In the Age of Emotion

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.levis-store-lighting-design-4.jpg

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.

 

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Brands, Ads, and Culture

The old advertising model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but we believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands both reflect and transform culture. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough. To compete in today’s landscape, you have to convey why you exist and connect it to how people experience their world.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which could be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. And this is where brands taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape? The simple answer is that brands become symbols for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture. A company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. People need to be part of a tribe.

What We Learned from Pepsi (Yes, We All Know The Ad Sucked)

Last Tuesday, those of us in the industry watched in horror as Kendall Jenner, Pepsi, and a host of beautiful protesters blew up the internet. Within minutes of its launch, social media blew up, as expected, over its lack of authenticity and blatant attempt to co-opt the frustrations many people across the globe are currently feeling. By Saturday it was a SNL short. There is no question that Pepsi’s latest is an insensitive marketing atrocity. However, the thing we find most bizarre isn’t the sheer length of the spot or its ham-handed corniness. It isn’t the fact that it misses the point of people “resisting”, devaluing their concerns and turning them into a sideshow exhibit. It isn’t even the painfully obvious clichés at every turn. No, the thing we find the most troubling is the idea ever made it out of a conference room, let alone into production.
What I hope the industry will focus on is this; taking the “let’s bring it in house” approach comes with risks. In May 2016, PepsiCo made a big announcement about its intent to begin pulling creative duties, from concepting to production, in-house. “Why pay the creative agencies when we can do it ourselves?” Well, this ad is why. I’m not saying agencies are incapable of insensitive and tone deaf executions. Just last Friday Nivea was forced to apologize for a campaign that resulted in charges of racism on one side and praise from white supremacists on the other. Things can always go wrong. However, while FCB’s work was a misstep, the Pepsi debacle was almost predictable. Why? Because the concept was developed in an echo chamber. So in addition to having a group of people who have all been drinking from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid, no one is in a position to be the voice of reason if they were so inclined.
When you remove an expert resource like a creative agency, you remove the filter that maintains an objective eye. You strip away any “check and balance” against your work and in so doing exponentially increase your risk for screw ups as public, as embarrassing, and as historical as this one. And yes, this will be one for the history books. This isn’t to point the finger of ridicule at PepsiCo’s internal agency. Rather, it’s to point out partnerships lead to better and smarter work. When one works independent of the other, we fail to see our own blind-spots, whether we’re the client or the agency. That’s why they’re called blind spots. Working in consort ensures that what makes it out the door has the intended effect.
That one reason alone is why partnerships are so critical in this business. Pepsi is a behemoth and will be able to weather the storm. Not every brand can. Remove the critical eye of your agency and you risk disaster.

Fads, Trends, and Being Relevant Over the Long Haul

Staying on top of social and cultural change is difficult. It requires thoughtful observation, reflection, and the ability to connect dots that may go unnoticed in many cases. Similarly, being able to distinguish a trend from a short-lived fit of social interest can make the difference between a meaningful campaign or marketing platform, and a one-hit wonder. Understanding the difference between fads and trends is critical for all organizations. Unfortunately, many decision makers seem to be unaware of their important differences.

Both fads and trends play an important role in a marketing effort’s success, but they aren’t the same thing and they need to be treated differently. If they are not, leaders risk burning out adapting to every fad, and critical trends required for a brand’s long-term survival may be missed. So, what are the key differences?

A fad, in simple terms, is any form of behavior that is intensely followed by a population for a short period of time. It tends to generate a lot of buzz and social capital, but quickly becomes the butt of jokes, abandonment for the newest shiny object, etc. Once the novelty is gone, interest plummets. This isn’t to say that a fad is without value, only that it isn’t sustainable.  Collecting beanie babies was a fad, so were Thomas Kincade paintings, was Pokémon Go. Needless to say, these fads, though short-lived, were hugely successful and organization able to respond to them in their marketing efforts reaped the benefits. Utilizing fads in marketing and advertising can increase top-of-mind awareness, demonstrate the timeliness of your organization, and serve as a gateway for new audiences, all of which are important. The catch is, fads don’t stick around.

Now, compare that with a trend. A trend gets stronger over time and sticks around. It becomes part of the conversation rather than a bit of social punctuation. It has a sense of permanence and place. Trends point to the future as much as they do the present. Trends have identifiable and explainable rises that are driven by audience needs and demonstrated in cultural shifts. They create meaning for people. A trend gains power over time, because it’s not merely part of a moment, it IS the movement. A trend isn’t just relevant to an individual, it is a connector that will become more valuable as other people commit to it.

The interest in renewable energy is a trend. The increased use of virtual reality is a trend. So are evidence-based medicine, the desire for pay equality, and the use of mobile devices. These are things that have grown, redefined how people find meaning in their world, and interact with each other. They solve problems. They represent new ways of life.

So why does it matter? It matters because organizations ignoring the distinction between fads and trends do so at their own risk. If you want to become an iconic brand, then you need to have longevity and provide meaning for people that isn’t fleeting, but rather sustained. Fads are tools good marketers can use for a specific job, trends are the tools he or she uses for a lifetime.

 

Capturing Culture

Capturing attention of a consumer is one thing. Maintaining it is quite another. And making it connect in such a way that your brand becomes meaningful in the shared human experience, perhaps the hardest part, is another still. There’s nothing new in the challenge, but as we are increasingly bombarded with marketing and advertising in every possible channel, it’s getting harder. We can easily be ignored, overlooked, or simply dismissed. Ads are competing with blogs, memes, selfies, games, cat videos, gossip, and news. Entertainment value and sharability are now the dominant forms of currency in our lives. Content has become a constant layer of engagement with the world. So how does a brand stay relevant? It almost feels overwhelming. To compete in this increasingly fluid landscape, where every interaction with the world has the potential to become a messaging platform, brands need to focus less on traditional measures like awareness and share of voice and more on connecting with the culture of the audiences they are trying to reach. Brands must compete for share of culture.

Competing for share of culture is about shared experiences where everyone can see themselves in the stories, content, and events of the day. It is about creating meaning in a broad spectrum of interactions. Why? Because at the most fundamental and unchanging levels of our being, people seek to create culture and community around the things they care about most. Whether we’re talking about broad national cultures (e.g. New Englanders), subcultures (e.g. Punks), or cultures of practice (e.g. engineers), belonging to a culture means having a shared a set of values, shared customs and history, a common language, and common worldview. They share stories, practices, and even brands. And that shared experience means that a brand has far greater relevance if it can become a fixed part of that cultural structure. The question for a brand, is how does it go about it?

The future of marketing lies in the intersection of cultural knowledge, data, technology, and content. Insight springs from being able to craft a story that is transformative – it must react to changes in the environment, but it must also drive change through creating conversations that shape more than individual targets. Those conversations must change (or have the potential to change) worlds. To gain share of culture, brands (and agencies that support them) need to develop expertise in generating real insight. Any and every approach to a marketing problem will need to integrating cultural understanding, data, technology, and content into their platforms and campaigns. Gatorade is one example of how this comes together. They have developed an entire marketing ecosystem around the idea being a Sports Fuel Company. They use data to better understand both social and athletic trends allows them to organize their users into different audience groups and adapt the conversation at a moment’s notice. The tools on the website allow users to tailor their nutritional needs with their workout and improve their performance. And, perhaps most importantly, their brand represents more than food and drink – it represents the aspirations and needs of athletes who see themselves as a special group with a shared understanding of the world. It speaks to their dreams as well as the practical realities of daily training.

In the end, brands that focus on owning cultural moments in people’s lives, and develop the expertise to speak to them at the right place, in the right way, at the right time, will do more than capture consumer attention. They will capture something more valuable than share of voice. They will capture share of culture and become fixtures in peoples’ lives.