Emotion: you’re doing it wrong

BBDO's Paul Reilly on why brands miss the point when they try to create an "emotional connection" with consumers.

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By Paul Reilly

I am hearing and reading more references to a pseudo-objective type of ad people (clients and agencies) are calling “create an emotional connection with consumers.”

(As an aside, let’s be frank: when we call people “consumers” the chances of creating an emotional connection are pretty slim. By that isn’t what’s bothering me.)

My concern is we are talking about creating an emotional connection as if it is an objective – or even a strategy.

It’s neither. At best it’s a reminder of a basic tenet of advertising. At worst, and more frequently, it’s a euphemism for “we have no news, no product superiority, so instead of talking about tangible benefits, we’ll be emotional.”

It’s laziness on the part of strategists and brand managers to believe they’ve done their part by providing this as direction. It’s not a strategy; it’s an advertising style that includes a huge range of possibilities. I work with some of the most talented creatives in Canada but I wouldn’t expect them to create a campaign from such paltry input.

It’s not that I am advocating for rational advertising all the time. Far from it. What we should really be aspiring to is brand differentiation. And being emotional isn’t enough to achieve it.

We should make a choice about how we want to shift brand perceptions and tap into what emotion we could trigger that would best achieve that goal. We must think about which emotion we want people to feel. Confidence? Nostalgia?Reassurance that things will turn out alright? Dissonance that you haven’t done enough? Hope that you can achieve something you care about? The choice depends on the brand’s situation.

We often cite the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty” as an example of an emotional campaign. But we have to remember Dove didn’t just cut out talk of ingredients; it took on a valid social issue in an unexpected way. It didn’t simply declare its belief in self-confidence – it created a conversation about image manipulation and body perceptions in media. It was emotional because it was relevant and important and, at the time, not talked about much – and certainly not by a brand.  Women’s increasing uneasiness with how they were portrayed in advertising was a known issue, and Dove came at it in an original and entertaining way. It may have started with the obvious proposition of “Dove gives you the self-confidence you need to do your best” or some such thing. Ogilvy took it much farther than the expected heartwarming spot.

There are lots of examples of brands using a real issue to create an emotional response. Molson’s famous rant wasn’t just about Canada’s attributes, but about our resentment of being overlooked.

Of course brands have more options than addressing social issues to engage emotions. Dos Equis created an awesome spokesman who simultaneously personified and satirized the traditional avatar of the sophisticated man. It differentiated itself by going against the grain – tapping into the Esquire definition of the ideal man versus the Maxim version usually used in beer advertising. The emotion it wanted to incite: feeling sophisticated enough to enjoy the joke.

Interestingly, in none of these examples was the brand “central to the story.” That’s often the second requirement of the “emotional connection” directive. This combo is more likely to result in invisible slice o’ life advertising. Even Pampers would be hard-pressed to show those magical moments with your adorable baby are only magical because his shit isn’t leaking out all over your skinny jeans. More often than not, the emotional and brand-centred combo results in an ad that portrays an emotional moment for the viewer to watch but doesn’t stir an emotion in the viewer. It can be done but it’s hard to do well.

I don’t think “You’re not you when you’re hungry” started with the directive to create an emotional connection while eating a Snickers. No, it was a directive to portray that insight in an entertaining way. They chose humour through surprise as the vehicle. I guess they could have created an ad with a kid coping better at his dad’s funeral by eating a Snickers bar if they’d really wanted to “be emotional.” It might not have had the same result as slamming Betty White into the dirt.

Emotion is always an element of the creative strategy – whether it’s surprise or joy or sympathy, etc.  But those emotions are a tool to have people think differently about your brand. They’re not an objective.

Reilly Paul_1_r2Paul Reilly is executive managing director, BBDO 

Top image via Shutterstock.