How to get into the hearts of your audience with the emotional branding tactics used by Apple, Nike and Coca-Cola

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How do some companies manage to build a cult-like following of customers who fall in love with their brand and are devoted for life?

How did Apple manage to go from a two-man team working out of a tiny garage to a company with a fiercely loyal customer base now worth about a trillion dollars?

They developed relationships. They spent half a century building products and working out ways to sell them that fed the interests and emotional needs of their target consumers.

Nike has done the same. It’s never really focussed on selling sports attire. Instead, it’s spent billions of dollars on endorsement deals and marketing campaigns with the world’s biggest sport stars, selling the idea that everyone can be an elite athlete if they had elite equipment.



Big companies have built their empires not on the products they make, but on the relationships they have with their customers. By adding an emotional dimension to their brands, they’ve managed to cultivate loyal advocates and legions of lifelong paying customers.

In this article, we explore how the big companies have mastered emotional branding to reach the top and we use them to demonstrate how small businesses, the online and offline varieties, can achieve their own meteoric rise by leveraging some simple but profound emotional branding techniques.

Emotional branding: What do you need to know?

Emotional branding is the practice of building brands that appeal directly to a consumer’s emotional state, needs and aspirations with a view to leveraging those features of their consumer psyche to convert them into engaged (which often means paying) customers and, better yet, long-term loyalists.

Emotional branding works when it triggers a buying response more profound than a one-off, needs-based buying response. Toilet paper is a product that generally only demands a needs-based buying decision. The reason you buy it can easily be rationalized by your need for it. There is no deep, profound meaning lurking behind your decision to buy — you simply just need it to stay hygienic. And while manufacturers of toilet paper still vy for our wallets (and dabble in emotional branding), they generally concentrate more on promoting the logical components of the buying decision, like product softness and price, rather than investing in developing a deep emotional connection between you as the consumer and them as the brand.

The newest version of the iPhone or the latest release pair of Nike running shoes, on the other hand, are both examples of products whose purchase cannot fully be rationalized by logic. Though you might try to argue otherwise, they are not traditionally needs-based purchases. You buy them (and pay top dollar for them, mind you) for unique and profound reasons.

When you think about it, the results of emotional branding done properly are mindboggling. For Apple, the connection they’ve cultivated with their consumer audience is the reason why someone lined up for almost 250 hours to be the first person to buy the iPhone 4S in 2011.  When was the last time you flicked on the news to a story of someone camping out for 10 days to buy the latest version of double-ply, extra soft toilet paper?

For those of us on the consumer side, emotional branding is strange and difficult to comprehend. But if you’re running your own business that relies on the relationships you form with your customers (which is, you know, all businesses), then it’s important that you understand it.

So what can small businesses learn from the emotional branding efforts of some of the world’s biggest companies? Here are 4 techniques you can learn and use as soon as you finish reading this article.

01. Draw on basic emotional triggers

Given the name, the first trick to mastering emotional branding is to draw on the basic emotional triggers of your target audience. Marketer and consumer behaviorist, Barry Feig, advised in his 2006 book, Hot Button Marketing: Push the Emotional Buttons That Get People to Buy, that there are 16 emotional “hot buttons” you can press to trigger a buying response from your target consumers:

  • Desire for control
  • I’m better than you
  • Excitement of discovery
  • Revaluing
  • Family values
  • Desire to belong
  • Fun is its own reward
  • Poverty of time
  • Desire to get the best
  • Self-achievement
  • Sex, love, romance
  • Nurturing response
  • Reinventing oneself
  • Make me smarter
  • Power, dominance and influence 
  • Wish-fulfillment

Let’s hone in on these to demonstrate how they’ve been targeted in the marketing efforts of some of the world’s biggest companies. Firstly, let’s look at Disney. A company with a brand value in 2015 of about $180 billion, Disney has built relationships with its consumer-base that have so far lasted 91 years. Can you identify one of the 16 emotional “hot buttons” from the above list that they focus on?

Exemplify your brand values through your fans



If you guessed ‘family values’ you’d be correct. Disney fosters a magical, family-friendly world that promotes bonding, happiness, and love, which is pretty evident through all of their social media accounts.

Try and pick the hot buttons that these next few brands have promoted in the following ads, campaigns, and designs.

Design it luxuriously


Viktor Vörös

By using a sleek, dark design, and key terms like “state of the art”, “timeless”, and “luxury”, this website design for Rolls Royce definitely manages to trigger the hot buttons ‘desire to get the best’ and ‘power, dominance and influence’.

Provide a different perspective



This campaign by Nike took a unique perspective by focussing on children working to ‘find (their) greatness’ rather than elite athletes as was the norm. This fresh campaign struck a chord with people emotionally, triggering the hot button of ‘reinventing oneself’.

Give something back to your users



This campaign by Burberry took the new media platform and fitted it to suit their brand campaign. Triggering the hot button ‘Sex, love and romance’ in the process, Burberry allowed users to send ‘kisses’ to distant loved ones, tying the brand to romantic ideals.

Immerse your consumers visually and mentally



The site design for travel agency Wildfoot channels the hot button ‘Excitement of discovery’ by using luxurious full-screen images of each destination, with a simple piece of copy that reads ‘Take me to…” which immediately immerses the viewer emotionally and mentally.

Use color and character to trigger emotions


Pentagram and Sagmeister & Walsh

This playful brand design by Sagmeister and Walsh hits the hot button ‘Fun is it’s own reward’ big time by using bright colors, vibrant characters and whimsical concepts to promote the featured product.

Pair engaging quotes with complementary images



This social media post from Dove evokes the ‘Desire to nurture’ hot button by pairing a simple quote and image in a way that evokes an emotional response.

Create emotional bonds between consumers and your product

08-emotionalbonds (1)


This image from Skype definitely hits the ‘Family values’ hot button by creating a connection between the love of family and their product.

Form inspiring relationships


General Electric

Triggering the hot button ‘Make me smarter’, this visualized quote posted by General Electric conjure a strong relationship between the brand and education, curiosity, and inspiration.

In the above examples, the emotional “hot button” each brand is trying to press can easily be identified, which leads us to the golden rule when it comes to drawing on the basic emotional triggers of your audience — you need to clearly identify what those triggers are. Your emotional branding efforts will fail if you can’t identify the emotion you’re targeting at the outset, or if the emotion you’re targeting is not relevant to the product or service you’re marketing.

The lesson to be learned here for any business wanting to launch into emotional branding is to first think about what emotion, need or aspiration your brand aims to meet in your target consumer. You should go further than just thinking about it abstractly— for emotional branding to work effectively, you need to have a bulletproof understanding of what emotion(s) you’re aiming to target. You can use the 16 “hot buttons” above to direct your thinking.

Action tip: Sit down with a pen and paper and write down a short blurb describing the purpose of your business. If you run a commercial blog about personal finance, for example, your blurb will look something like this: I run a personal finance blog that aims to give people tips and advice about how to better save, earn and manage their money. With that blurb at the top of your page, write down the list of the 16 “hot buttons” above (write them all down), and think about whether each is relevant to your business as described in the blurb. When you’ve finished writing the “hot buttons” down, start from the top and cross off those that are not relevant to your business. You’ll hopefully be left with a handful. Choose just one to begin with, and start to build your brand and your marketing campaigns that focus on it.

02. Design for holidays and seasons

This one is a bit of a sneaky tactic, but if it’s good enough for the big brands then it’s good enough for us. Take note of what ads start popping up on television around Christmas time this year. The brands we love are acutely aware that emotions run high during holiday periods and make us more susceptible to targeted emotional branding tactics. Arnold Schwarzenegger spent an entire film (the 1996 classic, Jingle All The Way) going to absurd lengths to buy his son a sold-out action hero figurine for Christmas. If you’ve done something similar (which we all have to some extent) why do you think that was?

Encourage and evoke the emotions of the season


Tiffany & Co

In 2010 Tiffany & Co. company ran a Christmas advertising campaign with the slogan ‘Give Voice To Your Heart’, which clearly targeted the emotions of its target consumer audience (men) at a time when their love could be triggered to buy expensive jewelry.

Channel the emotional values of the holiday



The US-based clothing chain, Gap, launched a multi-channel interactive campaign in 2009 aimed at celebrating winter. Their ads focused on the holiday value of togetherness and developed a playful winter theme (see “hot button” item 6).

Use social media to intertwine yourself with the holidays


Diet Coke

By taking a step into the modern times and running a 12 days of Christmas themed social media campaign, Coke managed to intertwine themselves with the positive aspects of the Christmas experience each day leading up to Christmas.

Create a seasonal tradition between your brand and consumers


The Dieline

Every year at Christmas, coffee retailer Starbucks switches out their typical white cups for festive red cups. This simple change has become a beloved Christmas tradition among consumers.

“The red cups have taken on almost a cultural role, at least in the US, and now in a lot of other markets around the world as well. When the cup turns red at Starbucks, that’s one of the first cues that the holidays are upon us,” says Starbucks senior vice president Terry Davenport.

Crowdsource holiday snapshots from your fans



Starbucks also gets heavily into the holiday season on social media, by posting Christmas-themed (and Starbucks-themed) images, both crowd-sourced and their own content, on platforms like Instagram.

Celebrate all year round



Target Canada celebrates the big holidays as well as the lesser known ones, such as ‘National Tiara Day’, which helps emotionally tie their brand to the positive aspects of every holiday throughout the year. It also helps highlight their emotional branding of being a fun-loving company that doesn’t treat itself too seriously.

Collaborate with your followers


Zocalo Group

Coffee-Mate chose to take on Valentine’s Day by releasing a campaign that encouraged users to submit love notes, which would then be made into visual valentines in under 15 minutes.


Zocalo Group

“Hundreds of coffee-loving fans penned passionate odes to their friends, families and even cherished pets, and posted them on Facebook and Twitter,” design agency Zocalo Group said. This campaign linked Coffee-Mate to the emotional idea of love and romance while creating a strong user-brand relationship.

Action tip: If holiday-themed marketing isn’t already a part of your strategy, spend some time thinking and planning for it this year. Start by thinking about what emotions are generally triggered around holiday time and choose the ones most relevant to your products or services. Returning to the example of our finance blogger, while the Christmas holiday period is generally a happy time, it can cause a lot of financial stress for families too, which gives rise to a number of emotional trigger points.

03. Use a powerful combination of imagery and language

When it comes to emotional branding, the visual assets that go into making up the brand and the marketing campaigns it delivers can often work best when they combine imagery and language to deliver a powerful, highly impactful message. The starkest examples of this are usually found in cause marketing campaigns.

Create a strong relationship between your copy and image


Jung von Matt

In this anti-smoking ad, the dark filtered image of the boy leaning against his father combines powerfully with the text in the boy’s thought bubble (designed as a label on a cigarette packet), to trigger the campaign’s target emotions.  

Let consumers fill in the blanks


Amnesty International

This ad from Amnesty International uses a striking image and copy that doesn’t immediately mention the issue at hand, leaving consumers to fill in the blanks, which triggers an instant emotional response.

Use confronting imagery to get your message across


Worksafe Victoria

The same level of impact is achieved here with the confronting image of the man’s disfigured arm sitting alongside the equally as powerful copy.

Use iconic symbols to make an impact



Contrast type and image in an emotionally jarring way



This cause marketing campaign by WATERisLife contrasts popular “first world problem” tweets against images of the impoverished population of Haiti. This contrast creates a striking emotional effect that gives this campaign a big effect.

Appeal to common cultural anxieties


Timothy Goodman

This piece for Women’s Health Magazine contrasts a scary visualisation of ‘melanoma’ against the names of loved ones to give the image a much more personal, emotional impact. By playing up the common cultural anxiety of loved ones contracting a serious disease.

But the combining of powerful imagery and language as an emotional branding technique is not restricted to brands that rely heavily on cause marketing to build relationships with their target audiences, and the message delivered does not need to be a grim one. Take a look at this advertisement for Australian airline, Qantas, for example:

Keep your copy and image simple but powerful



This ad is a part of Qantas’ ‘Feels Like Home’ campaign which is based on the idea of people traveling home. This ad uses a very simple, image and pairs it with the an even simpler piece of copy, ‘Welcome home’ to appeal greatly to consumers’ emotions. This one definitely triggers the hot button ‘family values’ and perhaps even ‘the desire to belong’ and ‘a nurturing response’.

This advertisement proves that a skillful combination of imagery and language can be just as powerful in triggering positive emotions as it is triggering negative ones.

Address the consumer, not the product



Pose a question to consumers

Another example is from brand powerhouse Apple. By launching a campaign that consisted of various images of people using their iPhones to achieve different things with the simple tagline “You’re more powerful than you think”, by addressing the consumer, not the product, Apple managed to form an emotional bond between the iPhone 5 and its consumers.



You’ve probably heard about Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign that has been in the works for a handful of years now. One of the first elements of their campaign was the ‘tickbox posters’. By asking viewers to vote on whether pictured women were “grey or gorgeous”, “withered or wonderful”, “fat or fit”, Dove managed to emotionally align themselves with many consumers.

Action tip: With your target emotions clearly identified, it’s time to get creative with your brand visuals. Pulling off a powerful combination of imagery and language isn’t as simple as it might appear from the above examples (especially when you’re trying to deliver a positive message). To give it a go, we suggest you create or curate a small collection of images you think best represents the target emotion you’re aiming to trigger. With your images chosen, think up and write down 5 slogans for each image (each with a maximum of 5 words) that you feel best complements the image to target the emotion(s) and deliver the message you’re aiming for. When you’re done, scrap the ones that don’t work and choose the best one to lead your newest marketing campaign. A word of warning here: for this technique, there is a fine line between being skilful and appearing manipulative, so be careful about how the images and text you choose come across.

04. Design only for your audience

The composition of a target audience is often made up of a number of features: age, gender, marital status, core interests, etc. To succeed with emotional branding, the designs you create to market your brand and its products and services need to specifically target your audience.

While both companies sell sunglasses, Oakley’s target audience is far different to Ray-Ban’s, and the difference is clearly evident in their respective visual marketing campaigns:

Target the elite athletes



Target the cool style makers


Ray Ban

What differences can you see between the two? The woman in the Oakley campaign is on her own, riding a bike, with the blurred outdoors in the background. The pair in the Ray-Ban campaign are sitting together, clearly enjoying a night out with a horde of people in the background. While the same product type features in both campaigns, the companies are clearly aiming to trigger a different emotional response from their very different target audiences.

The same can be said here, with obvious differences between one shoemaker, Converse, and another, Julius Marlow:

Appeal to the young and stylish



Appeal to the sharp and sophisticated


Julius Marlow

When targeting specific audiences, don’t be afraid to get clever with your medium, especially if it helps your message pack a punch.

Use your medium to enhance your message



This campaign by WWF was released via Snapchat, a social media platform that only allows images to be seen for 10 seconds before they are deleted. This medium was perfectly paired with images of endangered animals on the brink of extinction to create a heavily emotional campaign that targeted millennial audiences perfectly.

Create shareable content with a message


Dumb Ways To Die

Another brand that used the medium to target a specific audience was Metro Melbourne with their campaign to promote safety around trains and train tracks, because that was just a ‘dumb way to die’. The ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ campaign was comprised of a series of cute, funny animated characters that appeared in catchy YouTube videos, fun apps, and funny posters. By linking the message and brand to humor and personality, it created a strong message that was perfectly tailored to the target audience.

Action tip: How do you make sure to pitch your brands and designs to your target audience?

Step one, naturally, requires you to know who makes up your target consumer audience. Are they male or female? Young or old? Clearly identifying your target audience is often one of the most challenging parts of starting/running a business (and one of the most often overlooked) because knowing who you’re marketing to generally seems like intrinsic knowledge you have in the back of your mind. If you haven’t identified your target audience yet, read this Forbes article written by Chuck Cohn — Steps To Identify Your Target Market.

Once you’ve clearly identified your target audience, you lead into the same process of determining what emotions your brand, product and services will likely trigger in them, and then you go about building the brand and marketing the products and services in a way that triggers those emotions.

Get Started With Emotional Branding

For an outsider, mastering emotional branding can seem like a daunting branding approach. But, hopefully this article has stripped the concept back and revealed some simple ways to implement it. The key takeaways here are these:

  1. Know your target audience and what they feel, want and need;
  2. Know the emotions your brand and marketing materials should target; and,
  3. Craft marketing messages that skillfully trigger the emotions in your target audience in a way that aligns them with your brand.

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