An Emotional Truth

Posted on March 22, 2008

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Our knowledge and understanding of the human brain and what goes on inside of it has progressed tremendously over the last couple of decades. Just in the last several years alone, research findings in neurology and psychology have made huge advancements to prove beyond reasonable doubt that both you and I are more emotionally driven in our behaviour than we would probably like to think. And definitely more than we’re comfortable admitting…not just to people around us, but to ourselves as well.

Modern psychology rarely uses the words ‘human’ and ‘rational’ in the same sentence. It used to when it didn’t know any better, but it has learnt and since moved on. Unfortunately, very little of this debate has yet reached into marketing departments and agencies. I find this rather curious and at the same time immensely frustrating. Are we too scared to host it? And is this because many of us know that if we welcome it into the marketing world, it’ll force us to fundamentally rethink the way we do things. And what we have done for the longest time may not have served us the way we thought. Ouch!

The time has come for all of us to bite the bullet.

Folks, we’re emotional creatures. All of us. Yes, even the IT technician in your office. Hand on heart. All our decisions are emotional; it’s just that we justify them rationally. The reason why focus groups fail so miserably [as well as the products/communication that are ‘tested’ in them] in many instances is that we’re all way too good at making up stories to explain our behaviour. It’s not that we deliberately lie. We just don’t know why we do things, as we don’t have access to the real reason stored deep down in the recesses of our brain – our subconscious mind.

In spite of what we know about the brain today, we are still fixated on distinguishing between rational and emotional factors in communication development. Actually, we’re not only separating them; we often treat them as opposing forces that are pulling our minds in different directions when we’re about to make a decision. It’s as if we collectively believe we all have two giant silos marked “E” and “R” respectively inside our own heads.

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It is precisely this 1960’s thinking that still drives the prevalent malpractice of rational messaging carpet bombing: “Let’s hit them with the proposition three-sixty”. And I’m not joking when I say that this is why, according to recent studies, we’re spending more and more time on the toilet as it has become the last bastillion of peace and quiet in our everyday.

Today’s constant bombardment of commercial, fragmented messages have left us longing for meaning; something whole, coherent and long-lasting. We seek meaning because we’re starved for it. And the opportunity is there for the taking for brands that understand this reality and dare to do it differently.

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Simply put, we want something different, something that stands out, connects with us, moves us and inspires us. What we’re looking for is something as exotic as a good, classic well-told story. But in today’s brand world, these stories seem to be on the verge of extinction and it worries me. We need to tell these stories to pull people back out of the toilet.

But how do we come to terms with our fear of letting go of ‘reason’ in advertising and communication? It’s so bloody hard, isn’t it? We can’t just let go of the functional “reason to believe” we all know that effective advertising needs, can we? Yes, we can. And we should.

“A good story is always true” goes an old saying. We all want to believe a good story…we want it to be true. We love it that way. This is what fuels conspiracy theories for example, why they take root and spread. And we love to believe gossip and rumours.

The real beauty of it is that when a story is well told, interesting and inspiring, it gains credibility and authenticity without a need for proof and verification. We choose not to question good stories; we simply love to listen to them unfold and we don’t want them to end. We want more.

But conversely, I think we all agree that a true story isn’t always good. Because logic, reason and truth are often not the most evocative and motivating of concepts.

But like all great story telling, brand story telling requires time and continuity to gain credibility. This continuity requires commitment, dedication and a long-term view. And in many companies it also takes courage from marketing people to break the status quo of rationality, even if it means breaking an obviously flawed convention. ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ springs to mind.

Engaging, evocative story-telling based on brand philosophy/belief can be incredibly inspirational and motivating, infectious even. But a great story needs time to unfold, just like a great novel often requires several chapters to deliver the cues that pull you in. Together, the chapters create the meaning we so desperately seek and when we find it, it gives as a sense of fulfillment. Something happens inside of us. And this ‘something’ is what every brand out there should aim to be part of.

The sooner we collectively surrender to this inevitable truth the better our creative output.

Happy agencies. Euforic clients. Lots of money to go around.

As planners and creatives, we should talk about emotional engagement rather than proof and reason. We should help brands tell compelling stories that bring meaning and create inspiration rather than explain function and benefits.

To accomplish this, we need loads of honesty. And we need to start being brutally honest with ourselves. We must begin to recognise ourselves as the emotional creatures we really are and break away from our obsession to hold onto logic and reason.

Let’s show some courage.

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Posted in: Planning-related