emotional branding

A Brand with Feelings – Emotional Branding

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s life lesson is something we have the pleasure of taking solace in, and it’s what inspired looking at emotional branding.  She understood the power of emotion with an audience. Ace Metrix research company has validated that stronger emotional connections to a brand also translated into more definite purchase intent. Emotional branding means profits.

There are eight primary emotions for emotional branding.

The subject of determining how many emotions there are was started in the 4th century B.C. by the philosopher Aristotle. Then later, Charles Darwin. Most recently, psychologists have concluded that there are anywhere from four to eight basic emotions.

In 1978 Dr. Paul Ekman, with the help of W. Friesen, developed the first and only comprehensive tool for objectively measuring facial movement – the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Since then, there have been over 70 other studies confirming the same set of results of seven universal facial expressions of emotions – anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.

Psychologist Robert Plutchik developed the famous wheel of emotions, which identifies eight basic emotions – joy, sadness, trust, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, and anticipation. His theory starts with these basic emotions and then blossoms out to multiply variations creating a broad spectrum of emotions with opposing relationships.

Kendra Cherry, the author of Everything Psychology Book, said, “The basic emotions, however many there are, serve as the foundation for all the more complex and subtle emotions that make up the human experience.” There is some compelling evidence that shows consumers use emotions rather than information to evaluate brands. Emotions also create more profound and visceral impressions that impact long-term memory.

Emotions are complex, but to build an emotional brand, we used Plutchik’s eight basic emotions.

Negative Brand Emotions

Most companies try to stay clear of associating their brand with negative emotions. But some brands have been very successful in differentiating their emotional branding from the contentious feelings of disgust, sadness, anger, and fear.


Disturbing graphic images on cigarette packs are an excellent example of using disgust to build an anti-smoking brand. Gone are the days of the iconic Marlboro man, the ultimate American masculine cowboy brand, which drove Marlboro to the number one tobacco brand in the world. I have read that several actors who portrayed the Marlboro man over the years have ridden off into the sunset prematurely due to smoking-related diseases–talk about disgusting. Dr. Ellen Peters, who conducted a research study on the effectiveness of smoking warning labels and graphic images with 244 smokers, says, “The images did stir their emotions, but those emotions led them to think more carefully about the risks of smoking and how those risks affected them.”

Another brand that serves up a spoon of disgust is the famous Canadian cough medicine Buckley’s with the slogan “It tastes awful. And it works.”

But the most disgusting advertising for a brand has to go to OXY Face Wash with its series of zit-popping videos. Say no more; the images speak for themselves! Sorry I had to remove the link as YouTube moved the video into the adult category. Was that disgusting ?!


Is sadness the new happiness? Does it leave a mark deeper than joy? Making people cry seems to be many brands’ objectives these days. Take a look at all the holiday epic stories of lonely and sad people. The U.K. retailer brand John Lewis knows something about pulling consumers’ heartstrings. But some would say that we can’t be happy all of the time, so there is authenticity in trying to get deeper brand engagement. Several insurance companies have cornered the market for ‘sad-vertising’ such as Thai Life Insurance (Unsung Hero), MetLife (My dad’s story), and Nationwide (Dead Boy).


Making people mad to buy a brand seems counterproductive, but used correctly can create decisive action or a strong statement. If you want to change a perception or get people to take action, anger can be a potent tool. When we see a person or helpless animal hurt or a significant injustice enacted, we get angry.

Sadly, terrorist groups like ISIS have used this emotion effectively to build their brand. “They’re very good at branding,” said J.M. Berger, co-author of the book ISIS: The State of Terror. They have a complete visual look with a black flag, distinctive clothing, black masks, and identical weapons. They use brutal violence against innocent people and public executions to generate widespread anger, which also appeals to a small niche of supporters who want to take up their cause.

After the Great Recession, many brands tried to take advantage of frustrated and angry consumers affected by hard times by emulating further antagonism. Eastman Kodak ranted about overpriced inkjet printer ink (I purchased a Kodak printer based on this fact). Post’s Shredded Wheat Cereal declared, “Innovation is not your friend,” Miller High Life showed their support towards blue-collar customers, and Harley-Davidson condemned “The stink of greed and billion-dollar bankruptcies” to align with their customers.

A unique brand campaign I have seen that successfully angered its target audience was a simple billboard advertising that said: TEXT AND DRIVE with the company logo Wathan Funeral Home. The outraged and upset viewers went to the funeral home’s website to voice their anger. They were surprised to find that it was a PSA to get people to stop texting and driving—mad with a happy ending.


Every brand has a call to action and, in many cases, depicts a sense of urgency to respond. But brands would tend to prefer a positive experience and keep as far away from risk as possible. But some brands thrive with their use of fear, like Greenpeace. They have been effective in shutting down major projects and changing their prey’s business practices by way of fear-mongering. They take mere possibilities and translate them into fearful statements, such as “Our health is threatened by climate change. Malaria, asthma, encephalitis, tuberculosis, leprosy, dengue fever, and measles are all expected to become more common.”

President Donald Trump’s success is attributed to always creating fear. Alex Altman, a Washington correspondent for TIME magazine, said, “No President has weaponized fear quite like Trump. He is an expert at playing to the public’s phobias.” Barry Glassner, a sociologist at Lewis & Clark College and the author of The Culture of Fear, says Trump “is a master” at creating fear. “His formula is very clean and uncomplicated: Be very, very afraid,” says Glassner. I repeat, be very afraid.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrated that consumers who experienced fear while watching a film felt more affiliation with an existing brand than those who watched movies evoking other emotions, like happiness, sadness, or excitement. I believe this goes back to our basic instincts of survival.

Negative feelings can successfully build an emotional brand but with caution. Graeme Newell, marketing consultant, speaker, and founder of 602 Communications, says negative emotions can be a powerful tool to elevate a brand’s message, as long as they’re not delivered too bluntly, and you must leave the audience with a positive takeaway. Greenpeace’s continuous use of fear has lost some value over time and has created challenges. How long can you cry “wolf” to get people to mobilize your brand?

Positive Brand Emotions

As the character, Don Draper said in a Mad Men episode, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.” Many brands focus on using the emotions of joy, trust, surprise, and anticipation.


Without trust, the financial industry doesn’t work. In essence, a five-dollar bill or hundred dollars is the same simple piece of paper with different numbers on them, but the buying power is significantly different thanks to trust.  No surprise that the business and financial services industry needs trust to operate. Trust is integral to the success of all brands but foundational for those brands built on faith and intangible, complex components.

Generally, the emotion of trust becomes super essential for a brand if it has broken this bond with the customer. I am sure V.W., Toyota, and B.P. are working on this emotion extensively today.

In the U.K.’s 2015 Consumer Trust in Brands report, they state that food brands have one of the highest trust levels—it’s important to have repeat customers who aren’t sick or dying from eating your product. In 2008 Maple Leaf Foods Inc. sold listeria-tainted luncheon meats that killed 22 people and sickened 35 others. Sales dropped by 50 percent but were only down 15 percent two months later.

“The very first thing that must happen in these incidents is acknowledgment, apologies, and action from the CEO,” says Hamish McLennan, CEO of Young & Rubicam. Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain felt the company’s transparency and immediate reaction in taking responsibility for the crisis helped win back customers. Morgen Witzel’s article, Maple Leaf Food’s response to a crisis, states, “The trust built in the days after the onset of the crisis laid the foundation for its eventual turnaround.” Today, I don’t think there is any trust issue facing Maple Leaf Foods, thanks to Mr. McCain’s conviction for making things right and not listening to his lawyers.

Humanizing your brand helps build trust, but you must foster an authentic and lasting connection with your customers to get there.


What brand do you immediately think of when you hear the word “joy”? Think of joy as a sudden burst of happiness on a high. Does “Joy in every bottle” ring a bell?

Most people are always on a quest to experience more joy in their lives and looking for those small indulgences of pleasure. Many brands have found the sweet spot, such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, Campbell’s Soup, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Zappos, Facebook – “likes,” and Ferrero Rocher chocolates, to name a few.


Consumers appreciate a pleasant surprise, and it can be leveraged across all consumer touchpoints (social, events, in-store, advertising, mobile, etc.).

In a social listening study conducted by DraftFCB (now known as FCB or Foote, Cone & Belding), using W. Gerrod Parrott of Georgetown University’s emotional framework (Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy, Fear, and Surprise), they found “surprise” as a distant sixth place in association with brands. So there is room for brand differentiation in using this emotion.

MasterCard has been running its “Priceless” campaign for over 17 years. In 2014, they introduced “Priceless Surprises” with the goal of surprising cardholders when they least expect it—for example, meeting Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, or VIP tickets to special events. There is a strong emotional element in watching a fan connect with a star, and MasterCard #PricelessSurprises made it happen. Raja Rajamannar, CMO of MasterCard, said, “The success of Priceless is the campaign’s ability to create emotion, influence behaviour, unite people, and touch upon consumer passions.” Their website says that over 97,867 cardholders have experienced a surprise so far. I’m still waiting for a surprise that doesn’t include 18 percent when I check my credit card bill!

GoPro, on a smaller scale, had a campaign called “Everything We Make Giveaway,” where every day, one person wins everything they make. In the last five years, they have given away 1,500 cameras and $4 million of GoPro gear. Don’t get too excited; this campaign is no longer on.

For the last five years, WestJet Airlines has implemented its “Christmas Miracle” by surprising a select group of customers or potential customers. In 2016, they surprised the residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta, who were impacted by the devastating wildfires with an exclusive “Snowflake Soiree.” Everyone who attended got a free WestJet ticket.


I am sure you have been anxiously anticipating this last emotion. Researchers have found that people experience more intense emotions around planning future events/opportunities than remembering those in the past.  Booking a holiday is an excellent example of positive and powerful emotional branding as a person waits for an exciting trip. High-end cruise liners have perfected the art of creating excitement with cruise planners and exclusive updates before embarking.

Sandals Resorts understand the importance of anticipation with their beautifully stunning, natural blue and turquoise oceans and clear sky images, but more importantly, keeping the excitement growing with their social media activities. Tiffany Mullins, Social Media Manager, says the Sandals Resorts’ “strategy is to evoke an emotion with every single social media post.” Not only are they humanizing the brand, but their social media presence creates a virtual vacation experience before the actual vacation. Brilliant.

The Apple brand is an expert in contemplating the future and engaging its customers in anticipating the next generation of technology. Each version is a stepping stone to deepen brand loyalty or cult-like following further.  Apple is notorious for its pre-launch hype, limited availability reorders, and long lineups on launch day, only to be repeated within another 12 – 18 months. Here we go again.

Emotional Branding

Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that 95% of our purchase decision-making takes place in the subconscious mind, a place where emotions are king. If you are going to engage in emotional branding, understand how and where you want to connect to your customers so you can consistently build on every touchpoint.

As William Gelner, Chief Creative Officer of 180, explains, “We live such digitally switched-on, always-plugged-in lives, and yet we still also somehow feel disconnected from people. As human beings, we’re looking for true human connection, and I think that emotional storytelling can help bridge that gap.”

Pick your emotion(s) and start building your emotional branding story today, every step of the way.

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