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Of Clocks and Clouds: the Rational and the Emotional in Branding Processes

Most people would agree that a branding process involves quite a few emotional elements that target the client’s heart, alongside rational elements that target his intellect and logic. However, the question of when and to what extent it is best to use each of these opposing forces is a matter of some debate. This is the story of the complex interplay of emotion and reason in the branding world.

During my first year as a social sciences student, one of my lecturers said that the field we were about to study contained many rational elements on the one hand, and many emotional elements on the other. He summed up his argument by saying that “in social sciences, we deal with that which exists between the clouds and the clocks”. I find that the same often holds true for branding. The branding process includes rational elements and hard facts, alongside abstract, emotional elements that cannot be defined by formulae. In many ways, it, too, is suspended in midair, somewhere between ‘the clocks and the clouds’.

One of the first and fundamental steps in any branding process is to devise a brand strategy. This entails, among other things, the search for an accurate definition of the brand and its relative advantages in the market. Another, no less important strategic objective is to find and understand the target audience. To achieve this, branding experts use quantitative studies based on statistical and empirical principles (such as broad-scope public opinion polls) as well as qualitative studies based on observations of human behavior in an attempt to understand it (such as narrative studies and life stories). The findings of the qualitative research can then be verified against the results of the public opinion polls.

As we arrive at the task of defining the brand’s advantages, the emotional and the rational meet once again. Each brand possesses some advantages that can be categorized as logical. These include economic feasibility (the cost-benefit factor), impressive product features and technical specifications (a multi-core processor or a Smartphone with a bigger screen) and more. At the same time, some products have become status symbols. The iPhone, for instance, has come to define its users’ place in the social structure. These feelings and experiences cannot be measured or quantified, yet, more often than not, the sheer power of the emotional response they evoke drives consumers to ignore the logical cost-benefit considerations and base their decisions on ‘gut-feelings’. That being said, reason must never be underestimated. Many clients make their choice emotionally, and immediately create a “rational alibi” to affirm its correctness. Therefore, we should aspire to create a brand that conveys the right emotional messages for the target audience, and ‘backs them up’ by emphasizing its concrete, factual advantages.

Thus, for instance, certain medical equipment companies use rational messages that accurately describe what they do, what advantages they offer their clients, and how their success is reflected in the numbers. There is, however, a new, parallel trend of science-oriented companies (specializing in technology, medicine, etc.) employing strategies that cross over to the emotional end of the spectrum. One such company is medical equipment giant, Johnson & Johnson, whose website is draped with pictures of smiling children, adults and families. Unlike other companies of its type, which usually use pictures of doctors or their own products and thus, convey rational, intellectual messages, Johnson & Johnson has chosen an approach that speaks to the clients’ hearts.

In the business world, many brands tend to incorporate visual as well as verbal content into the various marketing means at their disposal (the company website, mobile app, brochures etc), thus communicating emotional messages, backed up by hard data. Alternatively, the verbal messages can be the vehicles that deliver the emotional impact through the use of catchy slogans, supported by rationally oriented visuals, such as pictures of the product. The possibilities of play between the rational and the emotional are endless, and the balance can be shifted to either side in a myriad of different ways.

The delicate balance between reason and emotion is complex, and often hard to grasp. It is important to remember that each brand is a world unto itself, and so, each case has its own optimal mix of branding elements. The decision of whether to target the clients’ hearts or minds has to be made according to each brand’s differentiation, target audience and other insights obtained during the formulation of its strategy. Additionally, it is always possible to reconsider the use of different types of messages in a specific campaign or special operation designed to strengthen the brand.