase decisions are emotionally driven.

It’s no surprise, then, that we’ve seen the fight to win customers’ hearts (and not just their minds) ramping up. From Nike to Coca-Cola, and Apple to Patagonia, you don’t have to look far to find big brands that thrive on emotional connection.

Despite its clear commercial benefits, attempting emotional connection is a strategy that should be approached with caution. Done well, it can be a powerful tool for strengthening customer relationships and engaging your teams, driving towards a ‘why’ that’s so much bigger than profit. Attempt it without credibility, though, and your efforts will fall flat.

A tale of two brands

Take Cadbury and Pepsi: two brands whose communications have attempted to drive emotional engagement with customers, with famously mixed results.

Cadbury’s drumming gorilla campaign was a masterclass in reigniting emotional connection. Following a salmonella scare, this campaign reminded customers of the sense of ‘joy’ and ‘nostalgia’ that had long been associated with the Cadbury brand, driving a 10% increase in sales despite the absence of product in the campaign. By skilfully, and subconsciously, redirecting customers to their previous positive associations, Cadbury was able to grow consumer confidence with credibility.

Contrast this with Pepsi’s infamous ‘Live for Now’ campaign. The brand attempted to carve out purpose and emotional connection by “projecting a global message of unity, peace and understanding” in a space where they had little understanding, no track record, and no credibility. It backfired in a dramatic way.

So, how do emotive brands drive commercial success as Cadbury did, and avoid that Pepsi mistake?

1. Start with the customer

As people who work with brands day after day, we can easily forget that the customers we’re targeting don’t care (or even think) about the brands we work with in the same way that we do. They care about themselves, their loved ones, and the goals that they want to reach. To really connect with them, you’ll need to gather insights that help you understand the emotions driving their decisions, and then appeal to these consistently.

Experts have identified ten high-impact emotional motivators that significantly affect customer behavior across all categories. They range from the way that people wish to be seen (“I want to stand out from the crowd”) to the way that they want to feel (“I want to feel a sense of thrill”).

Emotive brands build connection by putting the customer first. They identify the motivators that matter to their customers where their brand can play a credible role and then make sure that they help customers feel that way in, or about, themselves – time after time.

2. Have purpose, but make it relevant

Brand purpose is often seen as a tool for driving emotional connection with customers, and many brands now understand the importance of standing for something meaningful.

However, when brands mistake purpose for being about noble cause, rather than the ‘why’ at the heart of your organization, it can lead to action that lands as inauthentic, irrelevant, and arrogant (see Pepsi, or the more recent backlash against NatWest/Coutts and allegations of ‘corporate moralism’…).

Strong brand purpose is a direct and relevant extension of your products and services, and weaves consistently through your operations, as well as the customer and colleague experience you deliver. It also puts your customer first. Remember, it’s all about their emotional motivators, and how your product or service can meet them.

Nike’s brand purpose is a brilliant illustration. “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. *If you have a body, you are an athlete” is credible, relating directly to the brand’s products. It powerfully speaks to its audience’s emotional motivators and identity, and sets a clear direction for the customer and colleague experience that it delivers.

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3. Keep your promises

Simple as it may sound, the key to delivering an emotionally connective brand is to do what you say you do. It might feel obvious, but when brands fail to deliver on the promises made in their communications, customers become disconnected and trust – that valuable foundation of deeper relationships – evaporates.

Your communications are just part of the mix. Whether it’s the decisions you make, the way you operate, the experience you deliver to customers and colleagues, or your products, absolutely everything that your organization says and does, internally and externally, must be aligned to your brand.

Emotional connection with customers can be a dauting, high-risk strategy, but it’s proven to deliver high rewards. Consistently deliver on a credible promise that speaks to the real emotional motivators of your audience and you’ll establish strong, long-lasting customer relationships that your competitors will struggle to break.

Marketing Brand Strategy Emotion

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