Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Emotions all around

All over town, it’s emotions emotions emotions.

At a seminar on branding in China that I recently attended, various speakers from the advertising industry defended and promoted the use of emotional bonding in all brand communications. The general message was to communicate with your consumers on a human level about subjects that are relevant to them- creativity, simplicity, power, status.

The audience was overwhelmed with proof of this statement: an impressive overview of best-in-class examples of integrated, holistic campaigns in which the deeper emotional benefits of a brand were central. Nokia connects people, in all possible interpretations of those words. Sony delivers colour, sound, memories, like no other. Nike uncovers the hidden athlete in all of us, encouraging everyone to just do it. Coke spreads happiness and vitality in a bottle through its vision on the Coke side of life. BMW goes beyond the functionalities of a high performance vehicle, and invites us to enjoy the pure pleasure of driving.

Having spent a significant part of my recent past in multinational consumer goods companies, I too remember the value I attached to the emotional positioning of our leading coffee brand: cosiness and human warmth. We expressed these values through any way possible, always reminding our consumers that they were paying more for our brand because it provided them more than a good-tasting drink and a boost to wake up in the morning.

Looking at the examples discussed during the seminar, one could state that indeed, the emotional branding and strong campaigns of these world-class brands are the basis of their success in China. And building on this statement, we can conclude that also in China, emotions are key, right?

For me, this is the real question that remains: is China ready for emotional branding? True, global, best in class brands are successful in China, and these same brands globally play out their emotional card. But does the same apply to smaller brands, or to domestic Chinese brands?

Talking to quite a few people in the industry, and simply walking around Shanghai, observing shoppers’ behaviour, I’ve learned that for many Chinese, quality, price, value and practicality are the main reasons for purchasing a product. True, any international brand name offers status to China’s new and upcoming consumers, but to go as far as to say that they prefer Nokia’s “connecting” qualities over Samsung’s advanced product features is a leap I wouldn’t dare to take.

Going one step back into the value chain, talking to companies building and fostering brands in China, I notice that they are not talking purely about emotions. It’s about channel strategy, building up a sound distribution system, with logistics that keep up speed, delivering a stable brand promise with the same quality throughout the country, tapping into the sales potential of an increasingly large potential consumer base.

When it’s all about growth in a rapidly developing market, the important thing is to be there, and keep up. Emotions are nice, and crucial to a brand’s essence, but it is only really necessary to communicate about them in mature, saturated markets, where consumers no longer decide with their wallets but with their hearts.

Catherine Crevels works for the Belgian marketing consulting firm The House of Marketing out of its Shanghai office.

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