In the past, most marketers thought that a buyer’s decision was purely rational. Or, what’s love go to do with it? These days, however, marketers know that strong emotion is what builds and sustains the relationship between the brand and the buyer. This author describes why and how marketers can build that kind of relationship with buyers.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats was describing an era of political strife in Ireland when he wrote, “The center does not hold.” But he could have easily been writing about today’s marketplace. It’s not just in politics that the middle of the spectrum seems quieter than voices at either end, left or right, liberal or conservative. The same can be said of marketing and brand relationship building in particular, for over time the tradition of trying to be all things to all people to secure a broad but uncommitted mass market has begun to fray. What’s the new, more viable branding approach in a marketplace saturated with choices? It’s the need to connect to customers’ values and belief systems strongly enough to break through the clutter and create an enduring brand with real brand champions.

What we are talking about here is passion, emotions and feelings because the goal of creating loyalty is nothing if not emotionally imbued. After all, what is loyalty if not a feeling? Unfortunately, at present, inspiring loyalty is a game being played defensively as companies use customer relationship management (CRM) software to track previous purchases made, buying habits, and demographic information that captures numbers instead of the people behind the numbers, and certainly not how emotions drive behavior. What CRM does well is inform a company what customers have done. But it is not nearly as good at anticipating what they will do, including the degree to which they’re vulnerable to brand switching, because CRM doesn’t provide much insight into the target market’s values, which must be honored in order for a strong, emotionally-based brand relationship to flourish.

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate a new alternative. Instead of relying exclusively on numbers derived from demographic and usage profiling, companies can profit from a strategy that reflects customers’ beliefs because everything customers see in the world gets “bent” through the prism of the values they espouse. Thus, companies should figure out which values matter emotionally most to their target markets and then be sure to address those values.

To bring that point alive, three topics need to be addressed. The first is to acknowledge that all too often companies are both overly rational and narrowly self-centered in their approach to building a brand relationship with customers. Second, breakthroughs in brain science and the emergence of a research tool known as facial coding provide both the strategic rationale and a logistical means of bringing emotions into business practice. Third, no target market is more desirous of a heartfelt, emotional approach to branding or more frustrated by the status quo than women, who make up the bulk of the buying public.

The need to be more customer-centric

Despite the wave of business books and articles heralding the concept, very few companies are actually customer-centric. All too often, they choose the what (their products, services, et cetera) over the who (their customers). Too often, the goal of getting ahead of rivals ends up having only a tangential relationship with getting closer to customers. Instead, companies need to focus on the people they serve. That’s because those companies that do pursue a genuine customer-centric brand strategy will enjoy a significant advantage as a result of greater emotional equity, and that will drive sales. Yes, be true to the essence of the brand, but at the same time be forever on the move, proactively understanding and mirroring the target market well enough so that the company will become and remain closer to that market.

Let’s explore this who versus what dichotomy more fully. Customers are the who of brand strategy. A solid, self-sustaining strategy mirrors customers’ preferences. Having such a strategy entails speaking to customers on their level – who they are and associate with, what they do and value. An adept “mirror” brand drives an emotional connection so deep that customers no longer think about what to buy. They simply buy the brand that makes them feel comfortable, happy, proud and successful.

In contrast, a company with a what brand strategy focuses on what kind of functional offers it has to sell. A company blindly driven by a bottom-line focus inevitably regards customer contact as mere transactions. The relationship-building opportunity that could exist is lost, as customers simply become a revenue stream. Customers contacted by a company with a new offer based on their transactional histories have every right to wonder if CRM represents an attempt to serve them or is merely another, more high-tech set-up for pitching them.

Done correctly, brand loyalty is more than a barrier to competition or a price-booster and profit-generator. Why? It’s because brand worth literally becomes internalized and accepted as an extension of the beliefs and values of its loyal, hard-won constituency. Trust and faith add intensity to the quality of branded offers, making them less subject to erosion. Customers buy brands that provide emotional reinforcement, notably pride, in who they are and the decisions they make.

Thus, customer beliefs and brand equity go hand-in-hand because both are concerned with the long haul. They’re about staying power. Core beliefs are built on core emotions, the templates that drive business outcomes. Forget about changing beliefs. A brand makes headway in the marketplace to the extent that it ties into beliefs and avoids what isn’t credible or relevant. How can a company know that its approach is on track? By measuring customers’ core emotional responses, thereby going beyond a factory-oriented mindset that focuses on production quotas and downplays or simply disregards the emotional angle so essential to connecting with customers.

While truly reaching the target market is vital, consider the difficulty that inward-looking companies have communicating the essences of their brands. Mission statements often prove to be companies talking to themselves; positioning statements aren’t much better. Without an understanding or focus on customers’ beliefs, how can a company make a meaningful, lasting connection with its target market? Even when a company is on the right path emotionally, how can it know for sure if it relies only on the rational, verbal input from its research when branding is primarily emotional in nature?

In the following example, Sensory Logic tested a resort and adventure travel company’s vision of what it offers by scrolling its mission statement across a computer screen for a group of subjects, one by one. We wanted to learn how the who – the target market – would actually respond. In short, we looked for when, how much and what type of emotional response occurred (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 – Facial Coding Response to Positioning Statement

The text in blue and green are the parts of the positioning statement to which test subjects responded positively. What worked? The company was on-message and on-emotion when it could credibly promise an offer of individualistic adventure that would carry to day’s end and please body and soul alike. In other words, the offer appealed to its target market when it reflected that audience’s values and affirmed the importance of their feeling dynamic, independent and rejuvenated.

In contrast, the text in orange and red indicates times the positioning statement left people feeling ambivalent – they might be encountering empty rhetoric – thus undermining the company’s positioning strategy. Meanwhile, fully half of the statement invoked no response, signaling emotional irrelevance. In short, this draft of the statement was going to need some more work if the company was going to gain real buy-in.

Measuring and managing emotions

To establish the context for how the data in Figure 1 were collected, by using facial coding to measure and thereby manage emotions, it’s best to start by first taking a step back to get the larger picture. Why focus on getting emotional data? The answer is that over the past half-century and especially during the past 20 years breakthroughs in brain science have increasingly challenged the traditional business paradigm whereby customers’ decision-making process was supposedly a matter of rational utility.

Here then is the new mental model that changes everything, and the two key steps that led to its development. After World War Two, the U.S. government funded research into brain science, given the number of G.I.’s who had suffered head wounds. In 1948, Paul MacLean discovered that human beings actually have three brains that came into existence during different stages of evolution (see Fig. 2). CRM taps into the latest brain, the rational brain. But there is also a sensory (reptilian) brain and an emotional brain. They have first-mover advantage, having come into existence millions of years before the rational brain. As a result, customers are hard-wired to make decisions that privilege emotions because of the fact that we all feel before we think.

Figure 2 – The Three Parts and Their Functions. This illustration provides an overview of the location of each of the three parts of the brain. The evolutionary function chart below it compares the parts to give a more in-depth understanding of how each part processes, utilizes and responds to stimuli. The original brain has been estimated to be 500 million years old, the limbic system 200 million years old, and the neocortex 100,000 years old.

Further confirmation of emotion’s centrality came during the mid-1980s when Joseph LeDoux explored how the amaygdala, the brain’s hot button, affects people’s decision-making process. LeDoux found that emotions shape rational thought, sometimes preclude it, and have the final say in terms of how people decide matters. This is because the neurological pathway comes back to the amygdala to, in effect, sign the check on a decision that’s been made. Moreover, as LeDoux and other brain scientists have learned during the past two decades, the estimation is that less than 1% of peoples’ thought activity is fully conscious. As a result, a business method oriented to capturing customers’ subconscious, intuitive, immediate responses is required.

That’s where facial coding comes into the picture. While the fMRI brain scans used by LeDoux and his colleagues provide crucial insights, they are also too invasive and expensive to be of use to companies in everyday business practice. The solution that is feasible enough for, yes, even the CIA and FBI to employ is called facial coding: the gauging of people’s emotional responses by means of how we all reflect and communicate our feelings through our facial muscle activity.

The origins of facial coding go back to Charles Darwin, who realized that facial expressions related to core emotions like happiness, anger and fear are so universal that even a person born blind has the same facial expressions as everybody else. Why did Darwin conclude that the face is the best place in the body by which to read the emotions? The answer is that it’s the only place where the muscles attach right to the skin, creating an unmatched degree of spontaneity that prevents people from readily hiding their feelings.

Almost a century after Darwin’s discoveries involving the face along came Dr. Paul Ekman, who in tandem with colleague Wally Freisen, codified his observations into the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). It is an objective, comprehensive method for reading facial expressions and translating them into emotional responses. Whatever the method, however, the key is for companies to supplement CRM with a way to get at beliefs and values customers hold close to their hearts.

Thus the data is Figure 1 were collected using a web cam to capture video files that are then reviewed down to 1/30th of a second, using FACS to verify which muscle activity corresponds to what type of emotional response to the positioning statement the company had created. The value of using facial coding is to go beyond the usual, rationalized, verbal input that consumers can give via a survey. As the breakthroughs in brain science make evident, it’s important to know how consumers are feeling their feelings – not thinking them— in order to build loyalty. Only through greater intimacy can companies know if their branding efforts are bringing them closer to their target markets or not.

Following the money to the female market

During the Watergate scandal, Woodward and Bernstein’s covert source known as Deep Throat famously told them to “follow the money.” If it weren’t so serious, it would be funny how often companies fail to do that as well as they could. How dominant is the female market? It’s huge. For instance, Women are estimated to be responsible for 83% of all consumer purchases, including: 80% of healthcare decisions, 91% of general household purchases, 94% of furnishing purchases, 92% of vacation expenditures, and 62% of car purchases. Today, over 30% of women earn more than their husbands. Women also control over 50% of the private wealth in America (a number certain to rise given their longer life expectancy).

At the same time, however, 91% of women believe that advertisers don’t understand them and 58% are seriously annoyed by portrayals of their gender. Clearly, there’s a disconnect. So then the question becomes: How are companies going to get better at understanding women, aligning with their values, and building a brand relationship with them built on showing respect?

Beyond a doubt, the solution lies in companies being better able to envision and act on female perspectives. In part, that solution will benefit from getting more female chief marketing officers and advertising directors on staff as well as more female creative directors at agencies. Indeed, in nearly a decade of conducting research I have yet to meet a female creative director, a fact likely to help explain the lack of emotional sensitivity too often on display.

Here’s a case in point. The following graph (Fig. 3) shows responses to a potential TV spot for a company whose offer supports the consumer electronics sector. The storyboard in question involved a jogger using the company’s offer when she was suddenly mugged. Apparently, the idea behind the spot was to emphasize the offer’s desirability by implying that it was so desirable that a man would resort to mugging a woman who had it in order to obtain it himself. Amazingly enough, test subjects said they liked the storyboard fairly well. So this spot remained in the mix of those being considered. Based on positive verbal responses, it even seemed that producing and running the spot could lead to success.

Figure 3 – Breaking Through… But Broken These results demonstrate the importance of being on-emotion. Even though the TV spot received favorable verbal feedback, the facial coding showed a whopping 0% positive response. It turns out that although subjects rationally accepted the concept of a woman being mugged to obtain a desirable offer, in their hearts they were strongly against seeing that kind of execution.

The facial coding results, however, told a very different story. For only the third time in Sensory Logic’s decade of research, a stimulus recorded no positive facial expressions. None. Zero. Zip. Even though the storyboard rated high in Impact, it was strongly negative. Translation: underneath all their rational filtering, the subjects really hated the concept of a woman being mugged. Wisely, the company didn’t take it to full production. But imagine if the company had made its decision based only on verbal, self-reported input. In this case, facial coding was essential. It provided an objective, scientific tool able to unite the agency and client’s mutual interest of staying focused on ensuring emotional compatibility between the company’s advertising and the target market’s values.

In the end, the key to remember is that branding is primarily emotional in nature, as is any relationship, including a brand-customer relationship. People need to see their deeply-held, personal beliefs mirrored in the brands they purchase. In that way, a company can build on what’s already been internalized. Customer beliefs and brand equity go hand-in-hand because both are concerned with the long haul. They’re about staying power. In contrast, CRM risks being merely about perpetuating a string of financial transactions. As such, CRM represents a half-hearted approach to knowing customers, and women in particular are smart enough to recognize that fact even if the companies marketing to them are not always willing to face up to it.


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About the Author

Dan Hill is the President of Sensory Logic, a consulting firm that helps clients understand the role of emotions in consumer and employee behaviour.