• March 5, 2021
  • By Susan Scarlet, vice president, strategic branding, Gongos

How Brands Can Drive Emotional Connection in the Digital Era

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Amid global stay-at-home orders, kids being virtual or home-schooled, and restrictions on indoor gatherings, the world of entertainment was flipped upside down in 2020—and continues to experience setbacks well into 2021.

Football fans purchased cardboard cutouts of their faces so they could fill stadium seats during games. Sci-fi enthusiasts hindered from moviegoing experiences instead purchased Disney+ subscriptions in droves to watch The Mandalorian series. People who previously sweat it out devotedly at Orangetheory three times a week shifted to the company’s YouTube channel for at-home workouts. In these, and a myriad of other scenarios, brands were not able to deliver the usual in-person experiences and were forced to pivot.

In lieu of any emotional connections that were once fostered within the face-to-face dynamic, many brands in the entertainment industry and beyond were left to solve for this question: How can we embrace the digital world to create meaningful, reciprocal customer experiences in a way that builds loyalty and fuels the fandom mentality?

Creating Meaningful Connections

For forward-leaning brands, the answer lies in creating impactful and lasting emotional connections with customers. Within entertainment, brands live or die by their ability to create emotional resonance. It’s a core component of their brand identity and can emanate with every experience they create. In fact, research from Capgemini illustrates that customer feelings about a brand are the biggest drivers of purchase intent and satisfaction. According to the organization’s report titled Loyalty Deciphered—How Emotions Drive Genuine Engagement, “81 percent of emotionally engaged consumers enjoy giving back to a brand just as much they receive from a brand.” This makes intuitive sense when brands consider their customers as entering a relationship, where both sides stand to gain and grow if there’s emotional connection.

When emotional connections are well-formulated and stewarded, customers will respond and latch on. In fact, the Capgemini report found that “86 percent of consumers with high emotional engagement say they always think of the brands they are loyal to when they need something, and 82 percent always buy the brand when they need something.” However, the report also says only 15 percent of brands are doing a good job emotionally bonding with customers.

Striking an Emotional Chord

From Pepsi’s poorly received Kendall Jenner Ad in 2017 to Gillette’s 2018 campaign surrounding toxic masculinity, many brands create emotionally charged campaigns in attempt to connect with customers. However, many go down this road without an understanding of their core audience’s specific emotional triggers and which emotional connections they should prioritize. Emotional branding is complicated. It can be challenging to determine which positive and meaningful emotions to incorporate, and when that misses the mark, customers will take note and are likely to become disengaged.

Brands striving for emotional engagement can start by improving emotional literacy, asking customers and listening to them with respect to their emotional drivers and taking continual action to build trust.

According to the annual “Trust Barometer” from Edelman, which looks at trust opinions from global audiences, businesses are currently more trusted than governments in 18 of 27 countries. This puts brands in a unique position to fill some of the trust voids left by governments. The report found the pandemic and the related issues such as the vaccine and distrust of political leadership provides opportunities for businesses to do more. It also underscored that consumers feel they can and should function as change agents, with 68 percent noting they believe consumers have the power to force corporations to change. This provides an opportunity for brands to do more and take strong positions that build trust and emotional connections.

Understanding and Activating Emotional Drivers

Establishing emotional bonds begins with foundational understanding. Thanks to renowned psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik, there is a framework brands can use to create emotionally infused strategies. His famous color-coded wheel, launched in 1980 as part of his theory of emotion, puts the emotional spectrum into a more digestible format that brands can use to understand primary feelings that are shared by all. And within his wheel, there are three positive primary emotions—anticipation, joy, and trust—that are key to developing lasting connections. And in today’s political and emotional climate, consumers want to believe in brands, so “trust” takes priority.

Once emotional literacy is established, it is important to invest time in establishing the customer as a stakeholder by asking customers about the things that matter to them and truly listening. This can be achieved through online customer communities and other forms of primary research. By combining the findings of what customers say matters most to them through online communities, then layering it with permissible data to illustrate their true behaviors, brands can set the right foundation to connect with customers on an authentic level.

Lastly, as the popular saying goes, it takes years to establish trust and seconds to ruin it. Once the trust is established, brands would do well to nurture it and live their purpose. As was demonstrated with the recent Robinhood stock controversy, once customers’ trust is betrayed, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to restore.

A Real Example: Using Emotional Measurement to Build Brand Equity

Gongos recently used its proprietary emotional measurement methods to gauge the local conscious and non-conscious perceptions about an NBA team, the Detroit Pistons, and the other Detroit-area sports franchises. This survey-based assessment leveraged machine learning algorithms to look deeply at what drove fans’ emotions. This included if they attributed those emotions to the brand, to the guest experience, or to individual Pistons players.

The project uncovered emotional ties sports fans not only have to their team and individual players, but to Detroit itself, as part of an overall emotional fandom. It provided guidelines for the Pistons organization in respect to the ways ticket sales, marketing, and operations can work together to connect fans across multiple demographic groups. It provided insights into what makes Detroit sports fans happy and engaged.

The Takeaway

People are wired to form emotional connections, especially after COVID-19. Corporate decision makers can leverage emotional connection and measurement to understand how it corresponds to purchasing decisions and satisfaction. It helps them play to consumers’ subconscious feelings in a way that binds brand and consumer together for mutual benefit. Developing these lasting emotional connections is more than a feel-good exercise. It’s a strategic investment in loyalty and growth that’s based on trust and authenticity.

Susan Scarlet is vice president, strategic branding, at Gongos.

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