When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion. Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff. But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.
On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them. We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.
And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience. Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform. And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption. Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory. While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.
For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves. Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another. And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt. Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.
Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs. In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.
It’s not just individuals choosing to make a political statement these days. The list of brands stepping forward to voice their concerns over President Trump’s policies is growing (we can assume some will show support but I have not seen these yet). The act of creative protest is being seen by many brands as an opportunity to take a stand for what they believe in and share their identity with the world. But is a political protest the right place for brands? Is it genuine or opportunistic? And from an economic standpoint, is it wise?
As with everything like this, the answer is complex, but it comes down to internal branding, culture and employee engagement. These tech firms issued statements to reassure their own people that they care and are taking action. That internal action then flows through to an external brand perception and consumers see the brands they use and buy doing something that resonates.
In my humble opinion, brands don’t really have a choice in whether to be involved in protest now. Nearly everything is politicized in the current environment. And as people are increasingly buying things based on what aligns with their own social values, it’s almost impossible to remain on the sidelines.
A brand can get involved in politics, but it’s a risk since people care deeply about social and political issues. Brands can make it seem like they’re taking the issue lightly. They can portray to great a sense of gravitas. That runs the risk of a brand appearing like it’s seeking attention rather than making a firm commitment to a set of values. So, when venturing into a politically-charged branding effort, campaign, etc., you’ve got to judge the climate and how the brand’s involvement will be taken, both by its most ardent supports and its detractors. Brands will get dragged into political debates, whether they like it or not, so it’s wise to get in touch with the audience, understand what matters to them, and be on the firm ground with their support. So long as it’s done from a place of authenticity, it will work.
Consumers are increasingly buying into the ethics and points of views of brands and the organizations that produce them which means there is a role for brands in political milieu. It’s wrapped up in marketing and brands with purpose. Add to this that social media has required brands to be current and conversational, and the conversation of the moment is the tectonic changes in politics, media and society.
However, not all brands should be diving into the political fray. Using something as sensitive and incendiary as the now infamous “alternative facts” comments of the administration to sell products won’t go down well in some camps. Not all brands will have permission to do so. Like it or not, history and audience affiliation shape what a brand can realistically do. If a brand belittles or trivializes something important, then that is a mistake. But if there is a connection to the cause in some way, like Tecate’s obvious association with both Mexico and a segment of the US population that is increasingly welcoming of other cultures, then protesting the wall can amplify the protest sentiment of their target audience and build its value and connection.
In the end the best brands, those we feel a deep connection to, are those that stand for something. They are the ones that people are attracted to (or avoid). They have meaning in the broader cultural dialogue. For better or for worse, brands are stepping up and become symbols that drive beliefs – and actions. People seek out brands who fight for the things they care about. Getting it right and capturing your share of cultural relevance is simply the way of things in a politically charged world.