Emotional Communion

“Emotion leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion.”
— Dr. Jonah Berger, social psychologist at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School

From August 2008 to February 2009, Drs. Berger and Katherine Milkman (a behavioral economist at Wharton) tracked the comings and goings of more than 7,500 articles on the New York Times Most E-mailed Articles list, trying to make sense of trends in the “virality” of content. Assuming folks who read and forward articles on the New York Times online edition aren’t radically different demographically and psychologically than most of us (a big assumption, to be sure), there are findings from this study that feel especially relevant in a branding context. Some not-so-surprising-but-still-worth-noting:

  1. People share positive information more often than they share negative information.
  2. People forward longer articles on intellectually challenging topics more frequently than they forward shorter articles.
  3. Classic economic utility theory accounts for the brisk pace of exchange surrounding articles containing medical advice, financial tips and recipes.

The Big Finding that ties back to branding: people share information that inspires awe. Awe, according to Berger and Milkman, is “an emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” An awe-inspiring story is large, they say, and requires us to “view the world in a different way.”

This writer believes brands can inspire awe when they introduce truly game-changing innovation. When brands manage this, they’re making real news. Maybe that news won’t premier and travel on the NYT Most E-mailed Articles list, but it will make its way to the people it will affect. In these instances, we often see the brand cast in more of a supporting role. It’s less about ownership of innovation than it is about contribution to something much more important than the brand itself. Here is where courageous companies compete, and where brands can actually acquire strength from the products and services they’re designed to serve.

In the absence of game-changing innovation, the pressure is especially great to build brand equity through development of visual and verbal brand assets. Here too there’s opportunity to inspire awe. In the same way that brands can “stand in” for big news, they can deliver on what Berger and Milkman call “emotional communion.” We humans want to share information that brings us closer together, and brands are in a unique position to deliver language that accomplishes this. Great messaging can tap that “emotion of self-transcendence” the doctors talk about. The trick is to identify and stay focused on the unarticulated (or even just poorly articulated) needs of the folks with whom we’re trying to connect. This rather than focus too strongly on explanations (however clever and concise) of who we are and what we have to offer at a given time. In the same way that brand equity expands in the light of awe-inspiring innovation, great messaging can inspire powerful brand associations that inspire “admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Our constituencies will always appreciate these shortcuts to significance.

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