Consumer Emotions & Goals in Creative Strategy: Part I

I've been asked to articulate my approach to creative strategy, which hinges heavily on an understanding of consumers' emotions and goals, coupled with a hefty dose of social theory. I've built out this framework in a single PowerPoint slide, but I'd also like to break it down here. This will be a multi-part situation. I like to tell folks that I try to cull everything down to the point that I don't make them look under the hood when I explain my shit. This will be different. In this first part, I'd like to pop the hood and explain how the car runs. The follow up post will be a deeper dive into the theoretical meat: if this post is to show you what's under the hood, the follow up will be me dropping the transmission and taking it apart to show you the bits and pieces. 


Let's kick this thing off with a very quick crash course in the typically recognized sociological levels of analysis: macro, meso, and micro. This means the level (zoomed in vs. zoomed out) at which you'll be analyzing data, what types of data you'll be using, and what conclusions you can draw.

  • Macro: large scale aggregation. Societies, populations, and large systems as your units of analysis. Emile Durkheim, a founder of sociology, took a macro-level approach to the study of trends in suicide occurrences across societies. 
  • Meso: Groups, organizations, and communities as your object of study. The middle level, and link, between the macro and the micro. 
  • Micro: The interactional level. Relationships, interactions, and individuals as the units of analysis. Where my particular interests have tended to lie.

In the hunt for that key creative insight, it's fairly impossible not to take a long, hard look at social and cultural trends.  Understanding large-scale factors is vital; macro-level social structures (economic systems, political systems, discourses, etc) serve as the scaffolding that shape the beliefs people have and the courses of action they take, and are in turn shaped by those beliefs and actions. Over time, we can see the trajectory and trend of social change. A feedback/feedforward loop. It's all contextual, and macro-level factors provide that highest level context, a container, to understand states of culture and action.

For ubiquitous or iconic brands with broad consumer bases, having your pulse on social trends and large cultural developments can be enough. If EVERYONE is a potential customer, understanding macro level trends is relatively adequate for understanding how they relate to your consumers and their sentiments.

But it's a matter of scale of brand and audience. For fledgling brands, role players, and those challenger brands that simply aren't in the lead (yet), grasping macro-level trends isn't enough. Aggregated trends obscure and obfuscate the particulars of your audience, so you need to dig into the lower levels of analysis to understand your audience's experiences. This is where emotions and goals come acutely into play in planning: to bridge the gap between larger trends and your consumer audience by zooming in on their experiences in deeper detail. 

If you're a proponent of the 'consumer journey' as a tool to understand your consumers' paths to purchase, you know that they have different feelings associated with their different needs & goals along the way. If you know how your consumer is feeling at any point in the journey - from category entry to purchase and usage - and what they're working towards, and you have a good enough grasp of how to activate messaging to reach them at (generally) those spots, you can craft messages in an anticipatory fashion to align with those emotional states, and POP.  In short: understand your consumers' problems and how they feel now, understand the desired solution and how they want to feel then, and build messaging for either pole (and in between). Dangle the emotional carrot.

Now let's gloss over a bunch of theory and research in this paragraph (deal with it, it's my blog post). People are not rational beings, and they don't make decisions by conducting seamless cost/benefit analyses to maximize quantifiable utility on the fly. Consumers are all trying to figure shit out along the way the best they can, solve their problems (big or small), and all the while they're emoting. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that consumers respond to emotional advertising content. Moreover, they remember it, and build memories and emotional associations to your brand. 

And that's a good chunk of the battle (to be noticed and remembered), but emotion alone isn't going to move units or spur sales. When push comes to shove, consumers are interested in your brand and what you offer because they're trying to solve problems. They each have an end goal, a desired state of being.

That is where planners and creatives have an opportunity: with your end user's desired goal - the solution to their problem - comes an implicitly desired emotional state. With the solution comes a desired sense of something, be it satisfaction, happiness, confidence, determination, whatever. Getting a grip on that emotional end state gives you the opportunity to take a crack at creating work that supports and foments it at the point of purchase and usage, and speaks to users in a way to which they can relate. Basically speaking, with the right homework and understanding of your audience, you can create ads that speak to your consumers' emotions and goals along the path to purchase, ingraining your brand as the solution to their problems, and the harbinger of their desired end states. Understand the big trends that swirl around your consumers, and understand the fine details of their experiences.

So how do we get there? How do we come to understand consumer groups' states of being and emotions? This is where levels of analysis come back into play. The simple answer is to start talking to and observing people, and work to connect their actions and experiences to their social circles and larger social trends.  Talk to consumers, talk to people, and explore where they're coming from where they are now, and where they're going. Start to look for answers to these questions: from what trajectories are they coming to interact with your category and brand? That's a big moment in addressing emotional & goals-based needs. What do we want consumers to feel and believe when they encounter our brand? What do they want to do and feel? What emotions can we lean on as a brand? And to jump to the end of the journey: how do they want to feel when they've found their solution? What's the goal? And what can we do to put our brand in position to best ensure that they feel that way when what we offer solves their problems? 

Looking at consumers' emotions and goals from macro trends to the particulars of your audiences' lived experiences sets you up to craft messaging that resonates - and matters - to your consumers. And as you scale or change the scope of your audience, you can shift your messaging's intent and desired emotionality to what best fits their needs (and your brand).

Why write all of this? Because emotions and goals matter. I'm not the first to say this, of course, but it's time to think about not just what ads look like, but what ads feel like. They'll be more memorable, probably sell more stuff, and they'll be better quality pieces of creative work. And I think that'll make us all feel better.

Consumer Emotions & Goals in Creative Strategy: Part II, or Field Theory and Creative Strategy

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