Spending Money to Build an Emotional Connection With Your Brand Won’t Build Market Share
Lots of marketing experts these days are out there talking, blogging and writing about building emotional connections. You can’t go to a marketing conference, peruse a business bookshelf at Borders or Barnes and Noble or pick up AdAge or Brandweek without hearing, seeing or reading something about building emotional bonds between buyers and brands.
“Do what Marlboro has done for almost have a century!,” they cry; “do what Starbuck’s and Harley and Apple have done for a decade” “ do what McDonald’s and Coke and Saturn are doing right now with their “loving it, “open happiness” and “drive the other guys, then try us” campaigns.
This is all bunkum. Follow the lead of the “e-motor heads” and you’ll drive your brand over the cliff.
There is not a brand in America that has been created and sustained with a pure emotional promise. “Emotional branding” is a rallying cry for thoughtless, lazy ad execs living the unexamined life. Marlboro was launched the second time around (remember it was first introduced as a woman’s cigarette) as a manly man’s brand with lots of emotional connections. But it was and remains a great tasting cigarette packaged in a manly box that men (and women) enjoy to this day. Starbucks is heading south not because of emotional disconnects but because of product, service and pricing problems. Harley is struggling despite a strong image fostered I might add by its owners and riders not by advertising. And Apple? Apple has introduced one great product after another throughout its history. Its emotional connects are grounded in product innovation. Its advertising is all about innovation communicated in a humorous way poking fun at PCs.
McDonalds is doing fine but few would say it’s because of its emotional branding - it's about lots of new products and discounted prices - and Subway, which communicates a clear non-emotional freshness and value story, is doing even better and will soon overtake Ronald in terms of the number of stores worldwide. I am particularly impressed with what they are doing with product placement. “Open Happiness,” according to Al Riess is Coke’s latest extravaganza. But why do people drink Coke rather than Pepsi? It’s certainly not because Coke makes them happier than Pepsi. People have fallen in love with Coke because it was first. It’s the original. It’s the real thing.” And Saturn’s emotional tear jerker “we're still here” aptly describes the brands current situation. It’s still here but on its way out of business.
As an aside, if you think no one in the auto industry is doing well—or could be doing well—you’d be wrong. Hyundai’s clear, powerful positioning is pushing its rivals out of the way. Hyundai is not wasting time trying to make emotional connections, it’s selling cars. All successful brands, yesterday, today and tomorrow, communicate solutions to real customer problems. Not ethereal, intangible, emotional connections.
If a successful brand was a suitor it would not be a sensitive guy telling a woman that he understands her needs, enjoys shopping and her obsession for shoes, and shares a love for walks on moonlit beaches. It would be the manly guy who tells her that he no longer lives with his mother, has just bought a condo, earned a grad degree and makes good money and would like to build a future with her. All solutions to a single woman’s problems.
Empirical evidence for my perspectives comes from a Copernicus and Greenfield study among a nationally representative sample of over 1000 American men and women, age 18 and above, about emotional connections in 50 product categories. Study participants were asked the following question: "Some people say that they have an 'emotional connection' with their favorite products and brands. They have a personal/emotional bond which goes beyond the product's obvious price, features, and quality. Other people say that they either like a brand or they dislike it based on the product’s characteristics. The notion of an emotional connection doesn't make any sense.” “Now thinking about your preferred brand in the categories listed below, please let us know whether you have No Emotional Connection at All, A Slight Emotional Connection, A Moderate Emotional Connection, or A Strong Emotional Connection?”
For all the talk—dare we say hype?—about emotional bonds, just 20%-25% of consumers on average reported even a moderate emotional connection to a brand. Less than 10% report a strong connection. The four categories with the largest percentage of consumers reporting a moderate or strong connection are:
- Cola soft drinks (39% reporting strong or moderate emotional connection)
- Beer (37%)
- Personal computers (33%)
- Ground coffee (31%)
The categories where consumers had the strongest emotional connection (the top box on our scale) were all beverages:
- Cola soft drinks (18% reporting a strong emotional connection)
- Beer (17%)
- Ground coffee (15%)
Starbucks, the poster child of e-motor head marketing, might like to know that only 24% of Americans report a strong or moderate emotional connection to brands in the coffee shop category—just 8% have a strong connection and half have NO connection at all to their preferred brand in the category.
Amazingly, less than 10% of the population on average reports a strong emotional connection to brands. In 18 categories, the vast majority of consumers report absolutely no emotional connection to their preferred brands. The Aflac duck, according to some pundits, may be beloved, but disability insurance tops the list of categories where the emotional linkage is cold—75% of consumers report absolutely no emotional connection to their preferred insurance carrier. [Aflac's new CMO was obviously on to something with his recent move to dump the duck.]
Now this surprising absence of widespread emotional connection could be because companies simply aren't doing a good job creating and channeling consumers' affections. Or it could be that the notion of "an emotional connection" just isn't as universally valid as it's believed—not every buyer may need to feel an emotional bond to the brands they regularly buy to be a profitable, loyal customer. Perhaps the need for emotional connection is a function of age or a tendency of a generation. It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that "emotional connections" operate at an unconscious, even mysterious level and can't be measured in a survey with a few questions. Or it could be a combination of these factors and/or many others.
At the very least, marketers should consider the results of the Copernicus/Greenfield study as an indication that in marketing, as in life, when it comes to relationships, talk is cheap. Whether consumers need to have an emotional bond with brands or not, the fact remains most do not report having one. What we do know, and this finding is axiomatic, brands which solve real problems are the winners in almost every product category.
Emotional bonding is not a bad thing. Ceteris paribus, it’s a nice thing to have, but it’s not the reason people buy anything from toothpaste to PCs to automobiles. At the genesis moment when buyers have to choose between brands, they choose the brand that best addresses their motivations and problems. As I’ve written elsewhere, the bigger the problem you can solve, the bigger will be the market response.
Spending money to build emotional connections is an expensive and often fruitless way to improve market share.