by Liz Wolstenholme
January 8th, 2015

Consumers were once described as the judge and jury of brand communication. And it’s spot on. Whatever a brand says about itself, it is how it is received by the people it hopes to influence that ultimately matters. That’s why I’m not interested in the way brands are being communicated so much as how this influences the way we interpret them in our heads.

It’s a fact that people store a brand in three parts – rational, emotional and behavioural. If I say the word ‘Coca Cola’, you will have some rational associations with the drink itself, you will feel emotions associated with it and you will also, either consciously or subconsciously think about behaviours associated with it.  One of these things will be dominant in each area, based on your personal experience and what you’ve been exposed to and they interconnect to form your interpretation of the brand.

From a receiver perspective, there have been no eras of branding, as such. Even in the early days of communication, when a brand talked about its rational benefits, people would have also built emotional and behavioural associations around them. The difference is that these other two areas would not have been dominant and therefore wouldn’t have sprung readily to mind when faced with options on a high street or elsewhere.

In the very early days of branding, companies just talked rationally (washes whiter and the like) but eventually it became impossible to weigh the rational benefits up against each other. So people began to make their decisions based on personal emotional associations – the one with the nicer packaging that reminded them of summer, the one they associated with their parents and so on. So brands started to focus on emotion.

However, as more brands moved to own emotions, the harder it became to choose between them, which is why we started to see brands taking emotion to another level entirely – from emotions triggered by what they sell to emotions around what they believe. We have seen in recent years that brands have moved towards being Purpose Brands, being more meaningful to connect with people higher up Mavlov’s hierarchy of needs in the area of self-actualisation. Championing a cause that matters, to make the world a better place. With the Digital evolution, they have also tried to be more meaningful by relinquishing control, handing the brand over to the people and letting them shape it.

But, again, as more brands do this, so the power of any one purpose-driven campaign is diminished. We can no longer easily choose between this cause or that one and we start to fall back on our rational and behavioural associations to make our brand choice.

So where do brands go next? How can they go beyond the green-brick-road that is Purpose Branding to engage?

The answer may be what I call emoti-behavioural campaigns, combining the emotional area with the as yet relatively untapped behavioural one. Emoti-behavioural campaigns focus on branding a specific behaviour or turning the whole brand into an ownable behaviour, one that unlocks a particular emotional reward. If your brand can get people to actually do something different from normal – not necessarily the ultimate thing you want them to do, like buy your product, but a satellite action that triggers a positive emotional response – then you will nudge them a little closer to you.

What I’m talking about are unique behavioural initiatives that trigger positive emotional rewards via specific owned behaviors. As with all previous brand movements, brands that get this right have a window of time – until everyone else cottons on – to win and win big.

Liz Wolstenholme is head of Brand Strategy, Weber Shandwick UK

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