The Emotional Evolution Of Brands

Part 1: Brand as Teacher: 1950s-1980s


We all know how the story started, product messaging ruled supreme. The brand was the teacher, imparting its knowledge. However, there were good teachers that connected emotionally and, quite frankly, ones that you couldn’t stand being in a room with.


As time went by, the school of emotionally inspiring teachers grew: from the smooth Marlboro Man to the quirky Smash aliens – the brands which paved the way for emotion in marketing also drove engagement.


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By the 1980s, the emotional aspect of some brands reached dizzying heights. The sexy, rebellious Levi’s and the men who “can’t help acting on impulse” had all but done away with functional USPs, but, were they still largely ‘teaching’ – a one way conversation, telling their own stories and hoping consumers would listen.


We now understand the value of emotion in comms more tangibly. Famously, the IPA report, “Marketing in the Era of Accountability”, used 880 case studies, spanning 25 years of effectiveness awards to conclude that campaigns which appeal to emotions are more effective than rational ones on every single business measure – sales, market share, profit, penetration, loyalty and price sensitivity. However, in the early years of advertising, emotional communication was developed far more on faith than fact.

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Part 2: Brand as Peer: 1990s-2000s

During the 1990s, post the materialistic yuppies, and off the back of new rave culture, individuals were defining themselves less by material possessions and more by behaviour. Travel and experiences became a much more important social currency.


New brands weren’t on a pedestal, they were our ‘friends’. Egg Banking, Innocent, and Ben & Jerry’s defined the peer-to-peer voice.


When the digital revolution came, it allowed ‘brand friendships’ to blossom. Theorists told the marketing community to interact and to expand brand stories for multiple platforms. Consumers were in new spaces and brands wanted to be there too.


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                                                   Source: TNS, ‘Brand Friending’ Research, 2009


But, the truth is most brands don’t actually make very good friends. Brands might have set out to be a peer, but they ended up behaving more like a narcissist, a stalker, a cocaine addict. “that’s enough about me, tell me what you think of me”.

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With a few exceptions, the reality is that our stories, comments and invitations are at best tolerated, and at worst blocked altogether.


To be really emotional on this level brands have to be about something bigger than themselves, they have to relegate their actual purpose to something people care about.



Part 3: Brand as Servant: Present


A few years ago, marketing acknowledged that brands had to be more meaningful. Trust in many establishments was in decline: the financial crash, MP’s expenses and media phone tapping all proving to the public that they should not believe all they read, or be led by institutions.


In marketing, we explored the possibility of a higher meaning, a counter balance to the sense that the world was imploding.


The strategy is du jour now, meaningful brands are winning; Dove, Always, Lurpak and Pampers, examples of brands who have relegated brand stories in favour of something bigger.

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Some see the brand as an activist, we define it in humbler terms, acting as servant. It may seem lowly, but in fact it is very powerful. As a great service to consumers, relied upon, useful, helpful… and, actually, really very emotional.


Whether played out like Under Armour, as the world’s greatest coach making all athletes better, or Apple as the ultimate assistant, brands are depended on. It doesn’t have to be huge gestures, some brands seek to change the world, but the helpful app, the useful tips, the personal encouragement can be as engaging.


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Marketing has moved from a preoccupation with emotional engagement to a far richer space of making an emotional difference. Brands can be useful, practical, whimsical, even side-stepping their function to make something beautiful or simply entertain… but they know their value.


In a world that doesn’t stop talking, adding to the noise does little for brand appeal, but being useful is what consumer want. Today’s dynamic brands are the consumer’s subordinate, it’s not about trying to build their own stories. Know Google’s, Snapchat’s, Uber’s, or Air BnB tagline?


The way to a consumers heart and mind is not by dragging consumers into carefully constructed brand worlds, but by helping them to do more of the things they want to do.