The fashionable thinking in agencies today is that people are controlled by their emotions, and that brands need to get potential customers on board by owning an emotion, or creating an emotional bond with them.
So when a recent study to find out the secret of the UK’s happiest brands takes some of our most treasured emotions – happiness, optimism, trust, playfulness, generosity – and applies them to brands, it may seem par for the course [Be careful if you read the article, the startling revelation that people like chocolate and ice cream more than banks, political parties and Ryanair may make you fall off your chair].
However, by attempting to boil things down to an emotional essence we are in danger of simplifying humans and insulting their intelligence. And in the process, agencies are totally misunderstanding how people come to buy what they do, and how brands become popular and successful.
Unfortunately, this thinking tends to over-emphasise the role that emotions plays in brand building, whilst simultaneously depicting consumers as unthinking, emotionally-led zombies.
But why then has this thinking become so popular?
The underlying theory is worth looking at in a wider context, and examining where these ideas may have come from.
It does seems that some findings from neuroscience have left the lab, passed through the lens of popular culture and tiptoed into agencies, reappearing, often oversimplified, as seductive reasons why the primary goal of ads should be attempting to make consumers feel an emotion about the brand.
Neuromarketing and ‘buyologists’ (yes, really) today search for what they call the ‘buy button’ in our brains. They are infatuated by the lighting-up in brain scans of that walnut-shaped bit of our brain called the amygdala.
“Neuroscience shows us that the decision to purchase something is often formed deep within the subconscious” say Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience. “Consumer choice is an inescapable biological process” claims NeuroFocus, a neuromarketing firm located in London.
And here is A.K. Pradeep, CEO of NeuroFocus, in an interview with Fast Company, on the subject of the iPad, "When you move an icon on the iPad and it does what you thought it would do, you're surprised and delighted it actually happened," he says. "That surprise and delight turns into a dopamine squirt, and you don't even know why you liked it."
He talks as if the damn thing doesn’t even work on a functional level, or lacks a rational purpose.
The view seems to be that there is no room any more for human reasoning. To them we are biologically determined to behave in certain ways. There is no room for autonomy or free will.
Interestingly when they are challenged about this, they claim you are simply post-rationalising, the choice was made by your objective brain and not your subjective mind. Worryingly, to them we are all mindless zombies.
Noticeably, law firms have more issues with this that ad firms. In law, people are judged to be in control of their faculties unless demonstrated otherwise – whereas ad-land seems to be taking the opposite view.
In fact neuro-marketers appear to have more faith in neuroscience than neuroscientists. Raymond Tallis, neuroscientist and humanist, “If human beings were so simple that they could be understood in scientific terms alone, then we’d be too simple to be able to understand ourselves.”
With over a billion neurons and zillions of synapses in the brain, neuroscience is at its earliest stage of understanding the most complex object in the known universe.
This misappropriation of neuroscience (which I am sure will turn out to be of huge importance to medicine eventually) by agencies and clients leads them to leap to the apparent end conclusion of “Hey, why bother mentioning product attributes, or providing any rationale to buy? Lets not bother with the conscious mind at all”.
Our own point of view is rather old-fashioned I’m afraid, and empirically based. Brands are, in fact, built by the cumulative effects of people purchasing and using products, which over time builds an emotional attachment to the brand providing that product.
For now, at least, effective advertising must be noticed (consciously), believed, remembered and acted upon – as if that’s not enough of a challenge in this crowded, over-communicated world. We maintain that behaviour change precedes attitude change not vice versa.
We believe that ads should treat people as reasoning subjects rather than passive objects. The thinking behind an ad should start with what we know about the product and where it sits in its category, why people might benefit from it and why people may choose it over our competitors’ products.
Only once we have this understanding do we think about how to have impact – by being entertaining, emotionally engaging, charming or unexpected.
Greedily, we want advertising to be both rational (in what it communicates) and emotional (in how it demands attention and interest, and stays in the memory).
Purely emotion-laden films with the product as a mere afterthought are lazy shortcuts in advertising, and lack empirical evidence as to how they get people to try their subject’s wares (and keep them front of mind for future purchases).
In fact products are often invented for a rational reason – to do something more efficiently or better, or differently. And our non-zombie consumer understands this. It is most clearly demonstrated in word-of-mouth, when one person advises another. They tend to tell the other person the specific reason why they may like the product, rather than they “will just love it”, or “get joy from it”, or “feel like a with-it thirty something” for no given reason at all. Yet for some reason, advertisers seem to treat this as too simplistic an approach for advertising.
We worry about the damaging consequences for brands of forgoing their heritage or the actual function of their product and replacing it with emotional brand qualities. We fear that in an age where the consumer demands transparency and authenticity, they will be seen as disingenuous in their desire to emotionally manipulate the audience. If trust is key to advertisers, treating us as zombies is probably not the best way.
Product advertising doesn’t have to rely on boring technical jargon or corny metaphors, but it is often depicted as such by those who prefer the emotional brand approach. It’s all too easy to argue against it by using bad examples of the genre.
But we believe that the product should more often play the lead and not just a walk-on role in smart, compelling, entertaining advertising. It’s far from easy to do well, but it’s not brain surgery either.
Let’s be mindful of the sort of advertising we create and not treat people as mouth-breathing morons. People are way smarter than most agencies are giving them credit for right now. It’s time the industry started making smarter advertising that gives people a real reason to believe.
As Mr Bernbach famously said, "The magic is in the product".
As Mr Bernbach famously said, "The magic is in the product".