At its core, marketing is a struggle to be remembered.
Today, every purchase—from a $3 toothbrush to multimillion-dollar enterprise software—involves more research than ever before. Buyers are doing their homework and consulting more sources than they could realistically compare with cold logic.
Amid so much clutter, their decisions are often influenced most heavily by the same variable: emotion.
According to consumer psychologist Peter Noel Murray, an emotionally engaged viewer is one who takes action—be it with a subscription, a social media share, or a purchase.
“In a physical confrontation, fear forces us to choose between ‘fight or flight’ to ensure our self-preservation,” Murray explained in a February 2013 article for Psychology Today. “In our daily social confrontations, insecurity may cause us to buy the latest iPhone to support our positive self-identity.”
To a buyer, Murray continued, a brand is simply a mental representation of the thing being sold. “The richer the emotional content of a brand’s mental representation, the more likely the consumer will be a loyal user.”
The inbound methodology popularized by HubSpot co-founder and CEO Brian Halligan, co-founder and chief technology officer Darmesh Shah, and others has given marketers a sturdy framework for attracting audiences by first addressing their problems. But content marketing can also be much more: a platform for nurturing powerful, emotional brand associations through storytelling.
A Brief History Of Emotional Branding
Emotional branding is a familiar practice in advertising and public relations. Edward Bernays, often called the “father of public relations,” popularized it nearly a century ago when he started applying the theories of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to affect mass purchasing behaviors. His efforts had a ripple effect that continues to this day.
In the late 1920s, American Tobacco Co. president George Washington Hill was trying to open up a potentially massive market for his cigarettes. Although limited numbers of women had begun smoking when they took over traditionally male occupations during World War I, most were still deterred by a strong social taboo against women smoking cigarettes in public.
Hill hired Bernays to address the issue, and his investment soon paid off. Bernays paid women to smoke while marching in New York City’s 1929 Easter Sunday Parade, branding their cigarettes as “torches of freedom” symbolizing empowerment and rejection of patriarchal taboos. The campaign drew the backing of prominent women’s rights activist Ruth Hale, who recruited more protesters to light up at the parade.
The “Torches of Freedom” campaign became culturally entwined with women’s rights, and it is often credited for pushing women’s tobacco use into the mainstream. In 1923, the Journal of the American Medical Woman’s Association reported that women had accounted for just 5 percent of total cigarette purchases; by 1935, that number had climbed to 18.1 percent.
Since then, many of history’s most iconic ads—Coca Cola’s “’Mean’ Joe Greene,” the Ronald Reagan 1984 presidential campaign’s “Morning in America” and Nike’s generation-spanning “Just Do It” campaign, for example—have succeeded in linking a specific and powerful emotion to a brand.
In the outbound era, brands had precious little time to make emotional connections with their audiences--essentially, the duration of a TV spot or the flip of a page. But the many touch points and continuous engagement potential of inbound marketing give 21st-century marketers more opportunities to influence how people feel about their brands.
Emotional Branding In Modern Content Marketing
Recently, I wrote about British Airways’ outstanding efforts to create content that matches its people-focused corporate mantra. But the company’s mini-documentaries for British Airways India are also compelling examples of storytelling that creates an emotional association with a brand.
British Airways’ two most watched mini-documentaries differ by depicting travel to and from India, but each lingers on beautifully framed slices of Indian life, including jasmine cutters, street markets, and a Hindu wedding.
In “A Ticket to Visit Mum” (over 1.3 million views), the airline helps a New Yorker named Ratnesh fly back to Mumbai to share a meal with his mother. In “Go Further to Get Closer” (over 2.4 million views), married Indian couple Sumeet and Chetna, who work so tirelessly that they rarely get to see one another, reconnect on a trip to London. The couple also appears on a “How Close Are You?” Facebook quiz that includes personalized vacation suggestions.
British Airways serves many Indian expatriates who live thousands of miles away from the country in which they grew up. These content marketing experiences don’t do anything to resolve flight-related questions, but they do a fantastic job of linking British Airways with positive memories of home, family, and the people we love—the kind of feeling that can compel someone to share a video or buy a plane ticket.
A Model Of Consistency: Nike And “Just Do It”
Nike’s content marketing efforts revolve around the same emotional principles underlying its famous “Just Do It” tagline: grit and triumph.
Visit the brand’s Facebook page, and you’ll see countless photos, videos, and animations of people overcoming physical and mental obstacles to achieve greatness. Nike’s social media efforts have worked best when the brand has attached itself to major sports victories—particularly by underdogs.
The company received a lot of well-deserved praise for its real-time social media campaigns during the 2015 Women’s World Cup, in which the U.S. team won it all, and the 2014 World Cup, in which the U.S. men advanced much further in the tournament than experts predicted.
In fact, digital marketing firm Amobee reported that Nike was 121 percent more associated with the Women’s World Cup on social media than Adidas —a major embarrassment for Adidas, given that it was the team’s apparel sponsor.
The Women’s World Cup story acquired even more emotional heft when it became associated with both women’s equality and LGBT issues, helped in part by viral storylines about the pay gap between the women’s and men’s teams and star player Abby Wambach kissing her wife after the victory.
Like Bernays and Hill, Nike has done a remarkable job of funneling strong emotions into its brand—even from seemingly unrelated sources.
Great brand storytelling doesn’t directly sell products; it sells feelings—and feelings are an important sales motivator. It’s not a coincidence that many of the world’s most successful brands do this extremely well. Here are a few others that use the full spectrum of marketing platforms to evoke one consistent emotion or state of being:
- Iron Mountain: Security
- Taco Bell: Laughter
- Coca-Cola: Happiness
- GE: Wonder
- GoPro, Red Bull: Excitement
If you can identify an emotion you want potential customers or clients to associate with your brand, it should be a common thread uniting all of your marketing efforts, including advertising. But content marketing’s unique capacity to sustain conversations with audiences makes it the cornerstone of modern emotional branding strategies.