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There are actually two books in the world titled Emotional Branding, and I’m a big acolyte of both. The more I study and work with brands, the more I recognize that brands are at root the emotional connective tissue between your organization and your customers. And because emotions are the primary drivers of human behavior, these emotional connections of the brand are absolutely fundamental to success.

Emotional Branding by Daryl Travis argues that the value of a brand to a consumer is based on the way it makes him or her feel. After all, a Converse high-top, Nike cross-trainer and Adidas running shoe all basically do the same thing for your foot. Why choose one over another—setting aside fit, price and aesthetics? Well, how do you feel about wearing that particular brand?

Travis quotes an early thinker, Larry Light, who in 1991 was  asked for his perspective on marketing three decades into the future (which would be about 10 years in the rearview mirror as I write today!). Light said: “The marketing battle will be the battle of brands, a competition for brand dominance. Businesses and investors will recognize brands as the company’s most valuable asset. This is a critical concept. It is a vision about how to develop, strengthen, defend, and manage a business…. It will be more important to own markets than to own factories. The only way to own markets is to own market-dominant brands” (Aaker, 1991).

Let’s explore emotions and brands.

Neuroscience shows that our brains encode emotions more strongly and durably than any other information.

We forget facts and figures. We lose historical dates and misremember chronologies. Algebraic formulas and even multiplication tables fade from memory. But we remember being jilted in high school; we remember the first kiss. We remember standing on a mountain peak; we remember the great losses and the heroic wins, whether on the field or in the office.

In his book Wired to Care, author Dev Patnaik describes how this works.The limbic system of the brain draws together many elements to form an overall structure for handling emotional information: the amygdala processes our emotions and those of others; the hippocampus helps form long-term memories. “As it turns out, the more emotionally charged an event is, the more vivid it feels to our amygdala, which then helps our hippocampus to hold on to the event for the long term. That’s why our most emotional memories are also our most vivid ones. Our brains literally encode them more forcibly than they do with other data.”

In building powerful brands, we seek emotional connections with our customers. In fact, I’ve often held that your brand is the emotional connective tissue between you and your customers. Every product or service can and should deliver both functional and emotional benefits to the user; they are by no means the same.

A Rolex tells the same time as a Timex. But the Rolex feels different. A Tiffany celebration ring sparkles like any other anniversary band. But the Tiffany feels different.

There are many brands that have low emotional connectivity—call them “functional brands.” Think Kmart (defunct), Exxon, Sears (defunct), Pizza Hut, 10 Fitness, Quaker State, Sam’s Club. And there are others that inspire loyalty, enthusiasm, even passion—these are “emotional brands.” TOMS shoes, Whole Foods, Harley Davidson, Coach, Apple, Warby Parker, Trader Joe’s, Costco. Emotional brands inspire a personal connection through strength of culture, clarity of purpose, vividness of brand imagery and understanding of their customers’ emotional needs.

How does the brand leader develop and harness this emotional power of the brand? It’s not by happenstance, but by introspection, intention and design. It’s not a matter of simply focusing on quality; the days of “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” are gone. To focus only on quality is to focus only on the functional brand. 

Marc Gobe, a visionary French designer and brand-thinker, first codified the idea of “emotional branding” in his seminal book of the same name more than 15 years ago. (Our second Emotional Branding to examine.) He explores the deep meaning of brands and how they best connect emotionally, and he deconstructs the matter with ten commandments of emotional branding. He argues that emotional brands create strong, dynamic brand personalities that closely relate to the aspirations and ideals of their customers. These personalities, or “brand characters,” are not defined by rational and functional benefits; they are informed by their consumers’ desires, interests and ideals.

To lead your brand toward emotional connectivity, Gobe says, you must shift your thinking and execution in significant ways:

Shift from targeting consumers to understanding people

 Consumers buy; people live. What are the lives of your people like? What do they desire, what do they aspire to, what ideals drive them? Vance Packard, an early marketing theorist, identified eight deep-seated human motivations that all people seek: emotional security, reassurance of worth, ego-gratification, creative outlets, love objects, sense of power, sense of roots, immortality. The emotional brand builder understands how her brand can connect and serve her customers’ most primal emotional needs.

Shift from defining product to delivering experience

 Products fill needs, experiences fulfill desires. Nyimpini Mabunda, marketing manager for Smirnoff Vodka, says “Customers define themselves through brands they use. The branded clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the drinks they consume, university they attended, favorite spots to hang out, and so on.” A brand is not the product; it is all of the intangibles associated with that product. A brand that is solely functional in nature confers no experiential value to its customers. When you pull on a Nike Dri-fit top you can connect to the brand’s personality attribute of extreme performance. When you pull on your Patagonia down jacket you can connect with the brand’s deep love for wild, unspoiled places. A solely functional car (e.g. Buick Skyhawk) might get the driver from point A to point B, but it can’t give the little emotional kick of  “motoring” in a Mini.

Shift from communication to dialogue

Presciently, Gobe suggested a decade before the explosion of social media and content marketing that the emotional brander must move from one-way “communication” to a much richer dialog or two-way sharing. The insights of emotional branding are rooted in observing how humans form emotional connections. Certainly between humans, no deep emotional bonds develop when only one party is talking. The most effective social media marketers today know that the highest priority activity is not developing a smart, engaging social personality. It is listening and engaging directly with followers via these channels. The newer phenomenon of “content marketing” demonstrates that generosity of information—freely sharing insights, ideas, techniques and materials—is a proven, effective way to establish dialog and trust with customers and prospects.

Shift from service to relationship

Effective marketing organizations put a lot of emphasis on delivering great customer service and measuring customer satisfaction. Emotional branding challenges us to move beyond delivering service to establishing relationships. This is harder. Relationship calls for us to continually seek and respond to feedback, to actively listen and to anticipate needs. A core value of the Capital Hotel in Little Rock is to “pick up clues and anticipate needs.” Guests whose needs are answered before they’re articulated, who are called by name by virtually every staffer, begin to develop a new relationship with the hotel and the brand. Brands that relate create more powerful emotional connections than those that simply serve.

The framework of emotional branding provides a deep, resonant framework for activating the brand and engaging customers in a profoundly engaging, intimate and profitable relationship. The challenge is as big as the opportunity.


Martin Thoma is an author, speaker and blogger on how to live your brand. Brand Inciter is designed to help you drive brand thinking into your business. Email or find more content at

Author Martin Thoma

Began his agency career as a copywriter before co-founding Thoma Thoma more than 30 years ago. Now Martin focuses on helping brands grow by discerning, defining and articulating their unique strengths.

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