Kevin Allen has always been one who seeks to understand what drives people’s decisions. He’s a business development guru with decades of experience winning and leading big-brand client relationships at top ad agencies. He wrote The Hidden Agenda, an incredibly insightful book on the art of business development. It’s focused on the idea that decisions are made by people, people have needs and agendas, and understanding those needs and agendas is a critical driver of all business decisions.

Now, Kevin is using that human insight and his relationship-building skills to help individuals, from business leaders to students, strengthen relationships through greater emotional intelligence. He’s an emotional intelligence expert who is currently in the final stages of earning a PhD on the subject. His company, EI Games, makes emotional intelligence skills accessible and inclusive by delivering content that inspires groundbreaking and emotive leadership.

I [Kevin Perlmutter] started my career working for Kevin. He was my first true professional mentor, and his relationship-building teachings have stayed with me throughout my career. Now, our worlds are intersecting again around the subjects of emotion, relationships, and brands. It’s why I’m so thrilled to interview him, learn from him and, together, share how applying the core principles of emotional intelligence can benefit brands.

Brandingmag: In your experience, what’s the key to building strong healthy relationships?

Kevin Allen: I’m of the belief that emotion is at the core of strong relationships and that people make decisions emotionally. There is a lot of literature that supports this and I’ll share two discoveries that strengthened my conviction on this point.

My first discovery was Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. He uncovers how humans and animals possess a universal language of emotion, but in the case of humans, it is the absolute foundation of their success as a species.

My second discovery occurred as a result of years of pitching for new accounts in the ad agency business. Often, we would celebrate a win with the client over dinner, and I would ask the client why they awarded us the business. They always said the same thing. They never said, “Oh, that strategy…”, they said, “Because you get it.” As I began to deconstruct, what the “it” was, I eventually realized that the magic of our victories was in how we were using our emotional antenna to understand what was really in the hearts of our buyers.

The key to building strong relationships is in your ability to have an ever-present emotional antenna, such that you’re constantly in touch and connecting with the emotional states of your constituency, whoever that constituency might be.

Bm: What inspired you to re-focus your work on emotional intelligence education and training?

KA: The answer to this question can be traced back to a very, very early age. See, if you were to say hello to Kevin at five years old, he’d just burst right into tears, completely and utterly terrified. Looking at and analyzing little Kevin, who was in the closet and overly emotional, seemingly did not add up to an archetype for what leadership was. However, as luck would have it, what made me successful turned out to be the very thing I thought was a weakness. My success was to be found, my ever-present emotional antenna. I was like the kid in the movie Sixth Sense who saw ghosts everywhere – I couldn’t help it. I’d enter a room and just have a sense of what was going on.

As for what propelled me to work in education, a couple of things brought me to this conclusion. As a young business professional, I faced many challenges, including undergoing extortion as a young gay kid in the closet. I wanted to let young people know that the people they are, as they are, are fantastic! Ultimately, when we talk about fancy words, like self-awareness, what that really means is understanding who you are, as you are, and connecting genuinely to others…and when you do, you’re a success. That’s what got me into education and is precisely what I love about it so much.

Bm: What is emotional intelligence?

KA: I stand in the shadow of Dr. Reuven Bar-On and Peter Salovey, PhD, David Caruso, PhD and John D. Mayer, PhD, the pioneers in emotional intelligence, and, of course, Daniel Goleman, who wrote a really clever book about it.

Emotional intelligence, as it’s been defined by these scholars, centers around how we perceive and express ourselves, how we develop and maintain social relationships, how we cope with challenges, and, most importantly, how we use emotional information in a meaningful way. It’s understanding your emotions, and the emotions of others to shape behavior. Goleman documented five core elements of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation, and social skills.

What’s exciting is that everyone has the ability to be more emotionally intelligent. Your IQ is going to be what it’s going to be. Even your personality measurement remains fairly constant. Emotional intelligence, your EQ, is something that can be enhanced and developed.

In my view, it’s about the linkage between self-awareness, that is, what do I understand about myself, and the emotional longing and deep needs of others, or their motivation. That’s accomplished via empathy. For me, empathy is the magical connection.

Oh, and by the way, it can only happen if you do one very important thing – listen. It’s what my mother used to say to me when I was a little boy, “Kevin, listening is not waiting for your turn to speak!” It’s really and truly caring about what it is that your audience feels and that it’s important to you.

Bm: How can emotional intelligence make leaders more effective?

KA: One of my heroes, or as Maya Angelou would say, “sheroes”, is none other than Angela Ahrendts. Now, when she was CEO of Burberry, I was still living in London. I had recently found out about her and I adored her and thought, if you looked up “emotionally intelligent leaders“ in Wikipedia, you’d see her picture. It turned out that my friend, Andy Janowski became her Chief Operating Officer, and it was my chance to meet the goddess. So, being my mother’s most persistent child, I begged him, twice a week, and finally, I got the meeting. My mobile phone rings and it’s a lady with an exquisite British accent saying, “Hello, this is Ms. Ahrendts’ personal assistant, would you be available for lunch today in her office?” I literally ran across town and there I am sitting in front of this amazing woman, and there’s my book, The Hidden Agenda, on her desk with all the post-it notes all throughout. I said, “Um, I think you’ve read my book. She said, “Oh, yes, and by the way, this is not a book on selling… It’s a book on leadership”.

She pointed out what was for her the most salient notion – my definition of emotionally intelligent leadership. It is that you are made buoyant, you float because people believe you are worthy of it. Why? Because you have connected with their very heart and soul. They believe that you “get it” and, therefore, they’re willing to support you.

Bm: Emotional intelligence is typically about interactions between people. How can brands benefit from being more emotionally intelligent?

KA: For marketers today, their brand is a constituency. People who are followers of a particular brand are people who I call brand citizens. They decide whether or not to follow you and whether or not they believe in you. So, the dynamics of that connection are rooted in understanding the essence of your brand and connecting it to a constituency who will follow. This is what it really takes to be a successful marketer. It’s a bridge between self-awareness and audience motivation.

Let’s unpack self-awareness from the point of view of what a brand is about. Self-awareness, from a brand perspective, is clarity about what it believes, how its behavior is guided, and how it sets out to understand and connect with the heart of its customers (or brand citizens).

A brand manager, or better yet, a brand citizen custodian, is a person who is responsible for the nurturance of the belief system of the brand that binds together its constituents. That’s the core trait of a successful brand person.

Steve Jobs, in my view, was an emotionally intelligent brand custodian. You say to yourself, “That’s crazy…he barked at people.” Well, just think… His genius was the ability to understand the Apple brand’s true emotive essence and belief system, and to feel and grasp the emotional motivations of his Apple constituents. Few have ever understood how to shape a brand as he did.

“A brand manager, or better yet, a brand citizen custodian, is a person who is responsible for the nurturance of the belief system of the brand that binds together its constituents. That’s the core trait of a successful brand person.”

Bm: What do you feel are the most important traits of Emotional Intelligence that brands should imbue?

KA: First and foremost, understanding to the very depth, the essence of your brand’s DNA – not facts, but values, beliefs, and the emotional reactions they trigger.

Second, is the heart, soul, and emotional state of your customer and the context in which they are living. Do that and you’ll be relevant forever.

It’s why MasterCard’s ‘Priceless’, which I was part of pitching, winning, and creating so many years back, is still with us after 24 years. ‘Priceless’ is an abiding understanding of a conceptual target of good people, buying goods, things for good reasons, and a DNA of a brand rooted in a belief of living, not a rich lifestyle, but a rich life. It’s also how Dove created the Real Women campaign, led by my dear friend, Daryl Fielding, which is still relevant today. It’s because of the eternal human truth found in understanding that women are beautiful as they are.

Bm: Do you think the need for brands to have greater emotional intelligence has been constant over time or is it increasing?

KA: With the democratization of, well, the world, including marketing, emotional intelligence is more important than ever before. I tell all my students to read Theodore Levitt’s Marketing Myopia written in 1960. Imagine, here’s this fellow who says the railroads went out of business, not because of a lack of demand for transportation (which was growing), they went out of business because they defined themselves as being in the railroad business, not in the customer business. So, when we unpack this extraordinary vision, the question is, what does customer centricity mean? It means being an emotionally intelligent marketer. I think it’s maintaining an abiding relationship with how our customers feel.

For me, Nike is an example of a brand that consistently demonstrates its emotional intelligence. This is an organization that understands the emotional state of their constituency, both those very people portrayed in their communications, but most importantly, people who are of like-mind who make up their constituency. Some years ago, they launched “If you let me play sports” with young girls saying, “If you let me play sports, I’ll do better in school… If you let me play sports, I won’t let someone abuse me…” This exquisite campaign took a stand and actually reflected the sentiments and beliefs of their citizenship. More recently, Nike’s alignment with Colin Kaepernick summed up not only the risks that he was willing to take, but those in the Nike community whose emotional longings he would connect to. It is no wonder Nike is a beloved brand and I will always admire them for their courage, for speaking out, not bending to the prevailing conditions, and maintaining a true understanding of what sits inside their constituencies’ hearts and letting that be reflected in their marketing.

Bm: What are 3 things that brand leaders should start doing to become and benefit from being more emotionally intelligent?

KA: Back in my youth, I was closely involved in a mayoral election in the city of New York. During the election process, I met an incredible guy named Michael Petrides. Mike was a famed political consultant and one of the most winning political guys of his era. Now, in my twenties, there were people with who I was very comfortable and people who terrified me. Mike scared me to death. On the day I met him, he sat down and said, “Hey kid. Whaddaya know?” What do I do? I blurt out, “How do you do it?” He smiled and said, “Kid, there are three C’s… the candidate, the constituency, and the context. Align these three things and you’ll get elected.”

When applying this to brands, the constituency is your audience. What burns in the hearts of these people? What do they long for? Do they want to feel safe? Do they want their children to be better off? Do they want to fight back? There’s something emotionally in their hearts and you must understand what that is. The candidate is your brand, and it’s essentially about their self-awareness. What are the emotional and value system characteristics that will connect with that longing of your constituency? The third “C” (marketers, listen carefully because this is the match to the powder keg) is context. Remember that your constituency doesn’t live in a vacuum. They live in the world, and you must be relevant to them so that they see you not only understand their emotional longing, but that you know what they are experiencing. If you line up those three C’s your brand will fly.

Cover image source: Alexandru Acea