Are brands corrupting consumers' emotions?

Whichever way you look, you'll see that brands are looking to engage consumers emotionally and marketing consultants are offering advice on how to create that emotionally engaging strategy and content. 

And it's not confined to certain sectors, with banks doing it - see Santander’s 'Love Virtually', Nationwide’s latest is 'Fatherhood' and Lloyds Bank has also continued to raised the emotional bar with 'By Your Side' year on year. Whether it’s a Halfords bike taking you on a journeyEsso taking Sophie on a trip to revisit a past love, or Apple creating memories for us through The Archives; the running thread throughout is the creation of an emotional charge. 

Consumer attention is a precious commodity, an increasingly precious one in an age where ‘digital amnesia’ is becoming a common reality.

All brands are in competitive pursuit of consumers’ attention and, to capture it, are using emotional ploys which could have detrimental implications, not just to a brand’s own audience, but to consumers’ emotional thresholds across the board.

Emotion is a hugely important tool for brand storytelling and marketing, of course it is. Our brains are “hard-wired to respond to emotive language.”

But as brands and marketing teams frantically scramble for attention and throw emotional draw after emotional draw into the mix, it’s worth slowing for a second to consider whether misusing emotion in the short-term will trip brands up down the line.

There are a number of brands that have felt the full force of the back spray when they overdo an emotional ploy –  Pepsi jumping on the political zeitgeist, – but instead of wryly observing how wrong they got it, it’s worth thinking of what’s at risk for us all. Because when one brand misuses an emotional ploy, audience scepticism isn’t only directed at the brand in question, it ricochets across the industry as a whole, and we’re in danger of finding ourselves in a situation where the mere use of emotion is enough to raise a consumer’s suspicion. 

Think about how we recall childhood memories. Each time we revisit a memory, we draw it out of its encoded place in our limbic system, and it becomes vulnerable to a change in how we perceive it and re-store it.

John Aggleton, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, refers to this activity as “memory corruption.” It’s why you can never be certain if a childhood memory is entirely accurate to the event or if along the way it has been contaminated by recall and retelling. In a similar way, emotional marketing draws upon our memories, with the goal of shifting our associations with certain events, objects, or issues so that ultimately, our behaviour shifts too.

But if brands do not have an acute understanding of their audience, or a sense of the responsibility to marketing themselves accurately, then they will collectively contribute to a corruption of our emotional states and cognitive abilities. And then everyone, and everything, really will be forgettable.

Blinded by emotion

Malcolm Gladwell explores a multitude of complexities in the cognitive processes of the human mind in Blink, but specifically relevant to the impact of marketing is his assertion that: “Arousal leaves us mind-blind.” He asks the question: “What if it were possible for autism — for mind-blindness — to be a temporary condition instead of a chronic one?”

A research project conducted by a team from University of Bristol, and published in May this year, similarly found that anxiety and stress take up cognitive resource to an extent that hinders our ability to read emotion.

What if we think about these questions within the framework of marketing to consumers’ emotions? Are consumers being overwhelmed by the emotional caterwauling brands surround them with? And, as a result, are consumers beginning to switch off?

To cut through the emotional immunity, brands need to work harder and smarter to connect with their consumers. That’s a given, but who is getting it right at the moment?

Give consumers what they need, not what you want

Vodafone is the latest brand looking for love, with their latest campaign featuring Martin Freeman. 

With its principle of connectivity and the tagline ‘Power to you’ Vodafone UK could have jumped on the current emotional and political zeitgeist and yet, it didn’t. The British brand gives its consumers what they need, which is light relief. And this isn’t merely a ‘just for show’ moment; Vodafone has been in the process of investing £2bn to improve its customer care, creating 2,100 roles at sites around the country, including 800 in Manchester, 600 in Newcastle and nearly 300 in Scotland.

When it comes to engaging emotionally with consumers, brands must look at every touch point and if, like Vodafone, you feel the need to be loved, perhaps put the consumers’ needs before your own.

First published in The Drum.