3 Ways to Keep Emotional Branding Honest
Research Suggests Your Most Creative Thinkers May Be Delivering Less-than-True Emotion (or Anything Else)
Two “current” trends in branding and advertising – emotional branding and storytelling – are hot , at least in part, because they are supposed to help marketers make more honest, human connections with an increasingly skeptical and self-empowered consumer audience. But an older TV spot makes me wonder just how emotionally honest the current marketing environment is (not to mention “Just how new is this whole emotional branding thing, really)? And new research takes it a step further – how emotionally honest can we be?
The “older” (2007) TV spot is VW’s “Driving at Night” commercial for its Golf model – just recently brought to mind by a tweet from the mega-award-winning creative director Vinny Warren (who by no means endorses my viewpoint here… I’m just dropping names). The copywriter is none other than Dylan Thomas, who’s been creatively hijacked, as poetic lines from his play /radio drama “Under Milk Wood” serve as all but the sign-off copy to this spot. And the celebrity voice-over? Richard Burton. But the real star in this play is, of course, you. Unfortunately, your actor-surrogate is unromantically strapped into the very small, extremely prosaic tin get-around that the sponsor hopes you’ll be moved to purchase.
Tell me this, though… is there no disconnect with authentic emotion here when you see this compact car driver’s eyes reflected in the rear view mirror as you hear the epic lover-drunkard-thespian intone “Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town, fast and slow, asleep.” What, buying a VW Golf indicates that I’m a uniquely sensitive, seeing soul, a poet of the parkway as I tool around town when all others sleep?” I believe the phrase that most naturally comes next is “Give me a break.”
Still we may need to forgive the creative team behind this because, new research would seem to say, they’re natural born liars (and when I say they I mean we, as I am also to the breed born). In his book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely reports on various research projects of his, including one that tested the “moral flexibility” of various types of people in advertising agencies, noting that:
“[T]he level of moral flexibility was highly related to the level of creativity required in their department and by their job. Designers and copywriters were at the top of the moral flexibility scale, and the accountants ranked at the bottom. It seems that when ‘creativity’ is in our job description, we are more likely to say ‘Go for it’ when it comes to dishonest behavior.”
He also states that his various experiments related to brain activity and propensity toward or away from the straight-and-narrow truth show that:
The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.
So does that mean brand storytelling is inherently manipulative, and the emotional branding it serves inescapably dishonest? Yes – as in, that’s often the way it turns out in this self-aggrandizing, “it’s all about the work” business – and no – as in, brands can encourage (make that “require”) their agencies to
1) Dig down for, and then lift up, a brand’s simple truth. A truly differentiating strategy is the big idea, and if it rings true the rest of your program has a much better chance of connecting on that level, too.
2) Swear off the whole “F**K BRIEFS” vibe present at many creative temples, which ignores strategy altogether (and which made a not-universally well-received appearance at Cannes last year).
3) Make the creatives part of the strategic development process. The best way to get creative people to value strategy is to make them strategists… involve them in the strategic process from the very first meeting… mine their creativity to give early voice to insights uncovered… and invest them as both proud and responsible owners of the strategic outcome. And if that outcome is a statement of a brand’s simple truth, the ensuing creative should be more truthful emotionally and factually.
None of that, of course, will do away with what Airey claims is the inherently dissembling nature of the creative mind… but it will introduce a new level of practical intentionality that will engage our better nature, too.
So… is your emotional branding, and the brand storytelling that supports it, honest or dishonest?
PS: By the way, I am all for emotional branding… when combined with rational branding. That’s the decision-making equation: reason (I get it) + emotion (I like it) = purchase (I buy it… or I don’t).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chuck Kent is an independent brand strategist and brand writer, and also the creator/moderator of The Branding Roundtable, for Branding Magazine, where he serves as a Contributing Editor.