As a planner (so quite far along the geek spectrum), I spend slightly too much time wandering around Reddit.
The other day I stumbled on r/EDC, a subreddit where redditors share photos of the essentials they carry on a daily basis – their 'EveryDay Carry'. I was in the mood for excitement, so I went in. And I discovered that, alongside their keys, phone and wallet, many people's 'everyday carry' includes a 9mm semi-automatic with laser sights and a concealed holster.
Judging by the comments, packing heat when you pack your bag stirs strong emotions – like admiration, envy and awe. This came as a surprise to me.
Because the emotions I felt were very different: a combination of anxiety, sadness, fear and confusion (why carry a spare magazine? What's going to happen on the way to the gas station that means you need more than two dozen bullets?).
Luckily I'm not here to debate the merits of the Second Amendment. But r/EDC does teach us some interesting things about emotion.
Firstly: content doesn't need to be overtly emotional to evoke emotion. (These were just photos of everyday things on a table, shot on a smartphone.)
Secondly: the emotion you evoke is context-dependent. To many redditors, a Glock is a symbol of their inalienable rights. To me it's … not.
Thirdly: emotion is complicated.
Fundamental doesn't mean simple
Emotions are complicated.
The rational human, beloved of economists, doesn't exist. Even more fundamentally, as detailed by neurologist Antonio Damasio, if we didn't have emotions we'd struggle making even the simplest decision.
Since my job consists of encouraging people to make decisions (buy this, go here, sign up for that), I need them to have emotions. As does everyone else in advertising and marketing. But the question for us is: do we understand emotion?
To anyone involved in commercial communications, emotion is both inescapable and vague. Inescapable because it's what we do, even when we've been briefed to create 'rational' communications (which, to be clear, aren't). Vague; because we seldom specify which emotion we want. Very often 'emotion' is treated as a generic seasoning, like salt, or MSG. “Let's put some more emotion in there, give it a bit of oomph!”
But this is the opposite of how emotion works. As we saw with r/EDC, the emotions you evoke aren't necessarily the ones you think you're putting in there. Emotion comes from inside your audience.
And it's hard to target just one emotion, anyway. A few years ago a team from UC Berkeley showed hundreds of Americans over 2,000 emotionally charged video clips. The researchers mapped the results and identified 27 different emotions, which shaded gradually into each other. Just one video clip, a view from the bridge of a ship, evoked aesthetic appreciation, awe, interest, admiration, calmness, amusement, satisfaction and nostalgia.
(The video map is available online. And if you manage to track down the uncensored version, please be aware the map's top right-hand corner is very much NSFW.)
Your audience relationship? It's complicated
We need to develop a more nuanced (even rational) view of emotion.
We have more access to more sophisticated communication tools than ever before. We have our pick of formats perfect for manipulating emotions: written; experiential, audio and visual content. The technology used by Spielberg or Hemingway is ours to command. But we can still lose our audience at the drop of a hat, through a complex interplay of culture, previous experience, immediate stimulus, task and interest in the product. Or even if they're just in the wrong mood at that moment.
Some things will always be outside our control. But we should focus on what we can control. By not trying to cram indiscriminate “emotion” into our work, but assessing which emotions we want our work to evoke, and for whom.
To elicit emotion, we need two things: a catalyst and a context.
The catalyst can be almost anything: UC Berkeley's video map included clips of basketball, jellyfish, skateboards, rabbits, airliners, scorpions and Winnie-the-Pooh.
But the context governs how the catalyst is understood. Very often it's cultural, or environmental.
Or, given access to a well-understood audience over time, with skilful maintenance you can create your own context. Your own world to inhabit.
One of my strongest brand relationships is with Riverford, the organic foodbox people. No brand is perfect. I've fumed at a terrible (one-off) customer call. Around this time of year I get really fed up with artichokes. And I find it hard to recall how I felt when that first box appeared on my doorstep many years ago.
But over the years they've carefully created their own context. They've quietly helped me get to know them, on and offline. They've explained what they believe, why they do what they do, and (most importantly) what they disagree with. They've created an emotional connection: a relationship.
And this is how relationships are created, and emotions harnessed. By building familiarity, developing routines and habits together, and encouraging a shared worldview.
An emotional connection comes from learning about your audience over time – but also by giving them the opportunity to learn. Make sure your brand has something worth finding out.