Brands: The Power of Emotion

The savviest marketers understand that successful products appeal to the heart, not the mind

Years ago, when my son signed up for his first YMCA basketball team, I took him to the mall to buy basketball shoes. I don't know which one of us was more excited. Even though I had a sense (since confirmed) that he wouldn't be headed to the NBA, there's still something special about the wide-eyed dreams of a child.

We got to the store and began scanning the huge array of styles and colors covering the walls. Since he was only 7, I wasn't too concerned about the quality of the insole. He wasn't going to be practicing for hours on end. I also wasn't worried about durability; he would grow out of the shoes before they wore out. And I certainly didn't want to pay too much, figuring my money would be put to better use earning interest in his college fund. But I wanted him to enjoy the moment, so I thought I'd let him pick a pair he liked.

It wasn't long before he pulled some Nikes (NKE) off the wall and held them tightly, looking up at me expectantly. I have to admit, the shoes looked as if they'd make him a man among boys on the court. They were black and red mid-rise high-tops, with thick, beefy soles and that famous swoosh on the side. Much to my delight, the price wouldn't require me to take out a second mortgage. But as I reached out to inspect them more closely, I saw two words that took me aback and caused me to push the shoes toward the shelf. The words? Dennis Rodman.

What's Driving the Purchase Decision?

You may not remember the Worm, as they used to call Rodman, but he was one of the NBA's all-time bad boys. Known for his crazy haircuts and awful on-court behavior, he knew how to get face time on SportsCenter. But he was no role model for kids, and I was not going to allow my son to wear his shoes, even if at his tender age he had no idea who Dennis Rodman was.

I suddenly found myself keenly interested in which shoes my son would pick next. A whole new consideration was added to the purchase decision, and my eyes began to scan the shelves in search of a more appropriate fit. Within seconds, I found a pair of shoes named for another basketball great, Grant Hill. The shoes weren't as attractive as the Rodman version, but Hill was a model NBA citizen and that was good enough for me. I have no idea whether his shoes were better than Rodman's, and they definitely weren't as cool-looking. But I was operating in an emotional condition that completely reframed my purchase decision.

This experience may have been extreme in terms of how dominant a role my emotions played, but I don't think it was odd that they factored into the decision. In fact, making purchases based on emotion is quite normal. From the persona of an athlete associated with shoes to the warm feelings tied to a greeting card brand to the security of having all-wheel-drive (even if you never use it), emotions always play a role in the decisions buyers make.

More Sophisticated, but Still Emotional

McDonald's (MCD) was one of the first advertisers to really understand this. Decades ago, when their competitors were boasting about the size of their burgers or the thickness of their shakes, McDonald's was busy crafting emotional portraits of families enjoying moments of togetherness around a fast-food lunch. Consumers could easily accept or reject the rational claims being made by competitors, but the poignant appeals pioneered by McDonald's changed the playing field. Instead of a binary "true or false" equation, these emotional slices of life were hard to argue against and easy to embrace.

Sure, the commercials I've just described seem quaint today, and the tactics of emotional branding have evolved over time as consumers have become more sophisticated, but the underlying principle remains true. By the time I had a son of my own, I almost felt it was my duty to take him to McDonald's. That's what dads and sons are supposed to do after a little league game.

Crazy, isn't it? But that's how we're made. We're emotional beings, and we respond to emotional appeals.

That's why politicians are much more effective telling stories than quoting statistics. The statistics may be correct, but the stories ring true.

The Feelings Behind the Purchase

Too many advertisers fall for what I call the "fallacy of rationality." That's when you believe that if you just present the rational benefits of your product—the better mousetrap—the world will beat a path to your door. Sure, features, benefits, and cost/value equations enter into it, but never do they do all the heavy lifting. I can't think of a single purchase occasion that's completely rational.

I anticipate left-brain types will fire angry e-mails at me refuting that last statement. But show me a purchase made for 100% logical reasons, and I'll show you a purchaser who is proud of his rationality—pride being the operative (and emotional) word.

Keep an Eye on Your Emotions

Brands that face a high degree of competitive parity—whose ad budgets depend on what competitors spend—in categories such as soft drinks, beer, and automobiles understand the entry to effective differentiation is through the personality door. They simply don't have unique rational claims to make, so they have to win people's hearts instead of their minds. But all brands, and all products—no matter the industry—can leverage the power of personality to strengthen their appeal. It can only add to the power of a differentiated positioning, (, 10/12/07).

The next time you're tempted to treat your customers or prospects as purely rational beings, think about your own purchase behavior. Enjoy a bottle of Evian (DA) or a cup of Starbucks (SBUX) as you muse, and consider what you're doing even then.

A feature can always be matched. A claim can always be mimicked. But an emotional sweet spot is something your brand can occupy all by itself.

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