Emotional connection with consumers – is it real or fake? Read this interesting opinion from Alessandro Donetti

Alessandro Donetti Emotional ConnectionItalian native Alessandro Donetti is a Senior Advisor with 25+ years of experience in the areas of Consumer Centric Transformation, Consumer Behavior, Consumer Emotions, Service Experience, Retail Experience and Learning.

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The unnatural movement of an eye – and why

Whenever I read that companies and marketers should have as their top priority to bond emotionally with consumers, my eyes roll a bit. To explain the reason why my eyes do that “unnatural” movement I use the story reported by D.A. Wallach on Wired.

Imagine a store in your neighbourhood that sells toilet paper for 1 euro a roll. Let’s assume that each roll costs 60 cents to manufacture and sell, generating 40 cents of net profit. You typically buy 10 rolls a month, generating a total of 4 euro of profit for the store’s owner.

This imaginary entrepreneur created a disruptive emotional connection

Now imagine that an entrepreneur, Franco Rossi, has an epiphany, a gigantic business idea to disrupt the toilet paper industry: toilet paper is a massive, unrealized lifestyle branding opportunity!

Everyone needs toilet paper but no one loves it.

What if a new brand spoke to the consumer’s unique personal style, home decor and ethos? Franco sets out to call this brand, “Flush” – and opens a store next to the old one, offering rolls in hundreds of different stylish prints. In order to make the switch a no-brainer for the consumer, Flush sells its rolls for 1 euro, too.

Then Franco adds the coup de grace.

Emotional connections with cause marketing

Can cause marketing create real emotional connections with consumers?

He announces that for every toilet roll he sells. He will donate 5 cents to a new charity that provides toilet paper to orphans in Bangladesh. For each roll sold, then, the company will net 35 cents, less than its competitor, but a perfectly fine profit. Of course, Flush will heavily promote its charitable business model to consumers. They will learn that buying Flush means buying style and justice, that is to be emotionally connected to orphans in Bangladesh! I’m quite sure that you can easily see the advertisement now, in your mind.

The new store becomes a big success! You and every other customer of the old store switch to Flush. The company opens an online channel and twenty retail locations. Your monthly ten rolls bring 3.50 euro in Franco Rossi’s pockets and bring 50 cents of toilet paper to Bangladeshi orphans.

Profits surge very high. Altogether, Franco takes home a cool million and gives away 143,000 euro (of toilet paper) to the orphans.

After five years of this, a major paper company buys Flush for 20 million, all of which goes to Franco since he owns the entire business. This triumph of compassionate branding appears to be an unqualified victory for everyone involved: the consumer, Franco Rossi, and especially the bottoms of those poor orphans, who received almost a million euro worth of free toilet paper during Rossi’s independent life.

Now my question is: Do you think “Flush” is a brand emotionally connected with consumers?

Maybe your eyes are rolling like mine and you are thinking, “What the are you saying, Alessandro!” – Aren’t you?

Now imagine that one of the consumers who has bought some Flush rolls had a horrible experience with it (due for instance to the quality of the paper), and resolves never again to buy Flush. Do you think that Rossi will feel pain for that consumer? Or is he more interested in the lost profit?

Up to you to respond.

This kind of “cause marketing” has surged recently with a real boom in the US. In 2017 it was valued at $2,07 bln. The reason? Because – as brand experts and the like say – when choosing between two brands of equal quality and price, 90% of shoppers are likely to switch to a cause branded product. Bingo!

But that loyalty is really based on emotional connection?

Again, up to you to respond.

Feeling not reasoning creates Emotional Connection

One of the most important neuroscience discoveries has been that of “mirror neurons”.

In the early ’90, the neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team – at the University of Parma, Italy – were investigating the part of the central nervous system involved in movement, when they came upon a surprising find.

On a hot summer day of 1991, a monkey is sitting in a special laboratory chair waiting for researchers to return from lunch. Thin wires had been implanted in the region of its brain involved in planning and carrying out movements. Every time the monkey grasped and moved an object, some cells in his brain region would fire, and a monitor would register a sound: “brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip”.

A graduate student entered the lab with an ice cream cone in his hand. The monkey stared at him. Then, something amazing happened: when the student raised the cone to his lips, the monitor sounded – brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip – even though the monkey had not moved but had simply observed the student grasping the cone and moving it to his mouth.

The researchers had earlier noticed the same strange phenomenon with peanuts. The same brain cells fired when the monkey watched humans or other monkeys bring peanuts to their mouths as when the monkey itself brought a peanut to its mouth. Later, the scientists found cells that fired when the monkey broke open a peanut or heard someone break a peanut. The same thing happened with bananas, raisins and all kinds of other objects.

mirror neurons emotional patterns in marketing

A mirror neuron, or cubelli neuron, is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting

Neuroscientists then have proved that a similar mechanism is at work in humans, and is by far more powerful.

Humans, it turns out, have mirror neurons that are far smarter, more flexible and more highly evolved than any of those found in monkeys, a fact that neuroscientists say reflects the evolution of humans’ sophisticated social abilities.

The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding, not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behaviour and their emotions. “We are exquisitely social creatures”, Rizzolatti said. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others” and continued, “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking”.

The problem of thinking without feeling

When we talk about understanding the emotions of others, we refer to what is normally called empathy. Psychologists describe three very different ways to sense another person’s feelings. The first is “cognitive empathy,” simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy involves figuring out the emotional states of others without actually feeling it.

The second type of empathy is the so-called “emotional empathy” – when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This emotional contagion depends in large part on the mirror neuron system.
The third type of empathy is the “compassionate empathy”. With this kind of empathy we do not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but we are spontaneously moved to help. It promotes altruistic behaviour.

Cause marketing is a perfect example of an action brands can take which is based on cognitive empathy, and it’s an action which creates what I call a “Fake Loyalty”

Random acts of kindness creates emotional connection

Now let’s consider another type of action brands can take to create loyalty based on another type of empathy.

random acts of kindnessAmong the different “structured” approaches based on consumer needs analysis, that could be boring for all of you – there are so many books and articles to be read – I would prefer to talk about the random acts of kindness, that is the so-called “just because” acts.

In 1994, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution declaring a national “Random Acts of Kindness Week” (H.J. Res. 357, 1994). Organizations such as the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have adopted the mission of “practising kindness” and “passing it on” by engaging in volunteer work and doing good deeds for others, such as giving cookies to city workers and flowers to coworkers.

Some of the suggested good deeds are anonymous acts, such as slip paper hearts that say, ”It’s Random Acts of Kindness Week! Have a Great Day!” under the windshield wipers of parked cars.

Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Virginia studied if these acts could have effects on people’s mood. They studied whether these acts make people happy, and if so, for how long – if you are interested in the detail of the experiments, go here.

As you can easily guess, acts of kindness surely make people happy, but do they make people happier for longer when they are random and thus difficult to explain? That’s the so-called Pleasure Paradox.

The research clearly proved the pleasure paradox, that is, people experience much higher level of emotional connection when they experience an act of kindness they do not understand the reason, compared with an act for which they understand the reason

I have applied the Pleasure Paradox in a recent program I run for a large retail company. Sales assistants are empowered to deliver randomly different kind of small gifts to customers or visitors in the store – that is people who only asked information to the assistant, and after that did not buy any product. When the customer – or visitor – asks the reason for the gift, the answer is only 2 words: “just because” – together with a smile and an eye contact – the basics of emotional connection, is it not?

The results have been extraordinary. We measured an improvement of emotional experience exceeding 45%, consequently, a growth of sales per ticket of more than 20% and NPS (Net Promoter Score) grew almost two-fold!

Now it’s up to you to choose which kind of emotional connection you want to create with consumers: a fake or a real one?

This article was first published on LinkedIn here