Why Market Your Company With Stick-on Emotion When You Can Tap the Real Thing?

Why market your company with stick-on emotion when you can tap the real thing?

Marketers caught on early that emotion sells product. "Would your husband marry you again?" screams a Palmolive ad from 1921. (Not unless you scrub with Palmolive soap, honey.) Today, Heineken has promised warmer international relations via handoffs of Premium Light from mountain men to Indians to ballerinas. And, of course, Axe has sold young men on the fantasy of hooking up with deodorant-loving nymphomaniacs.

Emotional appeals are ubiquitous. They're also interchangeable. It would be just as easy to pitch Heineken as an aphrodisiac and Axe as a global harmonizer ("Peace starts in the pits").

And that's the problem: It's all stick-on emotion. Sometimes that works brilliantly (see: Corona). Other times, it's as weird and clumsy as an adhesive moustache -- remember Carl's Jr. and Paris Hilton's sexed-up hamburger ad? Fortunately, there's a better and more sustainable way to create emotion: Mean it.

It wouldn't be that hard to take emotion seriously. Most fabric softeners, for instance, have sold themselves with stick-on "mother's love." That is, when you use Downy or the like, you're not really softening your family's clothes; you're telling your child, "I love you." (The children of the world, though, want mothers to know that there's a more effective way to show love: unlimited texting.)

Why not simply replace the fake emotion with a real one? What if Downy started doing things to help struggling mothers -- and then used their ads to talk about the work? What if Bounce retaliated by throwing its weight behind job seekers looking to bounce back from a layoff? What if all this good work raised the competitive hackles of the not-to-be-underestimated Snuggle Bear? Perhaps it could sponsor a winter-coat drive.

What we're proposing here is an arms race of goodness -- a generation of companies that compete on real emotion rather than stick-on sentiments. Maybe that sounds Pollyanna-ish. If so, let us introduce you to some companies succeeding by meaning it.

Toms Shoes has a simple business model: Buy a pair of shoes, and it'll send a second pair to a child who needs it. This year, it'll send about 300,000 pairs of shoes to the developing world. And because it's the company's genuine passion to do so, Toms can take advantage of the word of mouth built into its product and spend dramatically less on marketing than other shoe companies. When you mean it, convincing customers doesn't take as much shouting.

Toms is a three-year-old startup, but the same concept works at scale. Newman's Own started as a lark -- a way for Paul Newman to show off his salad dressing -- but it has grown into a powerful brand with products all over the supermarket and more than $100 million in annual revenue. All of the company's profits have always gone to charity -- more than a quarter-billion dollars to date. Now, no one buys Newman's Own salad dressing to make a diluted charitable donation. They buy it because it tastes good and they like what the brand stands for.

The arms race of goodness isn't just for consumer brands. In the B2B space, over-the-top emotional appeals are less common. (Heaven help us if Oracle starts hyping database-loving nymphos.) But companies of all kinds can gain by embracing goodness.

Austin-based National Instruments is an unlikely exhibit for the power of emotion. The company makes high-end scientific testing equipment used by particle physicists and biotech engineers. As you'd expect, NI's employees care deeply about science. So when NI's leaders considered how to give back to the community, they wanted to tap that passion.

As described by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, NI set out to inspire more kids to fall in love with engineering and science. (The number of degrees awarded in these fields has been falling for years.) The company now sponsors robotics competitions for 9- to 18-year-olds, and it designed the software that powers Lego Mindstorms robotics kits. (You can't possibly hate science when you're building Lego robots.) NI employees also mentor STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students from local schools.

This work is valuable for its own sake, of course, but it also boosts NI's brand credibility. When customers assess NI, they see a company obsessed with engineering -- to the point where, as a hobby, NI's employees volunteer at robotics competitions. Other scientific companies could try to make that point in an ad; NI lives it.

Meaning it also pays off in an unexpected way: It motivates employees. When a company stands for something valuable, it makes workers happier. NI has become a perennial on best-places-to-work lists, and turnover is 50% lower than the industry average. Why would people leave?

The companies who mean it are building assets that can't be easily replicated. Meanwhile, other brands may rack up quick wins with clever stick-on ad campaigns. But, inevitably, that moustache will peel off.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Want to share a Made to Stick column with your team? Go to fastcompany.com/madetostick.

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11 Comments

  • Harush Dalal

    Hello Hank:
    I believe all companies have an abundance mentality when it comes to profits. The social aspect comes in when one considers how that abundance is shared. NI decided to share it with a population which has some inclination towards engineering and technology with the intention to solidify that inclination and convert it to passion.

  • Jonas Nicholson

    Real corporate social responsibility as a marketing function couldn’t’ be more relevant in the age of web 2.0 and social media. I believe stories like Tom’s Shoes are just the tip of the iceberg.

    Tools like twitter and facebook force companies to be more transparent, and send their good deeds and dirty laundry out for the whole world to see. I hope there will come a day when educated consumers speak their collective conscience with their wallets, and corporate karma is truly monetized.

    Pollyannaish or not, I bought from Tom’s shoes almost exclusively for the built in word of mouth – and passed it along via social networking.
    Thanks for a great article!

  • Loraine Antrim

    Messages around emotion for any company will have more appeal than cognitive ones. That said, it would be great if all organizations and companies could tap into that emotional baseline. But for many technology companies it is extremely hard to do, and even if you can find an emotional trigger, it is hard to sustain in the long term.

    --
    Loraine Antrim, Co-founding Partner
    Core Ideas Communication
    "We Create Smartmouths®"

  • Richard Geller

    There are additional benefits beyond marketing to such an approach. Employees who work for organizations that are truly committed to "serving the good" in any meaningful way receive the psychic pay of knowing that their work has a meaning beyond the company's stock price and its c-level's bloated paychecks. There is pride and satisfaction with being associated with such a company, and the benefits to the health and vitality of the organization spread out in many and sometimes unexpected directions.
    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...

  • Hank Merkle

    O.K. Dan and Chip thanks again for a thought provoking missive!

    So, the message I get is: "Be real"

    Unfortunately we know of too many companies that will not or cannot do this since their motto is; "What's my bottom line - NO, I mean RIGHT NOW!"
    The reason companies like NI stand out is because they are different - they care! Even if it is ploy (we are going to create this program of caring and sharing and these are all the things that are going to go into it because this is the outcome we want to create...) people WILL be affected by it - employees as well as potential consumers and exiting customers. [I don't think this is true for NI]

    The problem as I see it, perhaps I am too pessimistic, is that companies simply don't care - one's that do, stand out and don't need this kind of advice since they put their employees and customers first. Their approach to the business is how their product is innovative or helps solve a problem!
    I wish more companies had an "Abundance mentality" the world would be a better place.

  • Hank Merkle

    O.K. Dan and Chip thanks again for a thought provoking missive!

    So, the message I get is: "Be real"

    Unfortunately we know of too many companies that will not or cannot do this since their motto is; "What's my botom line - NO, I mean RIGHT NOW!"
    The reason companies like NI stand out is because they are different - they care! Even if it is ploy (we are going to create this program of caring and sharing and these are all the things that are going to go into it because this is the outcome we want to create...) people WILL be affected by it - employees as well as potential consumers and exiting customers. [I don't think this is true for NI]

    The problem as I see it, perhaps I am too pesimistic, is that companies simply don't care - one's that do, stand out and don't need this kind of advice since they put their employees and customers first. Their approach to the business is how their product is innovative or helps solve a problem!
    I wish more companies had an "Abundance mentality" the world would be a better place.

  • Hank Merkle

    O.K. Dan and Chip thanks again for a thought provoking missive!

    So, the message I get is: "Be real"

    Unfortunately we know of too many companies that will not or cannot do this since their motto is; "What's my botom line - NO, I mean RIGHT NOW!"
    The reason companies like NI stand out is because they are different - they care! Even if it is ploy (we are going to create this program of caring and sharing and these are all the things that are going to go into it because this is the outcome we want to create...) people WILL be affected by it - employees as well as potential consumers and exiting customers. [I don't think this is true for NI]

    The problem as I see it, perhaps I am too pesimistic, is that companies simply don't care - one's that do, stand out and don't need this kind of advice since they put their employees and customers first. Their approach to the business is how their product is innovative or helps solve a problem!
    I wish more companies had an "Abundance mentality" the world would be a better place.

  • Hank Merkle

    O.K. Dan and Chip thanks again for a thought provoking missive!

    So, the message I get is: "Be real"

    Unfortunately we know of too many companies that will not or cannot do this since their motto is; "What's my botom line - NO, I mean RIGHT NOW!"
    The reason companies like NI stand out is because they are different - they care! Even if it is ploy (we are going to create this program of caring and sharing and these are all the things that are going to go into it because this is the outcome we want to create...) people WILL be affected by it - employees as well as potential consumers and exiting customers. [I don't think this is true for NI]

    The problem as I see it, perhaps I am too pesimistic, is that companies simply don't care - one's that do, stand out and don't need this kind of advice since they put their employees and customers first. Their approach to the business is how their product is innovative or helps solve a problem!
    I wish more companies had an "Abundance mentality" the world would be a better place.

  • Hank Merkle

    O.K. Dan and Chip thanks again for a thought provoking missive!

    So, the message I get is: "Be real"

    Unfortunately we know of too many companies that will not or cannot do this since their motto is; "What's my botom line - NO, I mean RIGHT NOW!"
    The reason companies like NI stand out is because they are different - they care! Even if it is ploy (we are going to create this program of caring and sharing and these are all the things that are going to go into it because this is the outcome we want to create...) people WILL be affected by it - employees as well as potential consumers and exiting customers. [I don't think this is true for NI]

    The problem as I see it, perhaps I am too pesimistic, is that companies simply don't care - one's that do, stand out and don't need this kind of advice since they put their employees and customers first. Their approach to the business is how their product is innovative or helps solve a problem!
    I wish more companies had an "Abundance mentality" the world would be a better place.

  • Hank Merkle

    O.K. Dan and Chip thanks again for a thought provoking missive!

    So, the message I get is: "Be real"

    Unfortunately we know of too many companies that will not or cannot do this since their motto is; "What's my botom line - NO, I mean RIGHT NOW!"
    The reason companies like NI stand out is because they are different - they care! Even if it is ploy (we are going to create this program of caring and sharing and these are all the things that are going to go into it because this is the outcome we want to create...) people WILL be affected by it - employees as well as potential consumers and exiting customers. [I don't think this is true for NI]

    The problem as I see it, perhaps I am too pesimistic, is that companies simply don't care - one's that do, stand out and don't need this kind of advice since they put their employees and customers first. Their approach to the business is how their product is innovative or helps solve a problem!
    I wish more companies had an "Abundance mentality" the world would be a better place.