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In retail marketing, the short answer is Yes, of course feelings matter. Successfully inspiring consumers to associate a brand with a certain emotion or mood has long been considered the pinnacle of modern retail marketing. The long answer, however, is more complicated. It’s still a Yes—but not for the reasons you’d think. Essentially, in the digital age, the source of the emotion has shifted. The feeling being portrayed no longer comes from a TV commercial. It comes from the customer.

This is in reference to a concept I call emotional relevance, and I’ll take the classic counterexample of Dow Chemical’s marketing moonshot to try and illustrate the idea (though there are many, many more counterexamples out there).

A few years ago, Dow began a campaign—The Human Element. The ads were remarkable: beautiful and compelling as a kind of strange art. In a 30- or 60-second spot, you’re captivated by stunning imagery, transported by striking depictions of the sheer variety of life on earth. All of this is very engrossing—until you reach the ad’s end and find yourself asking what in the heck just happened. The viewer is left with impressions aplenty, none of them connected or even associated to the Dow brand name.

So what happened? To quote Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. That is, the ad put a premium on emotion alone, ignoring the importance of crafting and communicating emotional relevance.

And if a major player like Dow can make such an expensive mistake, we’re all liable to do it, too.

Emotion and Tech

For present purposes, we can define emotional relevance, broadly, as the use of digital technology and/or platforms to allow customers to choose—based on how they feel at the moment—to engage with your product. The more relevant both the product and the platform are to customers’ lives and experiences, the more likely they will be to make that choice. It’s about both making the customer the hero and providing him or her with the means to express their needs. Never is it about using an arbitrary emotion (usually humor, joy, fascination, sympathy, outrage, or confusion) to barge in and hard sell a random product.

In the hi-tech age, emotional connection is channeled less often through TV ads and more and more through apps. As a result, we are being ushered into an era of pure emotional relevance wherein, rather than be lectured to, customers are driven to express themselves when and as they see fit, doing so only through the best or most appropriate platforms. Marketers in retail have to look at this phenomenon as a necessary and growing part of their long-term strategy.

The great majority of people click through things like pop-up YouTube ads mainly because, as studies show, they hate them. And why shouldn’t they? Don’t those YouTube ads for Geico, for instance, seem archaic at this point, like a bungling, boring, intrusive relic from the past? People want to spend their time doing things they actually like to do, and being forced to watch a gecko talk about car insurance is not one of them. The concept lacks emotional relevance, and it’s precisely this kind of ad that we will see dwindle into irrelevance as the field for hi-tech innovation and communication expands over time.

Who Is Getting It Right?

The cosmetics retailer Sephora had a much better idea than online pop-up ads.

They’ve begun offering a highly sophisticated “augmented reality mirror” phone app that makes use of artificial intelligence to give customers the ability to “try on” any piece of makeup from the Sephora line without setting foot outside of the house. Although innovative and cutting-edge, it’s also simple to use and thoroughly useful. Here we have no pitch, no hard sell, no minute-long film reels laden with visually stunning portrayals of windswept desert vistas. Just an opportunity. If the customer feels compelled to check out new makeup, they will do so using the app as time permits. That way Sephora can focus on making top-class cosmetics, and customers can focus on buying. No one has to listen to lizards or what appear to be singing rats or any other irrelevant corporate mascot.

And make no mistake, this notion of emotional relevance in retail marketing is rooted in technology nearly to the point where the two are one and the same. Tadashi Yanai, CEO of the parent company to apparel retailer Uniqlo even went so far as to say: “Uniqlo is not a fashion company, it’s a technology company.” Bold words! But it doesn’t mean that Uniqlo is about to start selling quantum computers. It means that retailer Uniqlo is smart enough to see the extent to which the marketing of today is more and more indistinguishable from the advanced tech that delivers it: sell them on your platform and you’ve sold them on your brand. Give them a new way to express themselves through your platforms, and you make the customer the hero.

If we want to use emotional relevance to reach people in right way, we have to give customers the opportunity to want to experience brands in the way they feel like experiencing them. People today—of all ages—just plain dislike the sense of manipulation that comes along with old-school marketing. What they are telling us, bit by bit, is that they need and deserve a new and better way to engage with retail. Digital platforms represent that new way. The sooner retailers understand and pursue this in their marketing, the better off they will be.

TopRight’s running theme from now until early February is the Retail Industry and how digital marketing is transforming it. To learn more about how you can get started with transformational marketing, download our free 3S Playbook here.