Loyalty Beyond Reason

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Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine, 2014

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Christmas. It always seems to arrive so suddenly. One minute you’re enjoying the bracing routines of autumn and the next you’re in line at a Boxing Day sale. And somewhere along the way from the ATM to yuletide indebtedness, you see this:

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Since it’s a such a sentimental time of year, it seems appropriate to reflect on what was one of the most emotionally tendentious phenomena in the world of branding and marketing for 2014: the trend of sadvertising.

It seems to have peaked in May-July, with articles appearing in Fast Co.Create, NPR and The Guardian. By far the most comprehensive coverage was Rae Ann Fera’s The Rise of Sadvertising — Why Brands are Determined to Make You Cry, appearing in the May 4th edition of FastCo.Create. Featuring 16 examples, from Google to P&G to General Mills to Tesco, and supported by several interviews with top agencies, Fera’s article thoroughly analyzed the trend toward so-called “meaningful marketing” and “social branding.”

Operating at the crowded intersection of neuro-marketing, storytelling, 24/7 global connectivity, the rise of content and experience, the reach of social media, the mistrust of advertising and the changing expectations of a new generation of consumers, agencies have been looking for ways to switch from 20th-century push to 21st-century pull. And they’ve found it in the form of tear-jerking videos.

Most of the ad execs interviewed in these three articles were more or less supportive of the phenomenon, citing all the reasons given above. “Even with all their devices, people still feel disconnected from each other and yearn for real human contact,” said one practitioner, citing technology as the culprit. Another names the growing trend toward realism in TV content, driving a demand for similar narrative quality from advertisements.

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Perhaps most tellingly, it seems the ad world has finally understood and accepted that people trust messages from their friends over messages from brands. They’ve realized the communications brief is no longer about reaching target x, but about making x cry hard enough to share the video with y — and every other letter in the online alphabet. (The image above is from Google Chrome’s ode “Dear Sophie”).

There are also dissenters. Some see the line between “meaningful” messaging and emotional exploitation as a very blurry one. These well-crafted narratives all share one thing in common: they are designed to make you feel sad before you’ve even had a chance to think about it. They are leveraging an automatic, limbic system response, almost impossible to prevent. There’s no stopping your tear ducts.

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There are some examples that connect these stories “authentically” to the meaning and purpose of their brands. But even then, after you wipe away the tears and think about it, you realize you’ve just had your heart massaged by a brand of cereal or a soft drink. Or, as heartwarming and touching as the story may be of a boy surprising his extended family with an iPhone video of their Christmas time together, it was still thought up by a creative team to make you feel good about the brand. The tears give way to a feeling that you’ve just been punked.

Nobody said it better than veteran Saatchi & Saatchi ad man Kevin Roberts, in a short PBS documentary from 2004 exploring the phenomenon of emotional branding: “The brands that can figure out how to create loyalty beyond reason are the brands where premium profits lie.” Roberts, the author of Lovemarks, claimed he could turn any product into an object of devotion. He understood even then that brands had to move from making ads to making experiences, and the more emotional the better. The most successful brands would be “infused with mystery, sensuality and intimacy,” and would be “recognized as having some kind of iconic place in your heart. You can build mystery as long as you believe in the story.”

And there you have the essence of it: belief. We believe what we feel to be true, not necessarily what is empirically true. Empiricism implies doubt; belief implies faith. Faith is Kevin Roberts; doubt is Naomi Klein, who in the same PBS documentary laid out the empirical version: “When you listen to brand managers talk, it seems like they really do believe that brands can fulfill the needs we have for [things like] community, narrative and transcendence. But in the end, it’s really just a laptop or a pair of running shoes, and they’re never going to fulfill these needs in and of themselves. Which of course means we’re just going to keep on shopping for more.” My money’s on Naomi.

To paraphrase a famous Christmas carol: Oh, come all ye faithful. Boxing Day awaits. wn