Today, due to globalisation and free-market dynamics, we have a lot of products and services to choose from. But the free flow of people, products, information, doesn't come without its perils. The ideas that make products or services unique, are nowadays easily copied. Technological advances, can be reverse-engineered. Production, outsourced. And prices, quickly matched or undercut.
Products and services, are becoming growingly ineffective as the sole carrier of a differentiating value proposition. As a consequence, consumers are left looking for something else that can help them make a purchasing decision. On the other hand, without relevant product or service differentiation, businesses also search for other sources of value that can attract and inspire customers' loyalty.
So in such an over-saturated market, how can businesses inspire consumers to choose one brand over the other?
We tend to think of all our decisions as rational. But decisions can also be deeply rooted on emotions. And this is known science. A renowned Portuguese neuroscientist, Antonio Damásio, and his team have studied patients with brain damage, specifically to areas of the brain responsible for emotional processing. They found out, that these patients, unable to process emotions, were also unable to make decisions.
Specifics aside, emotions can have a very strong influence on the neural faculties that allow us to make decisions. They help us filter through the clutter, through all the different possibilities. They help us make the choices, that we expect to be the most emotionally advantageous. For patients without this capacity, even choices as mundane as picking what to eat for dinner, can be deeply overwhelming.
Subconsciously, emotional logic is one of the strongest factors in how we buy products and services. For that reason, brands can find a reliable source of competitive advantage in delivering emotional value. In a much more effective way than, for example, selling a pair of shoes that is more comfortable, or that costs 20€ less.
In reality, we often choose brands because there's something deeper that resonates with us. Something that inspires us.
Everyone can make sport shoes. If you go to a sports store, there’s a multi-brand display of sneakers that look the same. Feel the same and have very similar prices.
But no other sports brand has achieved the social impact and following that Nike has. It has changed minds and habits. It has become the symbol of the inner athlete that we all have. Its aim is to make every single one of us feel like a winner. To feel like we can get up, overcome adversities and “Just do it”. It is a powerful idea that sits in the core of the brand, and also an engaging story.
We buy into those narratives. They fulfil our desire to belong, to be a character in those stories. They make us feel like a better version of ourselves. And we associate or transfer those positive emotional states to the brand itself. Such relevant value proposition can persuade us to overlook price, personal taste and even product similarities.
If we think of brand as a story, branding would be the delivery of that story. And to that extent, visual design plays an important role. Strategic messages and inspiring narratives can deliver emotional value. But that effect won’t last long if the customer experience doesn’t live up to it.
Successful brands understand the importance of feelings and emotions in the customer experience. Every single interaction customers have with a brand is an opportunity to leave a lasting impression on the mind.
When we feel welcomed. When our needs are met. When our expectations are exceeded. When each moment of the customer experience provides relevant emotional value, we are likely to recommend the brand and also to purchase again. That’s partly why brands like Starbucks are so successful - not because of its average quality coffees.
The customer service also plays an essential role in that journey. It is one of the best opportunities to have a brand be perceived with human characteristics. With feelings and emotions. Even if it's not a person on the other side. Even if it's just the way a service is designed to anticipate our needs. Having customers feel like they are heard, understood, and cared for, is one of the most effective ways to establish deep emotional bonds.
Great customer service can keep customers loyal to brands. But a bad one can drive them away as fast. It's the reason why we keep going to certain shops but avoid others. It’s why I keep shopping on Amazon, but avoid flying with Ryanair.
One of the six core values that define Amazon’s brand is Customer obsession. Jeff Bezos is known for reviewing press releases and product descriptions, crossing anything that does not speak positively to the consumer.
And this doesn’t come as a surprise once you realise that Amazon’s brand vision is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. Everything they do is with the aspiration of fulfilling this vision. Their service is reliable, with an offering that goes from “A to Z”.
And they have a stellar customer service. No problem goes unsolved, and you’re treated with a friendliness that makes you feel understood and in good company. It’s not a coincidence that they have a smile as part of their logo.
As result, there’s a certain sense of proudness when you mention you bought something on Amazon. It makes you feel like a digital citizen, one that lives a busy life and values convenience.
Delivering emotional value in how you treat your customers can also create enduring emotional bonds. And like with Nike loyal customers will even overlook price or personal taste in favour of Amazon's curated experience. Often settling for alternative products they find there.
Ryanair aims to be the Amazon of Travel in Europe, according to its CMO Kenny Jacobs. But contrary to Amazon, the budget airline never placed the customer at the center of their brand. Actually the majority of Ryanair’s customer base, has little affection for the brand and the experience it offers. They don't choose Ryanair because it offers a great service. They choose Ryanair because it is cheap.
Ryanair’s CMO has even famously argued that brands don’t need to be loved to win over consumers. It’s an interesting boast, considering their current situation. Facing constant strikes and cancelled flights, passengers hit constantly at the airline. But for Ryanair’s customers this is a know risk they willingly take for a cheap flight.
That’s what Ryanair and its brand is all about. A no frills experience and low fares. But it seems that in the process they make everyone feel cheap too. Not only customers, but every stakeholder. They offer poor working conditions and low wages. Flight crew is often subcontracted and needs to compete for in-flight sales. The customer experience involves paying for every add-on you might need. Sitting together with your traveling partner won’t happen for free. And if something goes wrong, you will face gigantic queues and a virtually inaccessible customer support.
Price is one of the defining criteria for the low-cost travel category. But although disruptive and innovative in the way Ryanair set its expansion and low fares, can a brand sustainably prosper when their business practices and brand strategy offers negative emotional value instead of positive? In such a competitive landscape, is price enough for a long-lasting competitive advantage?
The way brands make us feel is a strong force. It shapes our perception and can turn us into loyal customers. Although I agree that not every brand needs to be loved, neglecting emotional value might cause more harm than good. And eventually even leave businesses vulnerable to external threats.