emotional branding     

Emotional Branding: Where Heart and Wallet Collide

Copyright May 1, 2006 by Travis Scott Luther - President, Luther Media http://www.luthermedia.com

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Emotional branding is defined in a 2006 American Marketing Association Journal of Marketing as “a consumer centric, relational and story-driven approach to forging deep and enduring affective bonds between consumers and brands (50)”.  In 1943, after leaving Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration, Roy Stryker took a job with Standard oil. His assignment was to document the benefits of oil on everyday life in the United States.

roy strykerBut Stryker wasn’t just merely documenting everyday life with the over 100,000 photographic imagines, Stryker wanted to take the kind of photos that, from what he said, “can comprehend what a truck driver, or a farmer, or a driller or a housewife thinks and feels and translate those thoughts and feelings into pictures that can be similarly comprehended by anyone” (The Photographers).  From 1943 to 1950, Stryker enlisted the skills of the best photographers of the time.  Stryker made sure they were well-informed about their assigned area, its people, economy and even its politics.

 He often gave his photographers books to read and would encourage them to look at assignments in new and different ways.  Stryker felt that an educated, sensitive photographer would produce images that "would mirror both his understanding and his compassion." Through Roy Stryker, Standard Oil wasn’t just collecting a socio-geographic portrait of the time; they were in fact building a consumer-centric, relational, and story-driven approach to forging deep and enduring affective bonds between consumers and their brand.

Text Box: These two photos from Stryker’s project with Standard Oil were included in a series that was to “document the benefits of oil on everyday life in the United States” (The Photographers).




1.stryker pic 1  2. stryker pic 2

The term “emotional branding” officially arrived in the late 1990s.  It was proclaimed the “corrective to the shortcomings of the conventional benefit-driven approach to branding” (AMA, 51).  Specifically, emotional-branding challenged the benefit-driven approach’s fundamental claim that brands must establish a clear, consistent, and distinctive benefit position in the mind of the consumer.  Proponents of emotional branding claim that “benefit-driven positioning cannot provide an enduring competitive advantage because it is readily emulated, particularly when the benefits are tied to technological and product design features.  Straightforward benefit appeals are unlikely to break through the clutter of a saturated marketing environment that a plethora of brands are fighting to claim distinctive associations” (AMA, 51).  Emotional branding says that personal inspiration and passion derived from brand messages and instilled in the consumer will build more long lasting loyalty than just touting attribute benefits. From an emotional-branding standpoint, brand strategists should focus on telling stories that inspire and captivate consumers.  These stories must demonstrate a genuine understanding of consumers’ lifestyles, dreams, and goals and compellingly represent how the brand can enrich their lives.  Seth Godin, in his book All Marketers are Liars, insists that successful marketers don’t talk about features or even benefits.  Instead, they tell a story.  A story we want to believe.  “This is a book about doing what consumers demand—painting vivid pictures that they choose to believe.  Every organization—from non-profits to car companies, from political campaigns to wine glass blowers—must understand that the rules have changed.  In an economy where most people have an infinite number of choices (and no time to make them), every organization is a marketer and all marketing is about telling stories” (Godin, 3).  Godin concludes that marketers succeed when they tell us a story that fits our worldview, a story we intuitively embrace and then share with our friends. Godin continues, “Consumers today not only want to be romanced by the brands they choose to bring into their lives, they absolutely want to establish a multifaceted holistic relationship with that brand, and this means they expect the brand to play a positive role in their lives.”

The strategic objective of emotional branding is to forge strong and meaningful affective bonds with consumers and, in doing so, become a part of their life stories, memories, and an important link in their social networks.  Through emotional-branding, consumers can experience brands as relationship partners that help them accomplish personal goals and resolve dilemmas in their everyday lives.  Emotional Branding strategies use narratives and tactics that demonstrate an empathetic understanding of customers’ inspirations, aspirations, and life circumstances and that generate warm feelings of community among brand users.

Emotionally driven advertising on a massive scale has its roots in the public relations campaigns initiated by big business during the turn of the century.  In 1904 Ivy L. Lee became the first advertised “public relations counselor” and in 1913 worked with the Rockefeller owned  Colorado Fuel and Iron company to minimize the fallout from the Ludlow Massacre, an incident in which a militia, hired by Rockefeller, was ordered to break up a coal union strike in Colorado.  The militia fired on the strikers, killing 17 of them, including a group of woman and children who died in a fire when their tent was set a blaze by the militia.  In 1923 Edward L. Bernays published Crystallizing Public Opinion, the first book on professional public relations.  In 1929 Bernays staged the “Torches of Freedom” march to promote smoking (History of PR).  Clearly, as early as the 1920’s, the newly industrialized and centralized population of the US was under the subtle attack of pitch men turned story tellers.  Seeing a population engrossed with the “New Era” of finance, stock peddlers such as National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) CEO Charles Mitchell announced to the world that “stocks were safer than bonds,” accelerating an already rampaging bull market.  When the Federal Reserve in 1929 tried to curb buying and deflate the bubble, Mitchell, to great popular acclaim, single handedly derailed their efforts.  The general public was “an America grown ravenous for speculation” (Frank, 52).  Mitchell had connected to the public emotionally. He was singing the praises of stock and bonds that had nothing to offer but the ability of an American to acknowledge ownership and participation in this new “market for all”. Many of these stocks were from South American companies and foreign projects that had very little chance of financial legitimacy.  Americans did little to authenticate their value or even the existence of the companies they invested in.  Even two weeks prior to the stock market crash initiating the Great Depression, Mitchell claimed that “market values have a sound basis in the general prosperity” and the people listened.  

In the chapter titled “The Politics of Emotion,” Frank Furedi, in his book Therapy Culture, concludes that the apprehension of the political and corporate elites towards the mentality of the crowd was driven by the assumption that its emotions could be “manipulated towards destructive ends by demagogues” (46).  According to Furedi, the belief that the public was dominated by infantile emotions was widespread in the social literature during the time between the first and second world wars.  Often it asserted that the public did not know what is in its best interests. Furedi quotes one American sociologist in 1919 who said, ‘public opinion is often very cruel to those who struggle most unselfishly for the public welfare’ (46).

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a backlash against corporate America gained more traction than the bull of the 20’s market ever had.  Citizens displaced and bankrupted by the financial fallout of the markets came to call on government for strict regulation and oversight.  It was obvious to them that corporations were not responsible enough to be walked with anything more than a short leash and needed the supervision usually reserved for an unruly child.  Understanding the increased challenges they faced in earning not only the populations business, but their trust, corporations were forced to find ways to bridge the widening gap between themselves and the consumers they so desperately needed to continue to operate.  Deconstructing a world-view of large corporations as anti-person, evil teeth gnashing machines grew a new industry usually retained by government, “public relations.”  One PR man told Standard Oil Company it would have to alter fundamentally the way it explained itself, saying “Identify yourself not with bondholders,…Wall Street, but with labor, with Americans.”   In 1943 Exxon (formally Standard Oil) hired Roy Stryker to launch a PR campaign to combat its “reputation for cold-bloodedness.”  A revival of “New Deal” populism was, as Thomas Frank says in his book One Market Under God, “exactly the way to do it” (39). 

While the corporations of the 1940’s through the 1970’s may not have succeeded in resurrecting the leverage they had over the government and the people of the 20’s, they certainly had elevated themselves to the level of at least partner to the government and certainly, through steady climbs in the stock market, a partner of the American individual investor.  As the Cold War ended, the 1980’s seemed to bring fiscal optimism and revived trust in corporations.  Companies felt a friendliness by the population towards them not yet seen or experienced.  But just as public confidence in the market system began to enjoy substantial growth; it was again knocked to the floor by the market crash of 1987.  But this crash seemed different than the one of 1929.  One theory of the cause of the crash was the idea that large trade and budget deficits in 1987 may have guided investors into believing these deficits would create a decline in the U.S. stocks compared with foreign securities (Yee).  Those who were the type to draw up and publish specific causes as to why the population had lost easily 20% of their investment value in one October day could now, with some steering, point their finger at the government and say “you did this to us.”  Armed with this “solid” evidence that the governments actions and policies were beginning to interfere with the populations ability to accumulate wealth and participate in truly “free” enterprise, those who had long anticipated a back lash against big business and their accumulation of wealth and power turned on the oven burners and began to seep steam from a rapidly heating public relations kettle. 
In the chapter titled “Getting to Yes,” Thomas Frank, in his book One Market Under God, insists that the market populism of the 1990’s was not a grassroots movement of organized people attempting to level the playing field for working people and entrepreneurs, but was in fact a highly organized public relations campaign, launched by corporate executives and politicians, in anticipation of a backlash against the elitists and the consolidation of their wealth.  Frank attempts to support this by proving that the major players in the “populist market movement” were not market outsiders looking for a way to tear down conventional business models or politicians working to emerge business from suffocating government regulation, but that they were in fact tools and willing participants in a plot to keep the wealth and power amassed in the 50 years prior to the 90’s stabilized.

In the 1990’s companies accelerated their public relations strategies and used emotional branding to connect themselves with their employees.  They turned upper management loose to mingle with the regular working folks.  Corporations referred to their employees as teams and even as family.  Those who spoke out with authority against the elitist government and the liberal media, such as radio personality Rush Limbaugh, quickly drew the attention of Americans feeling the invented binds of liberal control.  Limbaugh said he represented “middle Americas growing rejection of elites,” which included “the medical elites, the legal elites, the education elites” (Frank, 43) and the ideas these groups promoted through the liberal media.  These new free enterprise celebrities explained quite clearly that not only did government have a strangle hold on us, but on our business as well.  While Limbaugh was a celebrated Republican, (in fact so celebrated he was made an honorary member of congress during the Newt Gingrich heydays of the early 1990’s) opposition to government involvement in the regulation of business was being spit from both sides of the political fence.  Co-conspirators, such as John Barlow (former lyricist for the Grateful Dead) declared shortly after Al Gore’s invention of the Internet that cyberspace should be free of government control, but all the while sharing a conference center with “suit-and-tie” media execs.  Both Barlow and the media execs believed that governments were illegitimate but Barlow helped remind people that there was something special, even organic about open and free markets, a reminder that allowed for tighter corporate control by the companies that stood to accumulate the most.  In 1996, the Republican Congress and democratic president Bill Clinton proved that deregulation was not a limited special interest of one political party over another, but a matter of strengthening America and securing its citizens financial future.  In February of that year Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which triumphantly rolled back big government regulation and made more room for the continued “free market” growth of the 1990’s.  The idea that government was providing for the needs of the people without giving them rights or responsibilities was forcefully argued by the American commentator Walter Lippman is his classic 1992 study, Public Opinion. Lippman declared that the proportion of the electorate which is ‘absolutely illiterate’ is much larger than one would suspect and that these people who are ‘mentally children or barbarians’ are natural targets of manipulators (Furedi, 46).

Furedi concludes in Therapy Culture that “Acknowledging emotions constitutes the prelude to managing them.  This process of ‘cultural/cooling’ invites individuals to moderate their feelings in line with today’s emotional script.”  Emotional branding can enable employees from diverse walks of life and different geographic locales to experience deeply satisfying feelings of community and solidarity within their companies. In advertising, emotional-branding creates “intangible aspects of brand knowledge not related to the actual physical product or service specifications.”  Emotional branding creates “the ultimate relationship and level of attachment that a consumer has with a brand” (AMA, 52).  The tenets of emotional branding are perfectly aligned with the postmodern view that brand meanings and businesses are not controlled by managers but rather are co-created through ongoing interactions among users and employees.


Yee, Tracy. “The 1929 Stock Market Crash.” http://www.arts.unimelb.edu.au/amu/ucr/student/1997/Yee/index.htm

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburg. “The Photographers: Roy E. Stryker” http://www.clpgh.org/exhibit/photog14.html

The Institute for Public Relations. “PR Timeline” http://www.instituteforpr.com/pdf/HistoryofPublic%20Relation--Institute.pdf#search='history%20of%20public%20relations'

Frank, Thomas. One Market Under God. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.

Thompson, J. Craig., Rindfleisch, Aric., Arsel, Zeynep. Emotional Branding and the Strategic Value of the Doppelganger Brand ImageJournal of Marketing Vol. 70 (January 2006), 50-64

Godin, Seth. All Marketers Are Liars: The Power if Telling Stories in a Low-Trust World. 80 Strand, London: The Penquin Group, 2005.

Furedi, Frank. Therapy Culture. 11 New Fetter Lane, London: Routledge, 2004.

Photo 1. The evening service, First Baptist Church, Tomball, Texas, 1945. Photograph by Esther Bubley. http://www.clpgh.org/exhibit/photog14.html

Photo 2. Passengers in the Greyhound bus terminal, New York City, 1947. Photograph by Esther Bubley. http://www.clpgh.org/exhibit/photog14.html