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Brands have long understood that making consumers feel something about their products is a great way to sell them. But new research from Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams suggests that the types of feelings matter, especially in an era when younger consumers want to align themselves with brands that speak to their personal values. Her paper, co-authored with Nicole Verrochi Coleman of the University of Pittsburgh, Andrea C. Morales of Arizona State University and Lehigh University’s Ludovica Cesareo, shows how evoking feelings of pride and awe are two ways that companies can forge deeper connections with their audiences. Williams talked with Knowledge@Wharton about why brands need to think more discretely about their customers’ emotions.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: In this paper, you specifically focus on brands that have added social impact to their mission. This has evolved a lot in recent years. Can you talk about that?
Patti Williams: Many brands for a long time have had something that I would call social corporate responsibility. But increasingly today, what we see are brands that are placing some sort of social benefit directly in the center of their value proposition to consumers. Whether it’s TOMS with their “One for One” model — you buy a pair of shoes, and TOMS donates a pair of shoes — or Wharton’s own Warby Parker, a number of brands are adopting models where the notion is that part of what you’re buying when you’re purchasing from the brand is doing good elsewhere in the world. There’s a lot of discussion that young consumers and millennials value the opportunity to interact with brands that do more than just satisfy their own needs or their own material desires, but also try to do good in the world more broadly.
Knowledge@Wharton: You’re looking at how customer emotions might play into this, as opposed to the fit between the cause and the brand, or customer interest in that cause.
Williams: Exactly. Most of the research in this area has said that these programs are successful — they build brand relationships when consumers and a brand share an underlying value or an underlying motivation. So, consumers who care about breast cancer are much more likely to buy the Yoplait with the pink lid, for example, and then to care about Yoplait afterwards. What we’re looking at is a different driver of that kind of relationship.
I was reading a book called Firms of Endearment about why and how consumers build relationships with these kinds of firms. One of the things that book talks about is that consumers are looking for brands that don’t just deliver benefits, but really touch their souls and help them to connect with the wider world.
I study emotions more generally, and I had been thinking about the emotion of awe a lot, but I hadn’t done any research on awe yet. Awe is an emotion that is specifically about making a bigger connection with the world around you, looking outside of yourself to the natural world that might be amazing, or to a sense that you’re bound up with others in a special bond. When I was looking at this Firms of Endearment book, awe was an emotion that was relevant to the kinds of relationships they were talking about.
Knowledge@Wharton: You also look at another emotion in this paper, which is pride. How did pride get set up as the counterpoint to awe?
Williams: Awe is a positive emotional state. It is usually caused by experiencing something remarkable, wondrous, usually in the natural environment — the Grand Canyon, a beautiful forest, the Redwoods. There’s a particular facial expression associated with it. People drop their jaws, raise their eyebrows, and it’s — not surprisingly — associated with an expression of something like, “Wow!” It’s this feeling of amazement and a sense that the world as you are seeing it is different than your expectations. You have to rethink what you know. There often comes a sense that your own personal self is small in relationship to the world around you. You know your place in the universe and how small you are. That’s one of the interesting things about awe that made us choose it. We chose pride because pride is the opposite of that.
Pride is associated with a sense of personal accomplishment that you did something really well that you and other people value. Instead of that sense of self being diminished, your sense of self is expanded and enhanced. I kind of stand up straighter. I occupy more personal space, as opposed to feeling like my self is smaller. It’s a nice contrast from an emotional perspective, in the sense that there’s this self-aggrandizement as opposed to a self-diminishment.
From a consumption perspective, we also know that pride is associated with luxury brands, and many of these social benefit brands are the opposite of luxury brands. It’s not about you and satisfying your personal needs. It’s about trying to do good for the world. So, there were these two nice comparison points: the kinds of brands that they’re associated with, and the nature of the self that’s implicated in each of those emotional states.
Knowledge@Wharton: How did you test this theory?
“What we find is that consumers who experience awe are much more likely to have stronger connections with social benefit brands.”
Williams: I am an experimentalist. We run experiments, sometimes here in our Wharton Behavioral Lab and sometimes online. In this particular paper, we ran studies with real people, not student samples, using Amazon Mechanical Turk. We set up conditions where consumers are placed into one of two emotional states, depending on the study. We call them “incidental emotions,” which means that we provoke the emotions outside of the domain of the consumer decision process. We do that for a variety of reasons, mostly because it’s just simpler to do that in the lab.
We asked our respondents to describe a time when they felt awe. We tell them what awe is, and we ask them to write at least five sentences about a time they experienced awe — what provoked it, how they felt in response to it, and so on — or where they felt pride. In one of the studies, we also have a control emotion condition, where we just ask them to write about their previous day, so we’re not really getting any emotional content. We called this writing task an “autobiographical emotion induction.”
After they did this writing task, we asked them to read some simple ads that we made. We’re not great copywriters or great designers, but we can put together pretty simple ads. In the ads, they read about either a brand that we positioned as having social benefits or a luxury brand. In this study, we used real brands. We used either Louis Vuitton or [outdoor brand] United By Blue…. The ads either talked about the luxury components of the Louis Vuitton brand or these social benefits that go along with United By Blue.
Then participants do an emotional task. They look at an ad, we ask them to consider the ad somewhat carefully, and then we ask them to answer a bunch of questions. We ask them to tell us how they feel about the brand. We ask them to tell us about the nature of their own sense of self — are they more likely to endorse their sense of self as being diminished or enhanced? We’re looking for an impact between the emotions that they were asked to write about, the ad that they saw, on their sense of self and on their actual feelings of connection to the brand that they saw advertised.
Knowledge@Wharton: What did you find?
Williams: What we find is that consumers who experience awe are much more likely to have stronger connections to social benefit brands. This is driven by a sense of diminished self in response to those feelings of awe. They feel a sense of awe, they have a sense of themselves as less important, of others as more important, and their sense of themselves as part of a broader community as more important. That causes them to feel more strongly connected to brands … that deliver a connection with others and an ability to impact others in a positive way.
On the other hand, what we find is that feelings of pride create this sense of the self as enhanced and lead to stronger connections with luxury brands. These luxury brands are delivering value against that enhanced self, telling you that you’re worth it, that you really deserve this luxury, whatever it is. So, there’s this nice connection between the brand positioning and the sense of self that’s evoked by the emotion.
Knowledge@Wharton: What happens when a luxury brand tries to bring in social impact as part of its mission?
“I think we’ve shown that emotions really have an impact on the kinds of relationships that consumers have with brands.”
Williams: That’s a really good question. In addition to finding that awe leads to enhanced relationships with social benefit brands, we also find that awe leads to more negative relationships with luxury brands. In a follow-up study, one of the things we wanted to ask is, “Is there a way that luxury brands can try to leverage some of this?” We exposed consumers to the same Louis Vuitton ad, where now they’re doing something that looks like corporate social responsibility and giving themselves credit for it in an ad.
What we find there is that pride still has an impact, still makes people feel good about these luxury-plus-social benefits brands. Awe doesn’t really enhance the relationship that consumers have with these luxury-plus-social benefit brands, but it gets rid of the reduction in relationship, if you will. It sort of leaves them at a control level, as opposed to at a below-control level. They’re no longer harmed by feelings of awe. They’re just not helped by feelings of awe.
Knowledge@Wharton: How can companies take what you did in the lab and use it in their everyday operations?
Williams: I teach a branding course here at Wharton. I know that all sorts of legacy brands are trying to figure out how to be responsive to the sense of purpose that a lot of these new economy brands are bringing to commerce or bringing to the value that they deliver to their clients. Often when they’re doing that, they’re looking at this sense of, “Can we find shared values between ourselves and a target market,” for example.
The difficulty is that often they’re pursuing target markets that are large. It’s hard to find a shared value that might appeal to everyone and hard to find a unique social benefit. What we’ve done here is a couple of things. One, I think we’ve shown that emotions really have an impact on the kinds of relationships that consumers have with brands. It’s important for a few reasons. I think every brand wants to build an emotional relationship, but they tend to think purely in terms of positive emotions versus negative emotions. They don’t think very finely about the kinds of positive emotions. What I hope our research says is that not all positive emotions have the same impact. If I’m a luxury brand, awe might be harder for me to get to, but I sure can play on pride, for example. We also talk in our paper about the emotion of admiration, which is similar to awe but more like appreciation, as opposed to, “I have to rethink my world because of something you’ve done.”
Thinking about emotions more discretely like this—awe versus pride—versus any positive emotion is something that I hope that brands could do. The other thing that I think our research shows is that the way these self-brand connections are built is an alignment of the sense of self. Is my self diminished? Is my self enhanced? How do I think of my self as an entity in relationship to the brand’s value proposition? That’s very different than saying, “We both share a value towards curing breast cancer,” for example. It’s a much finer way of thinking about consumer behavior and consumer decision-making. And I hope that it offers some insight that maybe companies haven’t thought about previously.
“Every brand wants to build an emotional relationship, but they tend to think purely in terms of positive emotions versus negative emotions.”
Knowledge@Wharton: What does this say for the companies in terms of their messaging? When you talked about awe, it made me think about how often companies use the natural world in their ads.
Williams: Yes, absolutely. Because we evoked emotions as an incidental task outside of the ads themselves, my research doesn’t speak directly to it. What I do know is that, at least in the simple ads we did when there was an emotional control condition of neither awe nor pride, the ads alone didn’t have these effects. That’s really important. It tells us that the emotions are critical to actually have these effects. Now, is it possible that an ad could do something to evoke awe or evoke pride, more as part of the ad than what we actually did? I do think that’s true.
What provokes awe? Certainly, they can show the beautiful world. We’re doing another paper where we look at how beautiful products evoke awe. This was provoked by these unboxing videos that are on YouTube, for example.
Knowledge@Wharton: My daughter loves those.
Williams: Yes, my son does, as well. He’ll watch them for an hour. He’s just so enthralled with the feeling of what it’s like to open these boxes. That really is a feeling of awe, I think. Sometimes it feels like it’s almost a religious experience the way it’s presented in these videos.
We’ve been looking at how a feeling of awe in response to product beauty leads to all sorts of desirable downstream consequences for the product. For example, we find that if the product has a flaw in it, consumers are much more likely to forgive a brand that evokes awe than they are to forgive a brand that doesn’t evoke awe. There’s this sense that, “I need to be charitable to others. I need to be a communitarian.” It leads to these feelings of forgiveness, even in fairly significant transgressions or flaws. So, there’s all sorts of stuff that can be played with in the discreteness of the emotions that I hope would be useful to companies.
Knowledge@Wharton: There’s probably no way a company can predict when a customer is feeling awe or pride. In order to use this in their marketing, should they try to find situations in which customers would be feeling or thinking about those emotions a little more than they normally would?
Williams: Yes, absolutely. Most of this research on this kind of self-brand relationship suggests that the relationships themselves are more enduring. If I share a common value with a firm, my relationship with that firm is going to be enduring. One of the things that you hint at is that our research shows that these relationships can be much more contextually driven because the emotions are situationally driven, if you will.
One of my colleagues here, [Wharton marketing professor] Jonah Berger, has a paper with Katy Milkman, [Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions] showing that the most emailed stories at The New York Times are those that provoke awe. I think it’s easy to find places where ads could be positioned around awe-inducing content. You can think about those stories in The New York Times or in other media. How do I make sure that my ads are placed within the context of those kinds of stories, for example? It’s a different way of contextual advertising where we’re usually thinking about the alignment of the subjects, not the alignment of the emotions that are provoked by the ads. But I think it’s probably a much more powerful way to contextually place those ads.
Knowledge@Wharton: Is it important for consumers to understand this about themselves?
Williams: Yes, I hope there are all sorts of interesting implications about this for consumers. One is just simply, why are you consuming? Are you consuming out of a sense of self-enhancement or out of a sense of self-community with the world? And what does that say about your own values as a consumer?
“I think that the bar for what it means to be a brand that’s loved by your consumers has fundamentally changed.”
I do think there is a real cultural shift happening generationally in terms of the underlying drivers of why consumers of different generations are seeking to consume. I hope we could provide some insight into that for consumers themselves, or as they look at themselves compared to other cohorts.
There was a nice article in The New York Times last year or the year before that said don’t exercise for fitness or weight loss. You should exercise for awe. You should go out and swim in a beautiful place or run in a beautiful place, and you’re much more likely to stick with it if you’re consuming those emotions than if you’re just consuming the functional attributes of the exercise. I think that there is some insight here about why we do what we do, and how we can think about doing more of what we want to do and maybe less of what we don’t want to do.
Knowledge@Wharton: There’s a lot of talk about brands wanting to have really close relationships with consumers. Do you feel like this research points to that the bar for creating that relationship has changed?
Williams: I definitely do. I think that the bar for what it means to be a brand that’s loved by your consumers has fundamentally changed. It’s not just about making a great product. It’s also not just about having a great image, that you’re doing good things and that you have a positive image more broadly in the world. I think it’s about really aligning with a sense of deeply held values and a sense that you’re willing to take risks for those values as a marker of authenticity.
Think about what Nike has done with Colin Kaepernick recently. It’s a very high-risk strategy in some ways. Surveys suggest that their brand favorability might be down as much as 30%, probably with the non-target market. It’s probably up, in terms of intensity, with their actual core target market. They showed a willingness to step into something that really resonates at a deep level with values that are held.
Knowledge@Wharton: It also seems to point to this idea that, if you want to have an individualized relationship with the target market, you have to recognize that you’re not going to have that deep personal relationship with everybody.
Williams: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. For so many brands, what they’ve done is just pursued something that’s widely perceived as positive, trying not to tarnish that positivity but not necessarily doing anything more meaningful than that. A lot of these sort of smaller, upstart brands that are disrupting categories, they’re not just doing it through business model innovation. They’re doing it through brand-consumer interaction, innovation and thinking deeply about what it means to deliver on what those consumers actually care about, and being willing to walk away from some consumers who don’t care about those things to the same degree.