Emotion and Brand Relationships

Recently I’ve been studying the papers of Dr. Robert Heath. Of particular interest is his terrific exploration of brand relationships: how they’re strengthened by emotion and, to a certain degree, weakened by attention. It’s why I probably like this:

The common assumption is that advertising works best when it delivers a rational message that tries to persuade and change beliefs. Most advertising models here in the US are underpinned by this approach.

But when we think about the brands we love, and the marketing that, over time, has gotten us to the point of love, do we recall the individual messages along the way or is it more of the total feeling?

The work of interpersonal communication psychologist Paul Watzlawick found that it’s more of the latter. Emotion is the content that primarily endures, not the rational points. Thinking about The Home Depot, for instance, we remain excited about the possibilities of home improvement far longer than we’re able to recall the featured products we saw in the ad.

The first reason emotion works in this way is through the “Reinforcement Model”, which was originally coined by Andrew Ehrenberg in ’74 but I came to understand the principle more recently through Godin’s writing when he talks about worldviews. The Reinforcement Model says that it’s far better (and more successful) to reinforce the current worldviews of the audience than it is to try and create new ones or change someone’s mind.

PUMA did this beautifully…

We gravitate to the emotions that we want to experience ourselves when we’re interacting with the product.

And here’s another interesting thing about emotion and communication from Dr. Heath’s papers:

“Every communication has a content and a relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication.”

The metacommunication is the nonverbal stuff that goes along with the message. How important is that? Watzlawick’s research on interpersonal communication between couples found the following:

“When relationships between couples were on the verge of collapse, the “communication” was often perfectly reasonable and sensible, but it was the metacommunication that was causing the breakdown. In other words, although people were saying good things, the way in which they said them was causing friction and negativity. They found that by correcting the metacommunication they could often repair the relationship rift, even when damaging and negative things were occassionally said.”

It’s how we say things that builds relationships. And I think this is true for brands just as much as it is for people.


For years I’ve maintained that one of the most important items on any creative brief is the “Tone”. But it’s usually just glossed over. Often we see a collection of non-defining, easy-to-approve words in the tone, like, “approachable,” “spirited” and “fun”. These typically aren’t very helpful or ownable. Tolstoy wrote once that the more vague a definition of a word the more often we use that word and with greater confidence since we assume everyone knows what we mean.

When it comes to tone we can be so much better! I once saw a creative tone that was “not James Bond but Jason Bourne.” How great is that? Very visceral. Identifying a unique and consistent tone is paramount because it’s the metacommunication that maintains the positive customer relationship.

I would love to see the tone on the Skittles briefs…

I’d also like to see the tone that Johnson&Johnson has been working from…

So with the correct tone we’re almost done.

But here’s the next dynamic: How much attention do we want the audience to give? This is sort of a trick question… we want them to give a lot attention, but we don’t want them to know that they’re doing so.

A 1989 study by Robert Bornstein confirmed that the less aware we are of the emotional elements in advertising the better the ads are likely to work because the viewer has less opportunity to rationally evaluate, contradict and weaken their potency.

This is why storytelling is so important. When we see “Write the Future” we get wonderfully lost in it. We’re not questioning why it’s happening which is good because, of course, rationally, it’s impossible. But we’re totally absorbed with what the brand is saying…

Emotion reinforces our worldviews and then establishes how the brand manages a successful, ongoing relationship with us.

Sounds good.

But what happens to the logical sales points that also need to be advertised?

They’re still very much a part of a brand’s plan, they just need to go in their optimal places. And that’s a post for another day. But in the meantime, from Dr. Heath:

“Of course, the opposite is the case with message-based information processing communication, where more attention will provide more recall and more persuasion. Advertising that has the tactical aim of communicating factual information (i.e. product improvements, promotions, prices, etc.) will benefit from more attention, because that way you remember better what the message is.

So this raises something of a dilemma for the issue of engagement. Advertising that needs to get a factual message over works best if high attention is paid. But our evidence shows that if advertising wishes to build strong brand relationships, it needs to incorporate high levels of emotional content, and this emotional content will be most effective if less attention is paid to it.”

There are times to get lost in an emotionally-forward brand message. And then there are times to get right to the point. Both need to be done. The wisdom and success comes from knowing when to do each and build them both into the master plan.

[ originally posted on Campaign Planning ]
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