Emotional Branding: The Case for Connecting with Meaning

April 15, 2020

Emotional Branding: The Case for Connecting with Meaning

The modern era of emotional branding has arrived. And with it, a bigger-than-ever responsibility for business owners to adapt to a new standard.

In most markets, consumers now have the opportunity to engage with brands on a level much deeper than you’d find in a traditional brand-to-buyer relationship. Among other upsides, this deeper level is creating a new type of buying experience. Undeniably, a better one – driven by emotion and brightened with meaning.

And now, brands get to – have to – win consumers over with something more than a list of features and a competitive price.

Before we move on, here's a quick reminder of what your customers have today:

  • Choices, plenty of them
  • High expectations
  • Emotionally charged needs, wants and desires

And here’s what they don’t have:

  • Time and money to spare
  • Patience, in general
  • Tolerance for brands that lack empathy

From the shoes they wear, the coffee they drink, to even the homes they decide to purchase, customers have more buying options than ever before. Very few markets are exempt from this.

With so many choices, their decision-making is rarely as straightforward as being exposed to the right product at the right time.

Rather, customers can now make purchases driven by equal parts logic and emotion, while leveraging brands not just for utility, but for a chance to express themselves and establish or solidify their self-identity. That is emotional branding.

The New Fundamentals of Emotional Branding

Sure, the classic tactics, such as direct advertising and lead generation, are still the lifeblood of any industry. But their central role is less about pushing out offers to move customers through an entire sales funnel, and more about inviting customers into a relationship.

Essentially, advertising and outreach open a door to your brand, but storytelling and emotion are what motivate – and convert your audience. From complete unawareness to ongoing retention, the entire customer journey needs to be designed for rewarding, seamless experiences.

Because without a compelling brand and a deliberate strategy for empathizing, you’re left to compete on product or price alone. And as you may have seen, price competition is a minefield worth sidestepping. It's an almost guaranteed race to the bottom – few of which end in honest celebration.

Product, to its credit, makes a stronger case. And perhaps you’re convinced it can still prevail in the end – that a classic “build it and they will come” mindset is where to draw the line. As a home builder or community developer, this may literally be your strategy.

Now, we won’t for a second denigrate the importance of developing great products (read: homes), but to focus on product without first developing your brand and your market is to sit down at the table without the table stakes.

The trouble with real estate branding

If you are a home builder or developer, you’re tasked with getting over a few extra hurdles other industries don’t face to the same degree.

For one, the purchase of a home happens far less frequently than with other goods and services. When it does happen, it’s often the largest purchase most people will ever make, and as such, comes loaded with hassle, expectations – and of course – a downpour of both positive and negative emotion.

The issue here is that given the lack of purchase frequency, builders are afforded little opportunity to engage with customers over time, while fostering brand loyalty through touchpoint after touchpoint. More often than not, it’s a one-and-done engagement.

The workaround is to search for what makes you unique, and communicate that message consistently during the few touchpoints you are given. Of course, this is how you earn the sale, but it’s also how you earn a better relationship with customers and turn them into advocates for your brand.

Another hurdle:

Home builders are seen as generic. Very few consumers fantasize about purchasing from a particular builder in the way they fantasize about driving a particular car. For whatever reason, the real estate landscape has a baked-in chasm between product and brand, and few builders know how to bridge it.

Why? Well, perhaps they haven’t fully realized they can bridge it. And this makes sense, because often, the extent of brand and market research is to look around and observe what competitors are doing – and then set aim on doing just a little better. In this dynamic, you can imagine how quickly strategy would start to stagnate and fall behind the curve.

The point is: now is the time to move up to a higher level – one where customers not only have more awareness of your brand, but they are shown what makes your brand different. They are shown what makes your brand right for them.

Logic, through products and price, can persuade them. But again, emotion – shaped by your brand – will motivate them.

And here’s the good news: whether you’re already well-established or just getting started, it’s never too late to think about improving – or re-developing – your real estate brand.

Nor is it anything less than an essential ingredient for success.

Dialing in your emotional branding

Let’s take a look at how this happens in real time – starting at the beginning.

Think of a few ways a potential customer can first come into contact with your brand. Maybe they are delivered an ad through paid social, click a PPC link, or notice physical signage while driving.

In less than the time it takes to blink an eye, your audience makes a judgement about what they are seeing.

All in this moment, they evaluate the underlying message your brand is sending and decide if it’s worth paying attention to or engaging with. If not, the attention will move to your competition – and the evaluation repeats.

Remember: they have choices.

Legendary marketer Seth Godin has described this process in simpler and more effective terms than I’ve found anywhere else.

He builds his case on the fact that, when encountering a new brand, people don’t study – they scan. From a billboard to a website visit, the first and most crucial moment is not an in-depth analysis, but a quick once over.

Here, Godin says, we all unconsciously ask ourselves a single question: What does this remind me of?

It might seem like a simple question, but its implications are limitless.

Because today, any given consumer has had experiences with hundreds of brands throughout their life. If we had to start from the ground up each time we entered the market for something new, we wouldn’t have time for anything else.

Instead, we rely on mental shortcuts. We aggregate our past brand experiences and interactions into categories, and when exposed to a new brand, we very quickly decide which bucket it falls into. It’s an emotional decision that happens in an instant.

You can try it right now.

Do a search for any type of business, and click around to a few websites. Notice your thought process in those first few hundred milliseconds.

Chances are, you’ll know very quickly what it reminds you of. You’ll have an emotional reaction – an opinion.

Good emotional branding keeps this in mind, and sends a strategic signal that leaves little doubt as to what exactly customers are reminded of. And good emotional branding reminds customers of something they love and trust.

But what does this mean for you?

It means that every little detail throughout the customer journey carries weight. Individually, and collectively, these make-or-break messages are sent by your logo, your story, your typefaces, design, your voice, imagery, ads and appearance. Everything matters, from start to finish.

Your audience’s expectations are higher than ever, and they expect skillful, pitch-perfect execution at every turn.

So what message should you send?

Moving past commodity exchange is moving past a textbook transaction.

On its face, a transaction would be defined as the output of the “Five P’s” working in tandem: product, price, promotion, place and people.

This makes technical sense, and worked well for generations, but the underlying and glaring premise – give me your money and I’ll give you a product – is no longer viable on its own.

It’s no longer enough. We demand more from brands, mostly, because we can. In the simplest terms: we control the process, and want to lead it in a direction that is more personally rewarding.

If we aren’t quickly and consistently reminded of something we trust, the fear of being taken advantage of – or making the wrong choice – will drive us away. And conversely, trust without a connection to the brand leaves more to be desired.

For instance, we might trust that a new suitcase we ordered will arrive on time and hold our belongings, but do we love how it makes us feel? Are we proud to show it off? Does it improve our perceived status, and self-satisfaction? In modern branding, this is the correct level of analysis.

Emotional Branding and Storytelling

So now, successful transactions have a couple added variables: emotion and storytelling.

Sure, you’re selling something worth buying, and you know how to price accordingly and promote yourself. That is seriously tough work, and something to be proud of.

But do you have a story worth telling? What emotions are you selling and how well are they conveyed in your messaging and branding?

In this regard, the challenge businesses now face is to understand and implement two things:

  1. Solutions for negative emotions that are likely to come up throughout the customer journey.
  2. Branding (through design, stories, messages, etc.) that creates and augments positive emotions throughout the journey.

That’s to say: hedge against fear, doubt and uncertainty – and capitalize on trust, empathy, and understanding.

Finding your voice

You’ve probably heard this a thousand times: No one needs a quarter inch drill bit, they need a quarter inch hole.

It’s a useful insight, but there’s more to it.

What if they don’t need a hole, they need to hang a hand-selected painting to add character and style to their room? Perhaps that makes them proud, and impresses their friends when they visit.

In this framework, the feature (a sharp drill bit) becomes a benefit (a hole in the wall). But it can’t stop there.

Because behind every benefit is at least one emotional benefit (in this case, the feeling of pride and self-expression).

That is what to look for – and what to emphasize in your offer.

If you’re a builder, your buyer might not need 3,000 square feet, but rather, enough room for the whole family to connect and live happy, fulfilling lives.

And if you're selling Harleys, your buyers don’t need a mode of transportation, they need a chance to shut down Excel for a few hours and channel their inner Bruce Springsteen.

The bottom line is that in order to establish a connection with your audience, you first need to identify their emotional needs, fears and desires.

And then see where you might fit in.

In steps:

  1. Understand the importance of emotional branding (hopefully you can check this off the list right now).
  2. Identify your audience. Hint: it isn’t everyone.
  3. Know what emotions you are selling them – what lies beneath the product.
  4. Then tell that audience a consistent, powerful story through rich, well-designed content, experiences and messages.

When steps 2 through 4 are aligned and accurate, you will earn attention. You will build trust.

Now, it’s time to get started. Ask yourself: who are you for?

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