Live from NRF: Getting Emotional About Branding

New York–“Why do people do what they do? I don’t believe what they say,” psychiatrist and author Dr. Clotaire Rapaille told attendees who packed a hall Tuesday morning in New York’s Javits Center as part of the National Retail Federation’s 94th Annual Convention and Expo.

Rapaille, who has worked with numerous consumer companies on brand creation, posited that the Manhattan dweller who buys a Hummer to go to the grocery store once a week or buys a $200 meal at restaurant but won’t necessarily spend that same amount of money to fly across the country does what he does due to subconscious motivations, not rational thought.

Your customer’s conception of your brand is formed from his first experience or “imprint” with your company, or more generally, with the products you sell. Pointing to an example from his own childhood in World War II France, Rapaille said that he associates the U.S. with the GIs on tanks who stopped to give him candy. The reason he remembers that first contact with the “brand” of America is because that initial introduction was an emotional one. Without emotion, he said, there is not enough neural transmission to garner a strong memory.

Folgers Coffee, for example, was able to make use of the first impression consumers had with coffee, which, said Rapaille, is its scent. People smell the product when they are children, long before they’re old enough to drink it. The scent becomes linked in a person’s mind with his mother making coffee in the kitchen as she prepares to feed him. Rapaille found through the use of surveys that 97% of coffee drinkers love the smell of it, while only 43% drink it because they like the taste. Folgers used that knowledge to create an ad campaign centered on the smell rather than taste of its product. “We made everything consistent with that, in code,” Rapaille said. This is the reason that commercials for Folgers focus on the customer opening the package and savoring the scent, rather than on the actual experience of drinking it.

The main reason a scent linked with family and the consumer’s mother is so powerful, said Rapaille, is that the home is part of a category of subconscious motivations that he has termed “reptilian,” meaning they are prehistoric instincts geared towards survival and reproduction into the next generation. These, he said, are the most compelling motivations. “The reptilian always wins when people are trying to figure out what to do,” he said. The second class of motivation is “limbic,” or governed by the limbic system in the brain that controls emotion. This is the category of motivations where the differences in how men and women react to products and advertising campaigns can be seen. While men, he said, are akin to a simple box with an on/off switch, women are more like a box that has multiple options to choose from. “These are the people who buy your products,” he noted, “but most companies are run by men with a box and on/off button.”

A smart business, therefore, is one that makes the reptilian impulses a priority when organizing its store or Website. For example, a food store should position water, the basis of human survival, and products associated with babies, tapping into the human interest in reproduction, at the center or most prominent point. Additionally, it all also makes sense to think about how your customers use your products–placing, for instance, wine, cheese, and bread in one location if you observe that the majority of your consumers make those purchases jointly.

Working hand in hand with these primal motivations are cultural factors. “In America, you’re not in the business of selling products; you’re in the business of helping people reinvent themselves permanently,” he said. That explains, he said, the urban dweller who drives a Hummer–that man wants to reinvent himself in a rugged, “masculine” image.

He cautioned that those who hope to sell beyond the borders of the U.S., whether through Web, or brick and mortar, should keep in mind that America is unique in its preoccupation with the dream fantastic. In Britain, for instance, he said a fatalistic approach rules so that people are not buying products as much for the reason of changing the way they are. They may be more likely in that country to buy products based on an existing problem or need. Cultural differences, he said, also explain why the German child who buys Legos will purchase up to three of these products a year: Each will be carefully taken out of the box, the instructions read, and the product put together meticulously. Once finished, it will be set carefully on a shelf. The American child will usually buy only one Lego product a year because it will be hastily taken out of the box, the instructions discarded, the product put together with in an amorphous or “creative” style, and then happily torn down when finished.

So what is the best way for companies to get close to their customers? “Go out and buy,” said Rapaille. He recommended that the airline CEO, for example, “be anonymous and fly coach in the middle seat, and see what we go through.” Those who work for apparel merchants should try making a purchase anonymously and see what it’s like to not find the size you’re looking for. Most important, he said, is to think of what people feel rather than what they think, or what makes sense. “Don’t listen to people,” he stressed. “Try to read the reptilian.”

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