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.