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We Studied Brands Around The World. What Consumers Want Isn’t What You Think

We asked more than 5,000 people to tell us about the brands they sought out, then we analyzed what those brands did. The results were surprisingly consistent.

We Studied Brands Around The World. What Consumers Want Isn’t What You Think
[Photo: Afton Almaraz/Getty Images]

Traditional advertising went after “share of mind”–the idea was to get you to associate a brand with a single idea, a single emotion. Volvo: safety. Jaguar: speed. Coke: happiness. The Economist: success. Bang, bang, bang, went the ads, hammering the same idea into your mind every time you saw one.

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Advertising briefs evolved to focus the creatives on a single USP and a single message. Tell them we’re the Ultimate Driving Machine. Tell them in a thrilling way. It worked when you saw ads infrequently on television, in a Sunday magazine, or on a billboard on your morning commute.

It hasn’t worked online. Audiences have stopped engaging with advertising. Big brands like Pepsi and P&G have slashed investment in Facebook spending. The agencies’ response has been to create new formats of ads that take over a page, dominate our mobiles’ screens, and generally scream at us. And when somebody screams at you for long enough, you put in earplugs and ignore them. Or, in the case of the online world, you install an ad blocker, as much of the U.K. population has now done.

Yet there are many brands online that people don’t want to block. We asked over 5,000 people around the world to tell us about the brands whose content they actively sought out, then analyzed what those brands did. The results were surprisingly consistent. Popular brands had multifaceted personalities. They could make you laugh, or cheer, or lean forward and take notes. They’d stopped hammering away at a share of mind, and were expanding to achieve a share of emotion.

Some of Victoria’s Secret’s biggest hits have been funny: the hijinx of models on Instagram, blooper reels on YouTube. Taco Bell is beautiful on Instagram, hilarious on Twitter, and inspiring in its online Live Mas campaign. Movember has grown into a global movement on a tiny budget by creating Facebook content that celebrates the glories of mustaches, moves us with cancer survivors’ stories and provides insane moments of slapstick.

When bestie got you like ???? #regram @taylor_hill

A post shared by Victoria's Secret (@victoriassecret) on

So we commissioned a second piece of research to help us understand the emotional landscape of the internet. Forget advertising for a second: What is it that makes the internet so compelling that countries have to pass laws to force us to tear ourselves away from it while driving? Our study showed that there were four kinds of emotionally compelling content: funny, useful, beautiful, and inspiring. When we checked back over the most successful online brands, yup, most of them did all four.

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Yet most online brands still do only one, as if they’re still appearing on television once a night, rather than following us around as we chat to friends on Facebook, search for inspiration on Pinterest, or scream into the void on Twitter. No wonder engagement is plunging and ad blockers are on the rise.

To increase your share of emotion, and join the ranks of the brands people love online, you need to ask a new set of questions about your audience:

What kinds of things do my audience find funny, useful, beautiful, and inspiring?

Where does my audience go for those kinds of content?

How does my brand produce content that will mesh with more of my audience’s emotional needs?

Take BMW, for example. Our data shows that people with an affinity for the brand-–its core audience–love sensual beauty most of all online. They’re also in the market for laughs, and love parody. They find thrilling things inspiring, hate heartwarming stuff (don’t you love it when the data confirms your prejudices), and have little sense of wonder.

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The good news for BMW is that it’s nailing the “thrilling” genre of inspiring content. The bad news is that “thrilling” represents about 15% of a BMW driver’s emotional life online. Much of the rest of BMW’s content is what we’d categorize as inspiring–TED Talks, designing for the super-future. They’re completely missing the bigger emotional picture.

Jaguar isn’t. The company’s “Good To Be Bad” campaign completely nailed parody, a “blue ocean emotion” for the luxury automotive category. It brought surprise and delight to a rather stuffy brand and forced its audience to reevaluate its range.

You don’t have to be multinational to be multifaceted. Rude Health is a great example of a small U.K. brand that’s grown a cult online following through its unpredictable content. It alternates beautiful food images with racy humor, authoritative rants about the food industry, and inspiring healthy lifestyle tips.

Useful:

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Inspiring:

Is this you?

A post shared by RUDE HEALTH (@rudehealth) on

Beautiful:

Funny:

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Online, being multidimensional beats being single-minded. Surprise beats consistency. Share of emotion beats share of mind. The best online brands have always understood this instinctively. Now we have the data to prove it. 

Brian Millar is cofounder of the Emotional Intelligence Agency, an internet data and strategy company.