After three decades of working in the advertising business, Daryl Travis has learned that a business’ success rarely depends on advertising, but rather how its brand emotionally connects with its customers. His book, Emotional Branding: How Successful Brands Gain the Irrational Edge, explores this innovative theory, and his success with Brandtrust has proven it for his clients time and time again. Travis is the CEO of Brandtrust, a highly regarded group of brand strategists, social-science researchers, and designers who help organizations understand customer expectations and deliver the desired brand experience.
At Brandtrust, Daryl puts his years of experience and new learning to use, advising a number of the largest and best-known brands in the world. His clients include Easter Seals, FedEx, General Mills, Harley-Davidson, HP, Honda, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft, Nestle, and others.
An engaging storyteller, Daryl tours the country speaking on the subject of emotional branding and how emotional research techniques can help a company gain a competitive edge. Passionate about learning and understanding more about how people think, Daryl is always reading a new book — more than 100 each year. His voracious reading helps leverage recent breakthroughs in the social sciences to improve the consumer-research process, tapping into the deeper underlying emotions and “non-conscious” motivations critical to revealing insights.
Earlier in his career, Daryl helped FedEx get off to a flying start and led the revival of Nipper the dog as a brand icon for RCA. While working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Daryl leveraged “Second- Hand Smoke” as a brand. He co-founded a Chicago advertising agency Arian, Lowe & Travis, which spearheaded compelling campaigns for clients such as GE, Motorola, Harvard Business Review, and others.
Daryl’s guiding mantra is the NINA Principle — No Insight-No Advantage.
Daryl and his wife, Donnita, extend his continuous learning passion as active members of Chicago’s philanthropic community, volunteering time and resources to support education and literacy programs for underprivileged children throughout the city.
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Ethix: Why don’t you start by describing emotional branding?
Daryl Travis: Emotional branding is the reality that we can know a lot more about why people do what they do, rather than just what they do. The world of marketing has always been statistically driven, and we have always known a lot about the marketplace. But this data would frequently betray us. The data would say that the market is going to do one thing and then the market would do something else.
We began to realize that people don’t do what they say they are going to do. They are influenced by their feelings and their beliefs. Emotional branding is just digging deeper to understand what really motivates people.
You have used the expression, “no insight, no advantage.” Could you develop that for us?
In everything that you are trying to accomplish in business, even in life, the deeper and richer your insight, the more opportunity you have to create something better. Technically, we are big advocates of the information that comes from data mining and market statistics. But very, very rarely will those data tell you why. They tell you what, and you need to know that, but you also need to know the why. And the why is almost always emotional and “non- conscious.”
Mostly your competitors are also going to know what’s happening. The data is available to everybody, and that’s part of why we have so much parity. But to find out why, you have to be able to go to this deeper level. Some companies are willing to go there, and some are not.
If you are truly going to dig deeper, it would seem that you would go beyond the masses to the individuals. Does emotional branding include focusing on particular individuals?
It does. There is a lot of scientific evidence that at a deeper emotional level we are more alike than we are different. So we can generally study about 30 individuals and project it quite well, seeing distinct patterns of thought emerge.
In a typical study we do two kinds of interviews: emotional and contextual. For the emotional interviews, we do in-depth psychoanalytic-style interviews, which involve relaxation and visualization. So we are tapping more into non-conscious memories that people are less likely to be aware of, and less likely to articulate in conventional forms of research.
Emotional branding is just digging deeper to understand what really motivates people.
The contextual inquiry is an ethnographic- style study involving observations. We need to be careful in framing the sequence and context of the observations because the brain is so adept at reading cues. If you are not careful, just posing a direct question directs the brain to look for the “right answer.” Take pricing-sensitivity studies, for example. If you ask people what price they want, they often answer that they want a lower price. But the lowest price brands are very rarely the top brands in a category. So, they say they want the lowest price, but they would buy something different. What they are buying is more intangible, intrinsic, irrational in terms of values, and that is what we need to uncover and understand.
Do you use this insight to manipulate the consumers?
It’s not so much to manipulate the consumers; it is just to meet their needs. It would be crazy to promote products that do not meet needs, though people try to do this every day.
When you gain this understanding about a customer, how do you use it to promote a product?
We advocate that the brand is the promise that the product or the organization makes to all of its stakeholders. If you think about it, brands are really about trust. I feel more trust, more familiarity, more favorability toward this name, this product, this company, this brand. Trust is a deeply held human emotion that is generated by making and keeping promises. The brands that make worthwhile, meaningful promises, and do a better job keeping those promises, are the brands that seem to be stronger and more sustainable in the marketplace. We help companies understand that there is a lot more to branding than just the communications aspect of it. The behavioral aspect of the brand is even more important. We are fond of saying that the little things you do are more important than the big things you say. So much of what we do is about the behavior of the brand. This brand is reflected in the packaging, the merchandising, the sales, and customer service. It’s the whole aspect of the brand rather than just the communications part of it.
Do you help that company go beyond their brand to creating an advertising campaign, for example?
No, we don’t. We help them in the sense that we direct them in terms of positioning, keywords, and things like that. There are key emotions and takeaways involved, but we don’t actually create the advertising. The advertising agencies will create the promotions, and we will help them evaluate these promotions. I did advertising campaigns for 25 years, and I just got tired of doing that. I calculated that I have been involved in making over 11,000 ads, and I figured that is enough.
You were involved in the secondhand smoking campaign, so I guess we have you to thank for the “no smoking” environment in public buildings and restaurants in the United States today. Can you tell us how that came about and what your contribution was?
We were on a contract with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Every 10 years we had been doing antismoking communications work for the government. We were running up against a kind of a locked-in success rate because everyone at that point knew that smoking was bad for them. We were not accomplishing any more awareness in that regard, but yes, smoking was still hovering at about 25-26 percent of the population. This work was not bearing any fruit, and we had to figure out a new way to approach this issue.
New data was coming from the Environmental Protection Agency about what the epidemiologists at the CDC called environmentally transmitted smoke, and that there was going to be damning evidence that it was worse than anyone had ever expected. Now was the chance to try to do something with this new information. As we studied consumers, we discovered that about 94-95 percent of the population thought that someone smoking in the room next to them was not good, but there was not enough evidence to support this. And no one seemed to actually do anything about it. At that time we were all tolerating it, thinking that others have a right to smoke.
The other thing that was happening at the time was HIV awareness. This was far more prevalently perceived in terms of it being a death sentence. And there were a lot of things in the media and in the culture, getting more attention. There had been so many anti-smoking messages with little effect. Antismoking was just beginning to fall off the radar screen.
… we are tapping into non-conscious memories that people are less likely to be aware of, and less likely to articulate, in conventional forms of research.
So we asked ourselves the question, “What if we could turn this into an environmental issue?” Environmentalism was growing and the nonsmoking public needs to be empowered. They don’t have any emotionality around this because they don’t know the statistics.
That was the key message. We couldn’t call it environmentally transmitted smoke (ETS) because there was no sex appeal in that, and nobody would remember it. The term secondhand smoking already existed. We didn’t create it, but we decided to build the brand on it. We didn’t want to do this just with messaging, but with broader behavioral things. We wanted to manage the surgeon general’s messaging. For the first time, we wanted the CDC to offer an 800 number for information. We put the whole package together in the kit that went to consumers. There were letters you could give to a restaurant owner, union steward, or your boss, or whoever to say here is the new information on secondhand smoke. The smokers are now violating my rights, and you are participating in it Mr. Business Owner and Mr. Landlord, whoever it might be. Even OSHA (Office of Safety and Health Administration) got into the act.
What was your role in this?
We managed all of the understanding about what the new positioning should be, and then we managed all of the communications planning and the communications. So we did pretty much all of that in terms of introducing it to the culture and introducing it as a public- health issue. That was when I was president of Arian, Lowe & Travis. Probably that is the thing I am most proud of in my entire career, because in large part you can’t smoke in public in America because of that.
Other campaigns like “Just say no” to drugs haven’t seemed to have an impact. Can you comment on the difference?
I can’t comment specifically on why “just say no” isn’t that effective, but I can in a general sense. When a campaign is not effective it is usually because it doesn’t touch the right emotional motivations. When you hear something that has good insight, you have this feeling of, “Oh, yeah, I knew that. I wish I had thought of that.” There is no emotional connection with “Just say no.” Think of the difference between, “Just say no” and “Just do it,” from Nike. “Just do it” is hugely successful, maybe the most successful tagline in history. There is just a different connection level.
Emotional Connections to Ads
I remember going to a journalism convention when I was in college. They played an advertising jingle and asked people to sing along, and everyone joined in. Then they announced this had not been on the radio for seven years. It seems like you want the advertising pictures, words, and music to tap into the emotional part of the person. Is that correct?
Absolutely. We had a case recently where we were doing brand research for a particular company. The 25-year-old women we interviewed were able to remember an advertising slogan from 30 years before. The ad had not been aired since! Where did they learn about this? They would hear about it through the culture that must have been pervasive because of its direct alignment with deep emotional drivers.
Years ago there was an attempt to bypass the mind with something called “subliminal advertising,” coded messages that were not shown long enough to read, with the hopes that would be somehow picked up by the brain. Did that ever work?
That is not a technique that actually works, even though people raised a lot of ethical questions about it. All advertising has a bit of subliminality to it because a lot of it is happening without us being conscious of it. A brand has two dimensions to it. One is just straightforward awareness. If you haven’t heard of the organization, there is no way that you would have any recognition of it. But the other half is the meaning. How do you fill in the blank after the name?
All of us are branded, whether we like it or not. My name is Daryl Travis, and after my name people often think about emotional branding. That’s OK. I like that. But the point is, the more that’s framed for people, the more familiar they become with it. Things that we are more familiar with, we are more favorable toward. Hence building awareness makes us more favorable toward things, and a lot of that happens without actually stopping to think about it. We know that the brain is really a pattern-matching machine, it’s constantly scanning, looking for patterns because they are good for survival.
Yesterday I was watching a college basketball game on television, and I noticed that there were seven advertising logos on the screen at the time, not during a commercial break but just in the course of the game. There was a rolling banner on the score table, the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) logo in the middle of the floor, the team names on both teams, ESPN and ABC in the corners, along with the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Conference). They were never taken off. When you are watching a basketball game you are not sitting here and thinking, “here is another ad,” but the brands are just going into your brain.
As an individual, you can contribute to your brand in how you represent yourself on Facebook or MySpace. You can’t really think of this as your personal space since a potential employer can see this.
Right. You need to be thoughtful about how people are going to fill in that blank after your name. When I have counseled people about doing job interviews, I would ask them to think about what others are going to take away from their time with you. You know you are going to have 30 minutes with them and what they are going to say? What can I do to manage it or encourage it in a positive way? Facebook, the – 30minute interview, all these things contribute to your brand.
How do you advise young people?
I have this conversation with young people all the time. They want to be writers and I ask them if they know the steps to become better writers. There is no leap, it’s all a journey. Do they have role models they can learn from or emulate? They don’t even have to be in the same field.
There has obviously been a lot of progress over the last 20 years in the understanding of human beings and how they interact and how you communicate with them. How does this affect your work?
When you hear something that has good insight, you have this feeling of, “Oh, yeah, I knew that. I wish I had thought of that.”
The pace of knowledge and learning about the brain and psychology and the way people work is astounding. We are not very far away from being able to correct really, really bad things. This raises enormous ethical issues. If you could stop someone from deviant behavior, would you or wouldn’t you, should you or shouldn’t you?
A recent novel I read (The Whole Truth by David Baldacci) deals with subject of perception management. The storyline is about an aerospace company that worked with an emotional-branding company to create a cold war between China and Russia, to build up their arms sales. It seemed a bit farfetched, though it was a good read. Is this kind of thing possible?
It’s quite possible. When you can manage a cultural shift, then you can have a big impact and it could be bad and dangerous as well as good.
What about arresting people for the crime they are about to commit (as in the movie Minority Report), for example? Or manipulating people into doing things they would not otherwise do?
It is a great question. Marketing people have been chastised in the past for trying to manipulate people, and some have tried to do this. But the more we do in-depth analysis, the more we conclude that it is pretty hard to manipulate people because the mental models created through life experience and culture are there, and they are hard to change. The things that change people are more cataclysmic like 9/11, for instance. We saw some differences in people after 9/11, but it takes those kinds of big changes to make things visible. Most of us have those mental models from life’s experience invoked by culture, and that is why we are more alike than different. The data that is being loaded in our databanks is similar in many regards, certainly at a deeper level. Now, there are all kinds of cultural and ethnic issues leading to profound differences between the Eastern mind and the Western mind. But more and more, we are convinced that at least up to this stage, it is very difficult to manipulate people. We have a very hard time selling facial razors and shaving cream to females, no matter what you would say to them. They do not have a mental model, and they don’t have a need.
Marketing to Children
What about children?
Children are pretty susceptible, and we know how to manipulate children quite well. But there are a lot of guidelines and restrictions, and a lot of sensitivity to it in the business. In fact, I was involved for a long time with the National Advertising Review Board and Action for Children’s Television. Anyone making children’s television commercials had to submit scripts and storyboards, and then we had to submit animatics, we had to submit rough cuts, and then we had to submit final cuts before they were approved. There were about a “zillion” rules about what we could and couldn’t do. I know that most of the manufacturers that we have had contact with are sensitive to it.
What is the source of these rules? Did they come from a professional association or from the law?
All advertising has a bit of subliminality to it because a lot of it is happening without us being conscious of it.
I am trying to remember if there was actually legislation for children’s television. I don’t think so. I think it was voluntary. I think advertisers are in tune with the advertising review board (ARB). The ARB has a tribunal, and what the ARB says is going to hold in court. It is like a mediation before court, and if you lose there, you will lose in court.
It seems like there are more apparently innocent things with children. I was reading some remarks you made tapping into the kids’ market with green ketchup. That seems pretty innocent, but if there is pressure to buy green ketchup in the house and it is more expensive, this can create a problem.
There is always stuff like that. To a certain degree, it’s unavoidable. I will say, though, I very, very rarely have been involved in a situation where there is any kind of intentional unethical behavior. In a large part this is because of the Internet, since everything is 100 percent transparent there. Some companies are just extremely ethical to start with.
My grandson recently bought a pair of tennis shoes, and they had to be Converse. So how can you anticipate that sort of emotional reaction?
Well, it is hard to spot these things in advance, though there is a lot of work being done in this area. A further problem is by the time we can spot a trend, it is almost too late to do anything about it. Recently I met with someone who is trying to identify the hippest cities in the world, because if it could get a product under trial in those cities, it took off on its own, then it would probably go other places. That was illustrated with the Hush Puppies revival in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. So if you identify the right cities and start giving product to celebrities in those cities, they may take off as hip products and grow in popularity as Hush Puppies did. This, of course, raises an entirely different question. Celebrities have great wealth, yet they are the ones to receive all sorts of free products.
I guess the most famous example is the Philip Morris Camel or Joe Camel in communicating with children. That’s in a past era. Do you think that kind of thing would go on today with the Internet?
I would like to hope it is past, but you know, I don’t think it will ever be fully past because as long as there is human beings involved there are boundaries that can be pushed and will be pushed by some.
We are finding bankers can push boundaries too.
When I had an advertising agency I had to deal with bankers and lawyers all the time. On more than one occasion I can remember telling them there are more bankers and lawyers in jail than advertising guys. I don’t know if the advertising guys weren’t smart enough to get into trouble, but as I far I know, there weren’t any ad guys in jail, and there were a lot of bankers and lawyers there.
A colleague is developing the idea of narrowing advertising to an individual. This could lead to personalized television ads at home, and personalized websites on the Internet. Any thoughts on that?
It’s going to happen, and actually I think it’s great. I don’t think advertising is ever going to go away, but advertising is going to look more like information where you only get what you are interested in. You could self-select.
You do have the very real quandary if you are a business. You realize you need to advertise because familiarity breeds favorability.
We had a brilliant idea back in 1999 or so. There were 1,400 distinct models of cars, and it is just too many choices. If you fill out a personality profile or an age profile, then we will give you back the six or eight cars that would best suit your needs. We never put it together or tested it, but I was absolutely sure that it was a good idea. It is confusing to buy a car.
One of our emotional bits of angst is regret. People hate the idea that they bought the wrong car and now have to live with it for three years or four years while the neighbor is driving the one they wish they had.
Importance of the Brand
Let’s talk about the brand as it relates to the business itself. You said somewhere that the brand is much more important than the label, in fact it is the business. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, it is connected to the idea that the brand is the promise of the business, and that is the most important aspect of the business. It is the most important thing because that is all people are going to take away. When you’ve got the brand right, you’ve got it all wrapped up. This is what the brand stands for, this is what we believe in, this is what we do, and this is our contribution to the world, all wrapped up in the promise of the organization. It is powerful stuff. If you get that right and then behave accordingly, you are going to have a good business.
And if you don’t behave accordingly?
You are in trouble. And this applies not only to your customers but also to your employees.
We do a lot of internal branding work as well. Our secret tool is that we coach and teach our clients that it has to be caught, not taught. You can’t teach people to deliver points, you have to understand why the promise is being made, why it is important, and why their role in it matters. If you can communicate those things, then people will be engaged.
I have the belief that most mergers don’t work very well because of what happens with internal culture. Have you worked in this area?
We actually do quite a bit of work on internal branding and company culture, and it’s not easy to do. I would agree with you that most mergers fail. After the work, the remnant of what’s left was never worth the deal because it is so diminished. This is true because of misunderstanding, neglect, or outright failure.
We did work for a company after the merger with a fierce rival. The big problem for the rival company was that our client organization, their new owner, had been trying to exterminate them for all these years and now they were supposed to nurture it. This does not compute. So our research suggested it had to be treated as a separate operating unit. People working at our client alongside their newly acquired rival simultaneously would never work very well.
To make it work there needs to be convergences in the higher callings of both cultures. People need to see they are actually more alike than they might have thought. But these transformations are very difficult and saying that mergers don’t work very well is a very fair conclusion.
But in my mind they very rarely accomplish what they set out to do, except that in many cases all they set out to do is increase the revenue. Sometimes that’s all the leaders are trying to do, and they are not going to be there three or four years later to sort this out.
Is the current banking crisis an illustration of this principle?
Yes. Everyone had data. You are talking about some of the best data- analysis tools in the world using the best and the most sophisticated computers in the world. It wasn’t that they didn’t have data. But there were two issues: Greed drove a certain behavior, and the data that they were operating off was the historical mortgage failure rate data. For normal mortgages, normal failure rates worked fine. It has been for generations. But the mortgages they were issuing represented a different class of loan. With everybody else issuing subprime loans, it was difficult not to do it. Some otherwise good companies just got sucked in.
Part of this is psychological, because one of the biggest fears that humans have is regret. We fear doing the wrong thing more than the negative outcome of doing the wrong thing. We are more driven by negative motivations because it is survival system. We fear we should have been into something and we missed it more than that we should have been smarter.
Other Ethical Issues
What are the ethical issues in emotional branding?
Most people are concerned about the fear of marketers manipulating people, but I don’t think that this is a big issue. There are just occasional attempts to misuse the tools, but I don’t think it happens often, and when it does, it is not very effective. I’m more ethically concerned about the lack of sophistication and trade practices. I don’t want this to sound the way it is going to come out, but if everybody could practice it at the level we do, I would be fearful because then I know there could be abuses. Few people probe to the level or depth that we do. Rather, 95 percent of what goes on is trial and error. That bothers me because I feel like that is a breach of ethical sensibilities with your clients; just give me the money and I will give you something.
One of the biggest fears that humans have is regret.
Maybe these are not ethical issues, but they strike me as very odd. Morton Salt and Clorox Bleach have huge market shares and yet offer products that are tightly controlled in their content. Somehow people are willing to pay a lot more for something that isn’t any different. Is this something to be concerned about?
There are two sides of this story. The other side is: I’ve got a good pattern here, I’m going to stick with it, I don’t have to think about it. Thank you very much, it is worth the premium. I can trust this brand, I know what it is, and that is why we have patterns. And since the brain is a pattern machine and we can’t possibly think about everything, why would I want to pay less for a product that is possibly inferior? Maybe they do not have close standards with the other brands.
Peanut butter might be a good example of that? I guess pattern matching that the brain does is also what gives us prejudice, isn’t it?
Absolutely. In my new book, you will read that patterns are your best friends and your worst enemies.
What is your new book?
My new book is about insights: what they are and how to find them. Insights are your best friend and your worst enemy. Since there is no pattern for a new insight, and the brain is a pattern-matching machine, this is a challenge. And the patterns hurt us with all sorts of bad things like stereotypes. It is obviously race or sex or other standard ways of thinking, but also personalities, age, ways of thinking, and so many other things.
Emotion of Broken Promises
Do you have any thoughts about the role of emotional branding in this time of economic difficulty?
There’s no doubt all the egregious examples of misplaced trust in our government and financial institutions is demonstrating just how emotional broken promises can be. Brands are nothing more than promises that organizations, products, and individuals make to their stakeholders or sphere of influence. The once-trusted brands, institutions, and individuals that have broken their promises are offering disappointing and convincing evidence that brands are indeed emotionally based and emotions run high when the trusted promises are broken.
Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.