Why marketers must make an emotional connection in an era of discontent

As consumers retreat to opposing corners on a variety of topics, striking the right emotional tone in marketing messages may be more critical — and challenging — than ever.

The aftermath of our presidential election offered keen insight on how divisive public opinion has become on the future of this country. As different groups of people often loudly, occasionally vehemently and sometimes even violently, continue to weigh in on a variety of issues, the warning to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach has never felt so accurate.

At the same time, it is challenging in this atmosphere to find a more narrow message that won’t result in a social storm, something New Balance and GrubHub both recently discovered. In an effort to avoid controversy, marketers may feel tempted to resort to broad emotional appeals, examples of which are already abundant this holiday season. However, opting for a short-term salve overlooks the bigger opportunity: With so many consumers feeling alienated and disenfranchised, savvy marketers can help fill the void and build lasting connections by honing in on a core group of consumers with the right emotional sentiment.

“This election has contributed to and demonstrates a feeling of disenfranchisement among people,” Shar VanBoskirk, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, told Marketing Dive. “That is, we feel misunderstood and misrepresented by all of the options available to us. 

“Brands, I think, that recognize this and work to connect with some people — not all, trying to be all things to all people is what is leaving us all feeling alienated or misrepresented — will create deep emotional bonds with the tribes they select,” she said.

Emotion matters more

Emotion has always been important to marketing, but these days marketers need to work harder than ever to make sure an emotional connection is made. This sentiment already was true before the election, thanks to an overabundance of stimuli in the digital era. Following the election, marketers will have to work even harder at eliciting an emotional reaction if they are to punch through an atmosphere heavy with negativity.  

“Emotion matters more now not just because we're in dark social and political times, but because the stimuli in our lives aren't diminishing,” James McQuivey, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research told Marketing Dive.

Marketers are already casting about for the right approach in this divisive time.

Some attempts have quickly turned polarizing, often unexpectedly. New Balance, whose products are manufactured in the U.S., recently discovered this when a company spokesperson’s tweet appeared to support Trump’s opposition to the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership. The public response was quick, resulting in a number of rebuttals, some in the form of images of New Balance shoes getting trashed or even set on fire. 

As is typical during the holiday season, there are a number of new campaigns taking an uplifting approach. What’s new this year is the way digital marketing is being leveraged to counter the hostility evident online by bringing some of the joy associated with this time of year to the conversation. For example, Macy’s new "The Santa Project" campaign attempts to address the negativity on the internet by asking consumers to share about the importance of believing in Santa.

Boosting strategy

Experts are divided as to whether attempts to build emotional bonds will become more prevalent in 2017, or simply be a bigger focus of attention. But one thing is for certain — simply pulling at heart strings is unlikely to be enough. A key challenge facing marketers will be creating a strong emotional appeal that still feels relevant for consumers. This is likely to require being more personalized and insights driven.

Building value around customers’ moments of need is one way marketers are staying relevant while simultaneously making an emotional connection. In 2017, this moments of need marketing strategy is likely to get even more sophisticated as marketers leverage contextual cues about users through an increasing number of wearables and connected devices.

Marketers are also likely to put an even bigger focus on segmentation across both their customer retention and acquisition strategies.

“Strategy is going to have to be better customized,” Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys told Marketing Dive. “Again, there’s no one -size-fits-all strategy for a brand or a category. The industry has refined outreach so they can identify anybody and customize messaging. That’s the tactic.

“So loyalty and customer acquisition, while mutually exclusive strategies, can be leveraged for the best effects to the appropriate audiences and one doesn’t have to sacrifice for the other,” he said. “Not if you can configure the right, segmented strategies.”

Taking action

For the many brands who already have a strong emotional component to their marketing, the message may not need to change. But the emotional connection may need to be clearer.

“Not to make it emotional purely for shock or attention-grabbing value the way politicians might do […] but to clearly identify which emotional states the brand is capable of delivering,” Forrester’s McQuivey said. “Telling someone that your running shoes will make them a better runner is a fine message, but helping them visualize and anticipate what it will feel like to be a better runner, is adding the right emotional context to the running shoe experience.”

Brands will also need to take action to back up their emotional message and prove their authenticity. Traditional strategies like partnering with a related nonprofit may not be enough. Instead, marketers should consider content and services that provide a value while reinforcing an emotional message.

“Post-digital CMOs demonstrate their brand promise, instead of just talking about it,” Forrester’s VanBoskirk said. “Many who haven't yet turned this corner will do so in 2017 as a way to prove the earnestness behind their values, emotional connections, and brand promises. For example, Under Armour offers a fitness platform including smart gear, meal-planning apps, digital communities, and personalized stores, all to make good on its promise to ‘make athletes better.’”

Emotional metrics

One challenge marketers will face as they boost the emotional component of their strategy will measuring the results. The recent election, when advance polling was wrong in many cases, is an important example of how asking people what they feel is not an accurate science.

Finding the right metrics for digital marketing continues to be a challenge, with major platforms, agencies and industry groups all trying to find a solution to the problem. At this time, no standard solution is yet available.

“I believe that the emotional nature of the of the election and the fact that the traditional research approaches ‘got it wrong,’ is a desperate call out for real, predictive, emotional engagement metrics and not just Q&A,” Brand Keys’ Passikoff said.  

Filed Under: Social Media Trends Video Analytics Mobile
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