I watched a lot of television as a child, and thus, I was also exposed to lots of advertising—mostly for cereal, soda and pudding. Basically, ads for sugar.
I still remember the first ad that connected with me on a deeper level. It was for Levi's 501 jeans. Driven by a simple spare blues track, it was centered around a grizzled bluesman playing his guitar (in his 501s, of course). Picture guys in white T-shirts and 501s, dancing, hanging off the back of a pickup. And Bruce Willis. Only Bruce could dance around in a yellow rain jacket and still look cool.
I'm not sure what the "idea" was, but so what? That ad overwhelmed me with a feeling—a feeling that transported me to a very cool world that I wanted to be a part of. I don't think it was a coincidence that during this heyday of Levi's advertising, almost every person in my high school wore 501s.
Cut to around 20 years later. I move to San Francisco and, in a fateful turn, start working at the same agency that created that legendary Levi's ad. I dust off my mountain bike, start getting in shape and plan to train for triathlons. Being from Colorado, I was striving to be outdoorsy again. Right at this time, Nissan introduced a new truck/SUV, the XTerra.
The brand they created around the XTerra was brilliant and spoke directly to me. Or, more accurately, it spoke to the me I was striving to be. Their launch commercial connected with me on a deep level, just like that classic Levi's ad. The soundtrack was Lenny Kravitz's "Fly Away." Quick cuts alternated between people doing awesome outdoorsy things and this new badass truck. Kayaking? Mountain biking? Interior bike racks? Hell yes!
Again, the ad guy in me looks at that campaign and thinks, "What's the idea?" But again, does it matter? These brands made me feel something. They tapped into my rational decision-making process by first connecting with my emotions. They visualized a world I was striving to be a part of. They convinced me to want their product … to need their product. Perhaps more important than any of that, they charmed me into loving their brand.
This emotional connection was created not through an "ad concept." It was created because these brands had a crystal clear understanding of me (their customer) and what I was striving for. Through the craft of music, imagery and writing, they communicated a very clear point of view about who they are and what they stand for.
These brands had soul.
Why should I care if a brand has a soul?
We are both emotional and rational beings. However, I believe we engage emotionally before we think rationally. We are bombarded with so much information every day, the only way to penetrate our brain's defenses against this noise is through emotion.
A recent study backs this up. It concludes that emotions are the access point to our brains. Rationality, to whatever degree, can manage, control or tame those emotions. However, it is through emotion that we first access our consciousness. The theory is that emotions are the first and main control element for all attentional and cognitive processes. That's why, to explain what your product does more clearly, you first have to emotionally engage me to feel something about your brand.
Optimizing a brand to death
I recently sat through a couple of meetings to review months of social advertising. We went over a mind-numbing array of stock imagery and variations of dry, "direct" product copy. From those variations, they were able to incrementally optimize response.
The problem was, these incremental improvements in the short term masked an overall downward trend in the long term. Each incremental gain came at the expense of the long-term brand value. This brand was literally being optimized to death.
We overintellectualize what we communicate and underappreciate how we communicate. We undervalue the ability to demonstrate a deep understanding of the human psyche through craft—the craft of creating original music, imagery, design and writing. Instead, we need to celebrate the benefits of soulful brands.
1. They lead with emotion. Great brands don't agonize over how to explain what their product does. Their priority is to develop a deep understanding and empathy for their audience and tell a brand story that connects on a deeper level. Once they connect emotionally, it much easier (and more effective) to speak to their rational side.
2. They invest in original creative assets. Great brands understand that talented photographers, directors, writers, designers, illustrators and musicians convey stronger emotion and tell better stories through the subtleties of their craft. They understand it's not just what you say, but how you say it.
3. They are not mirrors that reflect their customers. Great brands are a promise that aligns with what customers are striving to be.
Do brands even matter anymore?
In a world of stock photography, stock music and A.I.-written copy, we are increasingly endangering the long-term existence of brands. We're able to drive response in the short term, but I believe we'll create brand obsolescence in the long term.
For a company like Amazon, the end of brands could be great news. But this is not great if you believe in the power of brands to connect people with products that provide actual value to their lives.
In an increasingly transactional brand economy, let's not lose our soul.