There’s Emotion in the Function of a Brand

One doesn’t need a big canvas to paint the “emotional” picture of the current brand state: a climate where brand positions sit at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, regardless of category engagement, in an attempt to create ownable and conceptual distance from a mass of me-too brands. Despite this strategy’s ability to establish distinction from the commodity market, its widespread adoption has created a new type of homogenization; where distinction is muted through emotional rhetoric.

Nothing about this strategy is new, but its widespread and generic application across industries is resulting in emotional fatigue. We’ve heard it time and again; people are looking for products and brands that bring value to their particular needs, not brands that offer to be a new best friend, or life coach. Some people may interpret this mandate as certain death to branding. Instead it brings focus, clarity and surprising opportunity.

Challenging the need for an emotional connection between a brand and its consumers is unnecessary. It’s understood that emotion underpins loyalty. There’s no need to question this end goal, but rather the one trick pony that guides us here. Establishing emotion through emotional positioning is a safe sell for anxious boardrooms, but increasingly less impactful to desensitized consumers. Emotion covers many ranges, and there are more places to play than stereotypical extremes.

The first step comes from recognizing that all forms of reaction are emotional. This subtle and scientific realization is enough to call into question the contrived frameworks and over-simplified brand tools that plot a brand’s strategic approach. If all reaction is a form of emotion, why do we pin function and emotion at opposing ends of the spectrum? Instead of making a choice between the two, it’s more helpful to identify the emotion that can be found in function itself.

This notion goes far beyond the current no bullshit, utility driven sentiment that defines today’s millennial generation where honest brands like Everlane are celebrated for creating transparency around apparel production, how practicality of Hunter boots and Barbour jackets are enjoying newfound cultural appropriation. These brands provide compelling and obvious examples of how function has a strong and defining foothold in today’s zeitgeist, but they also represent companies whose founding philosophy was built on the back of function. Although these brands provide proven inspiration for the emotional impact of functional positioning, the difficulty for most brand owners is applying this formula to existing brands without the opportunity to influence higher order change.

A well-known case of a commodity brand achieving sustained differentiation and engagement through functional positioning is Buckley’s, a Canadian cough and cold medication now sold in the US. The brand proposition, “It tastes awful. And it works.”, is a longstanding ode to functional reform. The company’s founder developed the natural product in 1919, and this brand position has been shepherding its success since the mid 1980s. In this particular scenario, a product weakness was glorified to enforce product efficacy, promoting a dedication to performance over taste. Even as the product line continues to expand, taste will not be improved. The brand recognizes that modifying taste may appeal to a new market of weaker palates, but it will also sacrifice its equity in a category of sameness. Sometimes creating distinction means taking calculated risks. When searching for functional difference, challenge yourself to look beyond the expected.

The other valuable take-away from Buckley’s positioning is illustrated in the brand’s creative execution. It demonstrates that just because a position may be functional, its delivery does not need to be. A series of spots showcasing the contorted Buckley’s face plays off the universal truth of how awful taking medicine can be, and just how much people enjoy watching other people squirm. This honest and relatable approach sets Buckley’s well apart from other cold medications that have positioned themselves on the heels of consumer enablement despite life’s obstacles. This comparison is not to evaluate one approach against the other, but to demonstrate that functional positioning can trigger emotional responses and forge long lasting brand connections. So much so that when Buckley’s experienced a product shortage from a closed manufacturing facility, consumers took to the internet to find out what happened to their brand rather than passively reaching for the generic alternative. The next time you hear that category breakthrough and engagement cannot be channeled through function alone, remember a functional position does not need to be tethered to a boring brand tone.

Establishing breakthrough and carving out brand difference will be hard to achieve if you’re not willing to take a different path to get there, especially in our commodity driven environment. Rather than retreating to emotional extremes, recognize that there is more to function than ‘reasons to believe’. Start by understanding what sets your brand apart; chances are you have more to offer than you recognize.

the author

Kirstin Hammerberg

Kirstin Hammerberg is VP, Brand at Idea Couture.