Lose The Emotion, Lose Your Brand


Over the weekend, Tim Bray asked what I thought to be an important question regarding brands and the way consumers interact with them. In a post entitled Corporations and Emotions, he asked:

Is it meaningful or useful to have emotional reactions to business organizations?

He thinks not. He thinks it’s unreasonable and possibly dangerous to walk around hating companies like BP, Apple or even the company he works for – Google. Design values should provoke emotion; entitles should not.

Tim’s questions sparked me to ask one of my own:

If we don’t want people forming emotional reactions to us, what are we doing in social media?

Tim may be right in that perhaps it’s not ‘meaningful’ or ‘useful’ to have an emotional reaction to a company or brand. It’s not ‘useful’ for me to get emotional when I see someone on TV start crying or for me to start bawling when I watch Rudy. [“He’s so little!”] However, it is human. And it’s those human responses that brands and corporations have been playing on and, to some degree, preying on for years.

It’s called marketing.

For example, yesterday was Memorial Day.

In a few weeks, it will be Father’s Day.

In February, the world will be put on high Vomit Alert:

And, z0mg, don’t even get me started on the puppies that need homes.

They’re all examples of marketing specifically designed to play on emotion. Marketing that simply wouldn’t work if we, as humans, didn’t apply emotion to the business entities we interact with.

Tim’s right in that there has been a shift. With social media, this feeling of forming friendships with companies has been heightened. It’s been heightened because companies have walked into social media looking to ‘engage’ and ‘listen’ and ‘interact’. They create relationships, not pitches. They’re having real conversations with us on Twitter, through blog comments, on Facebook, etc. And we’re creating these heightened relationships because by now even the C-suite knows it’s in their best business interest to do so. Because unless you fall into a category where you should run from social media, creating “people” relationships betters your bottom line. People buy from people. Assigning an emotional to your brand helps turn you human.

Without it, we all become surrogates.You’d take away the whole company, the “why” of the interaction and you’d remove everything interesting about the brand. We don’t buy the breakfast cereal that’s going to make us feel nothing. We buy the breakfast cereal that’s going to make us feel like an Olympic athlete.

Brands, by definition, define themselves by the emotional aftertaste they leave behind. Is that meaningful or useful or rational? No. But, again, it’s human. You’ll have a hard time changing that.

You can try to take the human element out of your brand so that people don’t hate you, but then you’d be silencing all the people that love you. Don’t remove emotional and humanness from who you are, use it as your point of difference. If I’ve learned anything in the forming of social media, is that being hated is not to be feared. It’s maybe something to be aspire to. And really, if you don’t want people to have an emotional reaction to your company, what are you doing in social media? What are you doing in business anyway?

Your Comments

  • Michael Martin


    I am surprised you didn’t back up & explain who Tim Bray is – he is the cofounder of XML standards and now part of the Google Android team (also main writer for Google’s own Android Development blog).

    When he left Sun/Oracle to join Google this year he provided this gem on the iPhone, “It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger. I hate it. I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.”

    I met Tim at Google IO last month & said Google allows him to say anything he wants on his own personal site but beyond that he has to be tight-lipped on his personal thoughts that could be controversial such as on Apple.

    Matt Cutts said something similar as he wants to vent but knows he couldn’t get away with it publicly unless he comes up with a blog disguise such as Cat Mutts :)

  • Randy S

    Thanks for another great post. I would have one caveat with using emotion for marketing a brand, it’s not using fear as that emotion… Fear mongering and trying to scare people into using your brand is a terrible way to go about selling. I know it personally turns me off and (anecdotally) all the friends I know.

    • Lisa Barone

      I agree it’s a terrible way to sell, however…it works, which again is a testament to the power of emotion. However, it also makes you a jerk and, like you said, will probably turn people off in the long run.

  • Deirdré Straughan

    Hmm. Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t buy cereal because it makes me feel like an Olympic athlete (not sure anything could do that); I buy it because it tastes good. I won’t say I never make an emotional purchase decision, but I think Tim’s right: it doesn’t make sense to spend emotional energy (positive or negative) on a business entity. I like the product, I have good or bad experiences with the service, I weigh my opions and react accordingly. I don’t want to fall into the emotional traps that advertisers set for me; then I’d be spending money based on the effectiveness of their advertising rather than any useful (to me) criterion. Maybe it’s human to do so, but sometimes it’s good to rise above instinctive human reaction and apply some critical intelligence.

    • Lisa Barone

      I think you’d have a hard time removing emotion from purchasing decisions, even if you make a solid attempt to. Your brand is how you make other people feel. You take that feeling away, the only differentiator you have is price and that’s not really what you want to rely on. There are a million different kinds of the same breakfast cereal. There’s a reason you buy the one you buy.

      • Chris Miller

        I think it’s important to separate “customers” here – B2B is much different from B2C, and even B2C can be divided into demographics quite a bit. Consumers like to have emotional motivation, and some rely on it – but it depends on the customer, the business, and the industry. If you’re in the business of selling stray kittens and you post a commercial on Lifetime about the practicality of bringing yet another pet into your home, I think you missed the mark. Likewise, If you’re a business selling replacement drill bits on eBay, nobody really cares how nice you are on Twitter. All these customers care about is prices and percentage of positive feedback.

        In B2B, there’s even less room for emotional marketing. In BP’s case, I’m not an expert in the oil industry (although I did just move from Alaska), but I really doubt they care what any of us consumers think. Oil is B2B, if you don’t like BP gas stations you’re still gonna buy their gas from Shell, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, or whoever buys off their excess at the refinery. Obviously nobody is going to buy less gas because of an emotional decision.

        I would say that if there is emotional value to your product or service, then by all means market that emotional value, just as you would any other type of value. If you’re selling kittens, 100% of your value is in emotion – so the campaign should be 100% emotional. If your product is discount drill bits, forget emotion and focus on other marketing efforts. If you sell something in the middle like running shoes, adjust your campaign accordingly – but if all else fails and you’re not sure, focus on your customers and the rest should fall into place.

  • Chad Haverfield

    Although Tim’s comments immediately struck me as absurd, after a bit of thought, I sorta agreed on this level: most corporations the size of Google, BP, Comcast, etc . . . , grow so huge that they inherently become more like small (and some larger) governments than companies. The sheer amount of dollars pumping through, the number of players involved, and the multitude of financial interests represented, build the bureaucracy so thick that any genuine brand-related emotion the company had, gets choked out pretty quick.

    Yes, they can still market with feeling but that emotion is completely fabricated and disingenuous to what the company actually is at this point (I’ll give Apple somewhat of a pass). So, I’d rather see them as the cold, faceless entities they are instead watching them try to convince me that they feel.

    As a copywriter who specializes in tapping in to and enhancing the emotional appeal of a brand, I would much rather write for a small to mid-sized company whose structure and beliefs are still built around their initial passion and drive of vision. The emotion derived from that then leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth instead of one that tastes good up front but leaves a lingering artificial, diety effect.

    But that’s just my professional druthers. Emotional marketing works on every level and the Big Corps would be wise to use it more. I guess I’m just saying that I’m glad they don’t. In a very long-winded way.

    • Lisa Barone

      As a copywriter, I completely agree with you. I’d much rather work with a small/medium-sized site than a large corporation. Mostly because large corporations are often dead inside.

      Whether you like emotional marketing or not, it works. And it works because people DO form emotional attachments to companies. They always have and they especially do now in social media. If you tried to remove the emotion from your brand…well, I’m not sure what you’d have left.

    • Chris Miller

      Regarding Apple, at least within AppleCare, I can say they carried their emotional marketing onto their employees – at least while I was working there. I don’t think this is the case now. Like Microsoft and Google, Apple had their own unique corporate culture that really spoiled the employees. I started on as an entry-level tech support, and was promoted three times within a year and a half – mostly, I would guess, from my catching on to that culture. I was accommodated on an emotional level on par with the products we were supporting, so that I was just another fanatic-customer helping other fanatic-customers. Genius.

      Sadly, I think Apple has started blowing it by moving to dressed-up Dell computers and PDAs that take a person’s creativity away by closing the platform – exactly the opposite of what Apple was known for. Instead of “Think Different”, they’re moving to “Let Us Think For You”.

      My point here is I think emotional marketing on a corporate B2C level can work well, but it’s expensive and takes a lot of fine tuning. It seems like Apple gave up, which leads me to believe it’s probably best to stay away from emotional marketing in big business unless you’re selling kittens.

  • Amanda VanLente-Hatter

    If a commercial makes me cry/laugh/say “aww,” am I more likely to buy the product? Not necessarily. If, like Chad said, the marketing might touch my emotion but company doesn’t back it up, or like Deirdre said, my past experience with the product wasn’t good, it won’t matter.
    However, if I’ve never heard of a company, or have never thought to do business with them before, will it cause me to think twice? Sure. It is good marketing, because it exposes me to a positive experience with a company and might get my foot in the door. Whether the company can back up that one positive experience with a great service is what makes it a good business, as opposed to just a good marketer.

    • DrewGeldart

      There is no denying emotions are powerful drivers of perception and ultimately it is those perceptions that form a brand’s reputation. As you rightly point out Amanda, brands can make a good first impression, but if they fail to deliver on the experienced as promised, it leads to a poor reputation. Good business practice results from a strong brand developed at the c-suite / strategic level, and consistently activated through all parts of the business, from guerrilla marketing to accounts payable.
      @ansonwlee wrote a whitepaper “Get It Together” that uses the Dubberly Model of Brand to map our how brands connects to the customer experience. http://su.pr/2Xcu39 Check it out if you have 5 minutes.

  • Alysson

    Customer loyalty is borne of emotion. Eliminating emotion from a company’s brand development strategy is tantamount to stating that building customer loyalty isn’t important.

    Emotion isn’t linked only to a brand’s marketing efforts, but to the experience with a product or service after the decision to buy has been made. The emotions attached to those experiences have a definite impact on future buying decisions.

  • Steve

    “If we don’t want people forming emotional reactions to us, what are we doing in social media?”

    In my view, we are mostly informing, or should be, but in a social context. Twitter and blogs are a more efficient way to convey some information to some people. And I’d rather it stuck to information and left out “Ewww . . . returned from a weekend away to a broken refrigerator,” etc. On the other hand, I am struck by your comment that people buy from people, and assigning an emotion to your brand helps turn you human. This causes me to reconsider, because I agree that people by from people, and more so if those people are friends. I can probably better use emotion in my social media to make better connections. I think for introverts such as myself, though, it is harder to pull off.

    Here’s an emotional ad that impressed me. It’s from a UK campaign encouraging seat belt use. No spoken words. I bet it works better than the “click-it or ticket” approaches in the US.

  • Volkai

    It seems like this post and Tim Bray’s post come from significantly different viewpoints, and taken together add up to this:

    It is useful to a corporation for that corporation to evoke emotional reactions from individuals.

    It not is useful to an individual for that individual to react emotionally to corporations.

  • Danny Brown

    Interesting question, Lisa.

    The thing is, emotional marketing has been around a lot longer than social media. Marketers have played to our emotions through TV ads for animal shelters; through documentaries for aid-stricken countries (maybe not marketing as such, but still “selling” the need for our help); charities playing on our emotions to donate.

    Then you have the “must have item”, that advertisers or marketers make you feel less a person if you don’t buy. A certain brand of beer; a car; a vacation (try telling your wife that she doesn’t need 5-star over 4.5 stars!).

    Social media offers a few more options to play on the emotions; but it’s not the medium that’s suddenly made it all possible. Heck, I bet even the Romans sold gladiator matches on the emotions of the crowd ;-)

  • john andrews

    Before the Internet, brands were not humans and individuals did not represent brands. In B2C, the C did not get to know a VP named “Mary” at IBM, or even that there was a Mary behind the IBM brand. The consumer simply knew IBM.. the brand.

    Today we look into the brands and see the people (because they are exposed via the Internet and communications). Why do we look? Because we want to personify the corporation. We want to understand it better, maybe even own a little of its (emotional) mindshare. So now one of those people wants to remind you that he’s just him, and not The Brand, and it’s not smart to get emotional about “the brand”.

    Phooey. Welcome to 2010, in the Age of the Interwebs.

    If the corporation makes a deal with me, and I can see the people pulling the strings inside said corporation, I will hold them accountable (emotionally or whatever). Deal with it.

    If you don’t like it, stop putting yourself out there with a blog proclaiming this and that thought from you, the guy doing A B or C at Brand X. Tim says of critics “anonymous polemics leave a very sour taste”. Something similar could be said of big egos, braggards, or undersocialized geeks in many contexts. Fortunately for us, we can choose what to read (and who to ignore).

  • Andrew@BloggingGuide

    I totally agree with your post. We really cannot separate emotions from humans and emotions from marketing. We have the words love, hate, like or dislike. These are how people may feel about your brand, product or service. It is somewhat unimaginable for people to buy your product/service without feeling anything or without some feeling convincing them to but it. We are not living in a world of robots but rather within a world of human beings.

  • Sharon Eden

    Loved this post… Thank you.

    Reminded me of Karen Salmansohn from her book ‘Bullsy’ when she said ‘You’re nobody until somebody hates you!’ Plenty of wet lettuces out there, I’d rather my brand was a hot chili.

  • Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire

    It’s all about creating a reaction in the customer. If you have not done that, then you are trying to make too many people happy, which will, in turn, not sell anything.

    Whether you are using fear, sadness, loss, happiness, or any other emotion to evoke a sale, the only ethical issue would be if your product did not do what you said it was going to do.

    You cannot convince a person to buy something that they don’t want. People are so worries about beign brainwashed, but don’t take the time to think that maybe the marketer/copywriter was really in-tune with what the person really wants inside.

    It is the job of the marketer to make people’s lives better by getting the products they WANT into their hot little hands. If you don’t use emotion to get there, you are leaving a lot of money on the table.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  • Jordyn

    You’re so right…it’s the companies who make themselves accessible to consumers that have the strongest brands. Emotional reactions to commercials, whether we admit it or not, are a large part of how we view a brand. I’m usually inclined to like a product if a commercial makes me laugh. I can’t help it!