‘Emocracy’ and the new politics of branding

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With Brexit day looming ominously, David Penn of Conquest muses on how the emotional marketing of brands has leached into politics.

Historian Niall Ferguson wrote recently “We no longer live in a democracy. We live in an ‘emocracy’, where emotions rule… and feelings matter more than reason”. Ferguson was talking about politics (and specifically a political landscape inflamed by populism, fake news and social media), but it made me wonder: has politics finally caught up with marketing?

Or, put another way, has politics descended into a post-rational free-for-all where ideas fight one another for the finite cognitive space available, and where reasoned argument gives way to heuristics and emotions? A landscape in which, as Ferguson puts it, we “never use words where an emoji will do”.

Most of us who work in marketing are familiar with the argument that we’ve entered a post-rational age; not irrational, but non-rational. It’s become more and more difficult to explain purchasing behaviour in terms of rational product differences – emotion and cognitive biases (heuristics) seem to explain things far better than traditional ‘rational choice’ theories, customer journeys and the rest.

So when Oscar Wilde remarked, ‘’I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable”, he might have been anticipating early consumer mass marketing. Because, in the 20th-century model of brand communication, advertising was seen as a kind of missile-delivery system that would bludgeon the unsuspecting customer into submission.

Remember those 1960s models of how advertising works? Famously, AIDA (Attention – Interest – Decision – Action) assumed a linear relationship between advertising impact and eventual action; the basic idea being that, to change behaviour, you must first get attention and then lodge a (persuasive) message. What next? Decision and ACTION!

Yet, as early as the late 1960s, the foundations of this model were beginning to crumble. Persuading people to buy your product is a viable strategy until you run out of (persuasive) things to say – and, in many categories, that is more or less what happened.

As markets matured and product differentiation lessened, marketers found it increasingly difficult to work to a persuasion strategy. Fact is, once the competition catches up (and in a globalised world they inevitably will), what is there left to say?

The answer is, of course, to transform your product from a thing (with rational benefits) into a mental construct (with positive associations). Rather than labour to persuade consumers of objective benefits (washes whiter, tastes better, lasts longer, etc.), why not create thoughts, feelings and beliefs about it which differentiate it from the rest?

Brands help us to make (lots of) decisions quickly and fairly efficiently. Because brand choice is a mostly a low-risk activity, non-rational processes (such as ‘gut feel’ and heuristics) are usually good enough and, provided product delivery is adequate, we don’t usually feel cheated or short-changed.

If I buy a new brand of toothpaste and I don’t like it, it’s a minor disappointment not a disaster. I can always buy a different brand next time. Problem is, once we transfer that kind of decision making to politics what do you get? If you elect the wrong president you have to wait four years to put it right. And if you vote for Brexit or Scottish independence you’re probably stuck with that decision for ever.

Perhaps, in a hundred years or so, brands will be seen as the most significant cultural phenomenon of the late 20th century – as a sort of triumph of mind over matter. But do we really want a political system that works on similar principles? Politics needs to rise above gut reaction: it needs reason as well as emotion.

Give me democracy not emocracy any day!

This article first appeared in www.warc.com

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