Emotional messages trump logic, in branding and in politics

If you want to run a successful business, modelling yourself on Donald Trump probably isn’t a great idea. Even setting aside the bigotry for a second, he’s filed for bankruptcy several times and, according to The Washington Post, would be richer now if he had have simply put everything he had into an index fund in 1978.

There is one lesson that can be learnt from his unbelievable ascent, though, and that’s the power of harnessing emotions when building a brand. If you make a strong enough sentimental bond, whether it’s with voters or with consumers, all the facts in the world won’t change their allegiance.

Politicians and advertisers already know this. Mr Trump’s Republican National Convention speech was a hymn to fear, and fear – according to some studies, for example at the University of British Columbia – makes people so desperate for reassurance that they’ll form stronger bonds both with each other and even with inanimate products when under its thrall.

Trump’s other big pitch is for nostalgia, another formidable force. Remember that Mad Men scene when Don Draper is coming up with an ad strategy for a Kodak slide projector: “It takes us to a place where we ache to go again,” he says. “It lets us travel back home … to a place we know we are loved.” That ache is universal, hence the “Make America Great Again” slogans on Trump’s baseball caps.

Feelings rule in all sorts of fields – not just in politics, but in the supermarket, the boardroom and the charity fund-raiser. This doesn’t mean we can throw facts out of the window and start talking only in a furious roar, but it is worth keeping in mind when creating a social media strategy, figuring out a brand personality and even when communicating with colleagues and clients.

When it comes to viral marketing, companies can foster emotional engagement by thinking about how their brand relates to deep-seated feelings the target audience is likely to have, and linking this with a current issue or event.

One company that excels in this area is Procter & Gamble, which owns brands selling washing powder, kitchen roll and nappies. Its ad for the Rio Olympics shows a series of kids going through scary and humiliating situations, intercut with shots of them as grown-ups, facing the pressures and disappointments of being international athletes. Throughout it all, their mothers are reassuring them and encouraging them – and celebrating tearfully with them when the athletes finally triumph. “It takes someone strong to make someone strong” flashes on screen at the end. “Thank you, Mom.”

We’ve learnt nothing about any of the products the company sells during this ad, which has 10 million views on YouTube, but that’s not important; one study of ads’ effectiveness found that purely emotional branding is twice as effective as purely rational branding. Within a couple of minutes, the Olympics ad fires off a cocktail of chemicals in viewers’ brains, stimulated by fear, anxiety, nostalgia, admiration, wonder and elation. People respond to brands the way that they respond to other people. If it inspires a strong positive emotional response in them, they’ll stay loyal.

The power of emotional response is why it’s also worth having a meaningful “our story” section on a company website. It’s why companies should highlight the good work they do in blog posts, and give away freebies and advice on social media. Employees are motivated by sentiment, too, which is why it pays to “build a great corporate culture” within your workforce, as Steve Haysom, the chief executive of the Dubai brand and digital agency Omnia, advises. At his company, he says, team members are kept happy with an open-plan office, flexible working hours, monthly get-togethers, quarterly outings, and training and educational workshops.

Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learnt that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Donald Trump has an instinct for tapping into certain feelings, like helplessness, resentment and wounded pride. While that seems to be working for him at the moment, it’s a better idea to tweak the formula in the workplace and focus on making people feel joyful, inspired and empowered, so that they remember you and the work you are doing with warmth.


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