By Kate Howe, Executive Director, MSQ
In their quest to engage time-pressured, ad-bombarded consumers, brands are constantly seeking new ways to be on people’s wavelength. That’s not easy – which is why two years ago we kicked off a project exploring how brands can truly connect with customers, in an age when customer needs and expectations are much higher than most brands’ ability to meet them.
We conducted detailed interviews with some of the UK’s leading CMOs and surveyed thousands of consumers, noting both how they think about brands and the language they use to describe them. We also analysed the levels of maturity in many businesses’ digital transformation journeys.
We concluded that for brands to reach the Holy Grail – that is, to create highly relevant and personalised experiences for customers at every touch point in the customer journey – it takes two things: a lot of joined-up thinking, and real emotional intelligence.
Building emotional capital is a key method for sparking and strengthening relationships, pushing someone’s buttons so they value what a brand offers. Which led us to develop the Superior Emotional Capital system. Earning Superior Emotional Capital means being enlightened in your understanding of yourself, the world that surrounds you and how you respond to that reality.
It’s incredibly challenging, to say the least. But the rewards are big. Our research also identified five areas of focus that will help brands get closer to their customers. Let’s consider each of them in turn – how does your brand stack up?
Emotional Capital is strengthened when brands act in ways that are coherent, consistent, and connected. Emotionally coherent brands don’t say one thing to gain publicity and then do something else when they think no one will notice.
Emotionally coherent brands deliver consistently, in a joined-up way, across the whole organisation. They focus on service, ease, quality, and joy in their customer touchpoints. They don’t bombard customers but instead provide a seamless, relevant experience, understanding their customers and learning how to improve over time.
In a recent study of the grocery market, we discovered a brand’s coherence strongly correlates with its ability to attract customers. Both M&S and Tesco, for example, score highly on coherence and attract shoppers as a result.
Gaining Emotional Capital means developing the ability to genuinely read other people and their emotions, while understanding the impact their words and actions will have.
Emotionally literate brands make it their business to know how audiences and stakeholders really feel about life, their world, themselves, the category and the brand. And they get the ‘big picture’ – the cultural and societal overlays, the mood of the times, the wider trends shaping how we all feel.
This goes beyond the usual superficial lip-service of consumer insight. Instead, it’s about honesty and the hard truth of genuine understanding.
Our grocery study revealed that many brands in the sector need to work harder when it comes to emotional literacy. Though Aldi has emerged as a brand which is winning in the way that it understands the needs and motives of its customers and reflects this understanding in the tone and approach of its communications.
On the level
Brands with what we call ‘Superior Emotional Capital’ are seen to strive for a fair balance between give and take.
Consumers are happy for companies to make a profit if they don’t act at the expense of others.
Price is a great index of this; if a brand provides goods or services way below market average, it begs the question ‘how is that possible?’
If the answer is ‘suppliers have been cut to the bone’, consumers simply will not feel great about the brand. But if the answer is ‘products have been value engineered accordingly,’ people respect that there’s an equitable relationship between what they’re getting for their money and brand behaviour.
One of our most recent studies into the retail sector shows the uphill battle that delivery services have in countering this issue. Deliveroo’s Emotional Capital scores, for instance, were severely weakened by consumers’ assumption that the service treats its employees poorly and shows a lack of respect to restaurants. A major hindrance to attracting new customers.
Emotional capital is increased in brands that show a genuine understanding of their own values and operations.
Brands that are emotionally self-aware ask searching questions to understand their own true strengths and bravely face up to their weaknesses.
Let’s take two major tech brands, taking two very different approaches. In one corner we have Apple, exhibiting self-awareness to defuse Taylor Swift’s very public boycott of the Apple Music streaming service. The brand took to social media to admit its wrongdoing, reversed its policies and, not long after, Swift wasn’t only appeased, but starring in Apple’s ads.
Meanwhile in the other corner we have Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg responded to a high-profile testimony from whistleblower Frances Haugen by calling her accusations “deeply illogical”. Using this phrase alone to counter the remark that Facebook amplifies extremism and polarisation shows that Zuckerberg assumes people think about his brand the way he thinks about business. But a customer’s relationship with a brand (particularly one like Facebook) is based on an accumulation of emotions, not a set of step-by-step logical decisions.
Emotional capital is strongest in brands that are seen to have good principles.
Ethical brand-owners are determined to do well by their audiences and supply chain, and avoid causing harm – to staff, suppliers, society, and the planet.
As one senior marketer told us “It’s important to make big, bold goals. We need to drive targets and work with others who show commitment to things like CSR and diversity and inclusion efforts.”
Going back to our grocery study, Amazon Fresh scored poorly across a number of our metrics, driven largely by negative emotion in the areas of responsibility, decency, and ethics. This translates into a considerable rejector audience, and there’s clearly a macro brand job that needs to be done if the service is to truly address issues of trust.
All five aspects described above can help brands make incremental gains in Emotional Capital. Because every interaction with a customer matters. If a customer has a bad experience, they could tell seven other people what went wrong. But if someone has a good experience, they may only tell another two.
The key for brands seeking to understand, engage and enthuse customers – building Emotional Capital that strengthens and lengthens relationships – is knowing how to get and stay close to them. It’s rapidly becoming the only way to guarantee success in today’s complex and shifting world.