How could a brand as well-known as Coca-Cola disappear from the face of the internet? In mid-November 2018, the king of soft drinks basically did just that for an entire weekend. Coca-Cola wiped its social media accounts clean so it could relaunch on World Kindness Day, kick-starting a rebrand rooted in optimism. But what spurred the change in the first place? Coca-Cola’s Social Center found that its fans preferred uplifting content— think inspiring quotes and graphics— and the brand refresh positioned Coca-Cola to better align with good vibes.
Coca-Cola hasn’t always gotten it right, though. Remember New Coke? This was the result of Coca-Cola’s marketers and product creators underestimating the loyalty their consumers already felt to their existing product. This kind of misstep is especially prevalent in rebranding, where artistic choices sometimes have little value beyond their initial flair. Rebrands are powerful things, though, and brand leaders should not waste an opportunity to forge a deeper audience connection.
To do that, they must tap into the power of emotion.
The Psychological Road Map to Better Rebrands
Emotion is the most potent connector in the world, particularly where brand storytelling is concerned. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising found that brand campaigns that appeal purely to emotions perform approximately twice as well as those that appeal primarily to logic. We don’t have to look far to see how these findings translate to real life.
While Nike didn’t launch a full rebrand, its powerful 30th-anniversary campaign featuring politically polarizing Colin Kaepernick offers a great example. Nike made a bold but strategic business decision to ignite a cultural firestorm with the outspoken quarterback’s presence and the headline: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” And while the campaign caused some consumers to swear off Nike forever, the emotional creative clearly resonated with others. The campaign increased sales and customer engagement, adding an impressive $6 billion to Nike’s overall market value.
Pressing psychological buttons like Nike did is less about manipulation than it is about tapping into biological drivers. In their book “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices,” Harvard Business School professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria posit that humans are motivated by four primary biological drivers: the drive to acquire, defend, bond, and learn. Each drive operates independently from the others. So while the drive to acquire encourages people to collect everything from status to resources, the drive to bond spurs social connections.
The brands with the most faithful followers know how to tap into all four drivers in their rebrands, activating “cult loyalty” — the strongest expression of a customer relationship. Marketers and PR professionals can lead a rebrand that inspires cult loyalty by leaning on psychology in three distinct areas:
1. Leverage social proof
Consumers choose to patronize certain brands because they signify who they are as people. Fans of the brand aren’t just those who prefer the product but members of a group that shares their values. We can find examples of this everywhere we look: Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts feel a camaraderie different from that of BMW loyalists, just as iPhone users swear they’ll never switch to an Android.
Marketers can leverage the power of social proof to encourage consumers to see their brand as an extension of themselves. Research by social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman showed that our brains are wired to prioritize social interactions, suggesting that people may be more likely to follow a brand if they see evidence that others are already on board.
So show consumers how engagement with the new brand is not just what they should do— but what others already do. This sounds complicated, but it might manifest in strategies as simple as reframing messaging from “you should love our rebrand” to “your social group loves it already.”
2. Feed consumers’ wants until brand alignment feels like a need
Desire is a powerful emotion, and in life, it often feels spontaneous: “I simply can’t live without this thing.” In rebranding, however, marketers need to direct desire systematically, unraveling their brand’s distinct source of desirability and cultivating it. Don’t misunderstand: This isn’t about manipulation. Consumers want to be in on the joke, not the butt of one.
Instead, use your rebrand to represent something that consumers can’t live without. Feed that desire until the line between the perceived need to align with the brand and the real need of personal fulfillment begins to blur. E-Trade’s “Don’t Get Mad” campaign is a good example. The ads connect not just to consumers’ desire to earn more money, but also to their need to win the game of capitalism (especially within personal circles). When people don’t just like certain brands but need them, they’ll follow these brands to the ends of the earth.
3. Appeal to status
As humans, we’re constantly aware of our position within the pack. Marketers can help consumers along during the rebrand by showing them how the brand increases an individual’s status within the hierarchy.
Dior offers a lesson in the power of status. A few years back, the brand began to offer handbags at more accessible prices, but the move had the unintended effect of drawing both mid- and high-income buyers to the lower price point. Rather than spread the brand thin across multiple price points while losing market share, Dior did away with the lower-priced bags and was able to recapture its luxury buyers. By selling a true luxury product, Dior maintained the aspirational prestige of the brand— and sales numbers jumped, too.
People don’t want to belong just anywhere; they want to feel special and better. And they use their connections to brands to accomplish that. Use your rebrand to feed that and encourage people to adopt brand loyalty as a personality trait.
In our “always on” world, consumers are mired in rebrands. If brands can capture even a few seconds with consumers, that matters. But if they fail to do so in a meaningful way, all they’ve done is waste money and time. We know how powerful emotions are, so rather than use your next rebrand opportunity to appeal to your customers’ surface impulses, lean on the science of psychology to forge deeper bonds. If people can see themselves in your brand in a way they didn’t before, you have the opportunity to connect with them for a lifetime.
Kevin Thompson is CMO of Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates LLC, where he oversees and implements marketing, interactive, digital, advertising, and PR initiatives for the brand. Kevin has an extensive background working with globally recognized luxury brands. He’s passionate about creating an unparalleled customer experience through exceptional marketing and brand management.
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