Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor, once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” While the subject of branding was not at all related to the context of this quote, I think about it a lot in the brand strategy work I do. I believe that the most important question brand leaders should answer, at the foundation of their brand strategy, is “Why should people care about your brand?”, with an emphasis on “care”.

The fact is, most people aren’t walking around searching for brands. They’re focused on getting more out of life, with less stress and greater enjoyment. If a brand can make someone’s life better, it has a better chance of playing an important role. For brands, overcoming indifference by becoming something that people consciously care about, is not only an important achievement, it can have a great impact on brand desire, loyalty, and business growth.

Yet, most brand leaders are still ignoring or under-leveraging the proven power of emotion in their work. As I think about my perfect future of branding, I’m looking forward to the day when the majority of brand leaders more deeply understand, appreciate, and tap into this power.

Going forward, leaders of strong brands will be more successful because they understand and address what people care about most. Their competitive advantage is acting on emotional insight to drive greater growth for the brands that they serve.

Importantly, there’s never been a more opportune time for them to act in this way, given the convergence of several factors – more accessible methods of collecting data on people’s instinctive emotions and motivations, increasingly sophisticated ways that brand experiences can be personalized, and a society that, by and large, rewards brands that are altruistic and inclusive.

For brand leaders who want to lead the way to the future of branding, here are three important areas of focus:

Greater brand-led emotional intelligence

In my perfect view of the future of branding, emotional intelligence is ubiquitous and fully leveraged so that brands can truly make people’s lives better. Emotional intelligence is a term typically used to rate the ability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and adjust emotions to adapt to environments. More and more, brands will also be expected to have a high degree of emotional intelligence when it comes to customers and the world at large.

Over time, the bar for brand experience has and will continue to rise. Up until the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, advertising was the primary way that brands established their reputation. They told people what to think about their brand, and people only had muted ways to share their actual brand experience. Then, the internet gave people the ability to freely share information and write reviews that everyone could see, which accelerated beginning with 2007, soon after the launch of the iPhone and the escalated use of social media. Ever-increasingly, brands are under scrutiny to improve the experience they deliver because bad experiences are now easily exposed in ways that directly impact business results. It’s why the whole field of Customer Experience emerged over the last 10 years, including research, consultants, conferences, and corporate departments led by Chief Customer Experience Officers.

The research that comes out of this period consistently points to emotion as the important area of focus. According to Forrester, “Emotion holds the key to achieving customer experience differentiation. Brands that want to break away from the pack should focus on emotion.” Deloitte reported that “the ability to recognize and use emotional data at scale is one of the biggest, most important opportunities for companies.”

As the impact of emotion has come more into light, so has the discussion about neuroscience, such as the popularized System-1/System-2 work of Daniel Kahneman. His research highlights that the large majority (up to 95%) of decisions we make are instinctive and subconscious occurring in the limbic part of our brain which guides emotion, motivation, behavior, and memory. This has led to an increase of neuroscience-based research capabilities disrupting traditional research approaches that brands have historically relied upon.

Now, a growing handful of highly qualified behavioral science research companies have the capabilities to help us identify and understand instinctive and subconscious responses from individuals. While this type of research was once only available in labs with sophisticated equipment hooked up to individual respondents, there are now ways to replicate these 1-person-at-a-time studies using online quantitative methodologies that have high degrees of statical significance and higher correlations to predicted behavior, with hundreds of respondents at-a-time. Thus, more accessible emotional data and insight are making it possible for brands to have increased emotional intelligence to guide messaging and experiences.

Greater brand-led hyper-personalization

In my perfect view of the future of branding, the power of insight is combined with technology to hyper-personalize brand experiences in incredibly relevant and desirable ways. Personalization has been around for some time. Increasingly, however, a combination of deeper insight and technological advances make it easier for brand leaders to create more desirable brand experiences through hyper-personalization.

Consider, for example, how today’s companies, like Netflix, are analyzing data about how people scroll through show options and their viewership. There’s a massive amount of data that they can analyze to personalize the experience, increase the relevance of what’s displayed and promoted for individual account profiles, and inform future shows featured or developed.

We know that algorithms like this are being used in many digital and social media experiences, but increasingly, they are being applied to other types of experiences and products. Think about the home appliance category, which is slowly being reshaped by the ability to hyper-personalize experiences. This is a category where products are purchased and expected to last 10 +/- years, and aside from a few premium brands and features, it has mostly been a low-engagement commodity category. However, thanks to the exploding availability of “smart-home” products and apps, home appliances are increasingly becoming hyper-personalized. Not only can the most modern appliances be programmed and customized, but they are also becoming more predictive, proactive, and integrated with other products – giving people a desirable ecosystem that supports a variety of home-life activities.

“Brands have both the opportunity and influence to set an example and lead us toward a kinder world that is more inclusive and altruistic.”

The near-future possibilities for insight and technology to create hyper-personalized experiences are endless. Self-driving cars will proactively plan your best route. Nearly anything you’d like to purchase, from clothing to furniture and beyond, will be custom-designed by you, 3D-printed/manufactured, and shipped. Healthcare will increasingly use artificial intelligence to monitor, detect, and inform patients and healthcare professionals about illnesses and treatment options. Doctors will increasingly have greater access to patient-specific insight and treatment solutions, enabling them to spend more time providing emotional care.

Regardless of product category, hyper-personalization will give people infinite possibilities for experiences that are curated and designed for individual preferences. Brands that lead the way in making this possible will earn higher emotional engagement and appeal.

Greater brand-led inclusion and altruism

In my perfect view of the future of branding, brands use their reach and influence to guide society at large to be more inclusive and altruistic. There are many examples of brands that have brought attention to causes and created movements to improve the lives of people.

One incredible example of a brand that exists to improves people’s lives is TOMS shoes. TOMS was launched to help people who don’t have shoes with a very simple and powerful concept – for every pair of shoes bought, a second pair would go to a person in need. This inspired a movement and, in the brand’s first 13 years, 95 million pairs of shoes were given to people in need.

Brands that primarily exist to sell products and services also have tremendous influence when it comes to societal causes. There’s an abundance of research to prove that companies that authentically and altruistically support these causes are more attractive consumers.

Ben & Jerry’s, a Vermont-based ice-cream brand now owned by Unilever, has always been vocal in environmental and societal causes – something that does not go unnoticed by its loyal following. In 2020, when racial tensions in the United States significantly escalated, Ben & Jerry’s issued an incredibly strong corporate statement of position and calls for racial justice with the headline, “Why We Must Dismantle White Supremacy – Silence is Not an Option”. This is just one of many examples of brands that have taken a vocal position on racial justice.

Brands have the platform, funding, and power to model new ideas, new behaviors, and spark movements that forever change how people think and live. As racial, political, and environmental division is on the rise in America and many other countries, brands have both the opportunity and influence to set an example and lead us toward a kinder world that is more inclusive and altruistic. Deloitte recently shared a detailed study on the science of brand-fueled movements. In it, they shared that “Inspiring and Evoking Emotion” is the 1st of 5 essential characteristics that lead to successful brand-led movements.

My perfect future of branding

In my perfect view of the future of branding, the most successful brands will earn loyalty and growth by consistently winning the hearts and minds of people. They will increasingly seek to understand what people care most about and be able to respond in highly relevant ways that strengthen emotional connections, engagement, and loyalty. These strong brands will not only focus on, but be more successful at, getting beyond indifference to create legions of followers who truly care.

As Brandingmag reached its 10th anniversary this year, we’re putting together an original series that envisions a perfect future for branding. Ten articles will explore ten different sides of branding, each one through the eyes of an expert on the subject. Join our celebration and stay tuned for the next installment in the “Branding’s Perfect 10” series.

Next: Olaf van Gerwen on advertising
(Branding’s Perfect 10 – Full Circle? Boring AF)

Cover image source: geralt