Building an emotional connection with consumers has always been the Holy Grail for brand marketers. But has emotional branding become so much of a focus these days that products and brands have started to lose sight of practical consumer needs? It seems as if marketers are willing to accept that all products are created equal and that the focus should be solely on laddering to a higher emotional territory, like today’s ubiquitous search for happiness.
Coming out of the recession, it’s important to remember today more than ever that amidst all the marketing noise, the power of functional product benefits is still vital to consumer purchase decisions. This is particularly true in the world of consumer packaged goods where, more often than not, efficacy -- not emotional engagement -- remains the key driver of repeat purchase.
In fact, this is supported in the Brand Keys 2013 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI), an annual study that surveys 39,000 consumers in the U.S. with the aim of understanding their emotional engagement with brands. This year -- for the first time in 17 years -- 11 categories that were previously tracked and reported have been dropped from the study due to lack of differentiated consumer evaluations. The categories include OTC Allergy, OTC Pain Relievers, Facial Moisturizers, Shampoo, Conditioner, Laundry Detergent, Paper Towels, and Pasta Sauce.
According to the CLEI, consumers perceived the products within these categories to have such similar attributes that they had lost any meaningful brand differentiation. The study goes on to assert that this is due to a lack of emotional engagement with consumers, without which they default to price, availability, and functional attributes as their primary purchase drivers. Yet, (despite saying that it drives purchase) the study undermines the potential for functional attributes to drive brand distinction, instead suggesting that emotional engagement is the only way to create meaningful differentiation for a brand.
When viewed another way, however, the CLEI results actually reveal something quite pertinent: perhaps consumers prioritize function above emotion when it comes to certain product categories. More than anything else, they simply need products that work -- a fact that is perhaps especially more relevant in the recent economic climate. Rather than thinking of functional benefits as merely cost of entry, marketers should remember that they could be powerful brand differentiators -- point of parity really isn’t acceptable. Companies that successfully differentiate their products through enhanced function -- whether through ingredients, packaging, delivery system, or usability -- can dramatically strengthen consumers’ experiences and associations with their brand.
Tide Pods is an excellent example of reinvigorating a brand through the enhanced function of its unit dose delivery system. According to Ad Age, Tide’s sales -- which have been flat-to-down since 2007 -- are up 9 percent due to Pods, with P&G projecting $500 million in first-year sales. Through meeting consumers’ functional needs of added convenience and efficiency, the product has been successful despite its higher price point over traditional bottled detergent.
Another example is when Maker’s Mark -- a brand with a devoted customer base -- recently announced plans to reduce the alcohol content of its famous bourbon by 3 percent in an effort to meet rising demand. The overwhelming outrage in customer response caused the company to reverse its decision and to keep the Maker’s Mark formula unchanged. Customers would rather have seen a price increase or dealt with occasional product shortages than have the contents of their beloved Maker’s Mark diluted. In this case, function clearly mattered.
These examples demonstrate that functional benefits are not only significant drivers of purchase but also are inextricably tied to consumers’ perceptions of a brand. So before reaching immediately for the arsenal of consumer emotions, marketers should take a step back and ask: what is it that consumers are looking for when they buy this product today? How can this product exceed those expectations by delivering differently and better than others?
Believe it or not, differentiated functional benefits can actually be the answer to unlocking that elusive emotional territory. Through innovation and investing more in being functionally differentiated, marketers can ensure that their products are meeting their consumers’ core needs. Once distinguished functionally, brands can more credibly ladder up and re-engage on an emotional level to deliver a brand promise that is richer and even more meaningful.