Got emotional product positioning?

Vijay Mahajan, Yoram Wind. Marketing Management. Chicago:  May/Jun 2002. Vol. 11, Iss. 3;  pg. 36, 6 pgs


Abstract (Article Summary)

Marketers of perfume, fashion, liquor, and high-quality image products have always known there was not a logical argument that could convince a buyer to purchase their brand of scent, champagne, luggage, or jewelry. They appealed to emotions. Approaches using emotional appeals have swept out of the fashion stores into a wide range of industries. Positioning can be based on a combination of cognition and affect. Cognition depends on logical arguments in favor of the product. It focuses on problems, solutions, or benefits sought by customers and how the product features help to solve the problems or achieve the benefits. In contrast to cognitive approaches, affect goes straight to the heart by focusing on emotions, feelings, or drives associated with a product or service.


There's more to positioning than just features and benefits. 


Marketers of perfume, fashion, liquor, and high-quality image products have always known there wasn't a logical argument that could convince a buyer to purchase their brand of scent, champagne, luggage, or jewelry. They appealed to emotions. They associated their products with fashionable and attractive people and situations. While emotion has long been recognized as an important aspect of positioning, the appeal to the heart instead of the head is now increasing in a wide range of markets. Given product proliferation, information overload, a focus on customer relationships, and consumers' increased use of Web-based search engines and decision tools, companies need to do more than appeal to the head in positioning products. They must also appeal more than ever to the heart.


Approaches using emotional appeals have swept out of the fashion stores into a wide range of industries. Volkswagen positions its new Beetle with '60s retro associations and psychedelic colors, and the company has created an online radio station to reinforce the importance of music to the brand. Similarly, BMW has created a series of short online movies by famous producers that only peripherally feature its automobiles. And Swatch has created an interactive online store where visitors not only look at products, but also actually "design" their own personal store clerk as part of the overall experience. Nike's "Just do it" campaign doesn't even tell our logical heads what "it" is, but we all get the emotional messages of achievement and courage. POWERade uses glowing colors and associations with Shaquille O'Neil, and Budweiser has emphasized associations with fun through advertising featuring frogs and lizards.


EXECUTIVE briefing


It's not vitamins and minerals that sell milk these days, but rather "affective" emotional relationships, with celebrities sporting milk moustaches. From pedestrian products, such as milk, to online relationships, emotion is becoming more important in product positioning. In this article, the authors explore the rising importance of "affect," explain when it's most important, and point out some possible pitfalls in applying it.


Even milk is positioned by painting its mustache on every celebrity lip that stands still for a few moments. While the "Got milk?" and "Milk mustache" campaigns continue to offer a subtext of the health and lifestyle benefits of drinking milk, all these cognitive messages are sweetened and permeated by the syrup of an emotional appeal.


  Messages are becoming more vague while the emotions are becoming more vivid. The overriding message is that if you're not using emotion to position your products and services-any product or service-you're missing a tremendous opportunity. Your position also may be vulnerable to competitors who recognized this potential first.


When Visa International launched an advertising campaign claiming that seven million merchants who accept Visa don't accept American Express credit cards, American Express countered with its own ad dismissing the claim. American Express countered that Visa charges cardholders "$1.5 billion in unnecessary interest." The cognitive arguments led to a public shouting match that did more to confuse than win new customers. In contrast, Visa's "Everywhere you want to be" campaign was based on the same argument as before, but it used affect to associate its card with exciting events and locations (such as the Olympics and upscale restaurants) rather than proving its point with statistics. Consumers who have an emotional link with a brand also are likely to be less price-sensitive so long as they continue to derive their emotional satisfaction from the brand.


In advertising its disposable cameras, Kodak could have made logical arguments for the superiority of its cameras. But the company didn't discuss low price or argue how the camera is ideal for risky situations when a camera may be damaged or stolen. Instead it showed straight-laced maids and butlers frolicking while the mistress of the house was away-taking pictures with disposable cameras the whole time. The ads associate the camera with risk and excitement, but through an emotional appeal.


Cognitive and Affective Positioning


Positioning can be based on a combination of cognition and affect. Cognition depends on logical arguments in favor of the product. It focuses on problems, solutions, or benefits sought by customers and how the product features help to solve the problems or achieve the benefits. (For example, "milk builds healthy bones.") At the extreme, this includes comparative advertising, which compares the features of the product or service directly with those of rivals.


In contrast to cognitive approaches, affect goes straight to the heart by focusing on emotions, feelings, or drives associated with a product or service. Milk is associated with athletes, actors, and other role models that create an emotional association with the product or service. The emotions that can be drawn on in positioning products range from joy to fear to desire to sadness. While both cognition and affect are important, the battlefield of positioning is shifting to affect.


To illustrate how these cognitive and affective strategies are combined, consider an advertisement for milk featuring television host Joan Lunden. The four sentences of copy below Lunden's photo read as follows:


"Most people think I must drink at least 10 cups of coffee to be so perky in the morning. But the truth is, I like skim milk first thing. It has all the same nutrients as whole milk without all the fat. And besides, my husband got the coffee maker."


Along with Lunden's smiling milk mustache, this simple ad succinctly units its cognitive and affective components to exploit the six major strategies of product positioning:


* Based on product features. The "same nutrients as whole milk without the fat" describes features of the product.


* Based on benefits, solutions, or needs. Skim milk makes her "perky" and it is implied that it also helps keep a trim figure.


* For a specific usage occasion. Lunden drinks milk first thing in the morning.


* For a specific user category. As a successful, independent woman, Lunden shows that milk is not just for kids.


* Against another product. She drinks milk instead of drinking 10 cups of coffee.


* For product class disassociation. The advertisement differentiates skim milk from whole milk, showing it is healthier.


In this single ad, the six major positioning strategies are combined in a tight package. It really is a marvel of engineering, but that's not the whole story. What's less evident, and perhaps more significant, is the addition of affect to the cognitive positioning contained in the copy. The ad uses some of these six strategies in its affective positioning. For example, Lunden's appearance in the ad is associated with benefits such as health, success, and energy. Her presence also helps to target a certain group of users (young professional women). The questions used in the campaign: "Got milk?" and "Where's your milk mustache?" also convey an attitude that targets a set of contemporary and savvy customers.


When It Matters


Although all products and services can and should use affect to some degree, it makes the most sense in the following situations:


Big-ticket items. If customers are motivated to buy products based on emotions, they usually have a reduced need for cognitive information during the prepurchase stage. Consumers in general have surprisingly little interest in detailed prepurchase information, even when buying expensive or socially risky goods. It's far easier to purchase a car that gives you the latest technology or makes you look "smart" than to read all the fine print on engines and transmissions. Acquiring customers by affect also can help reduce post-purchase "buyer's remorse." So long as the purchase lives up to the affective promises, the customer will be less likely to feel dissatisfied based on cognitive dissonance. Mercedes-Benz, for example, used analogies to great writers, ballplayers, and historical events in the United States in its advertising to differentiate its product from an ordinary "car." (A photo of Hemingway is shown with the caption "a writer.") The tag line for the campaign is a direct reference to the limitations of cognition: "Sometimes words can be hopelessly inadequate." There may ultimately be no rational argument to cause a customer to part with that much money. It has to be the emotions.


Commodity products. Almost by definition, commodity products have very little to say for themselves. Cognitive arguments are pointless if there's little to distinguish one product from another. It's the emotional associations with the commodity product that make it cease to be a commodity. In addition to the milk campaign, spring water is the ultimate example of how affect can turn a commodity into a brand worth a dollar or two a bottle. Aside from the shape of the bottle and the affective positioning, what is it that distinguishes one spring water product from another? The de-commoditization of a product can also be seen in Absolut Vodka's shift from focusing on the spirits inside the bottle to affective associations with the bottle, and its artistic execution, which helped it rise above the shelves of generic vodka. Emotions can lift commodities from sameness and position them as something different.


Technologically complex products. Among the most complex products or services to sell are those based on high technology. Affective approaches may provide a motivation for purchase without getting lost in the complexity of the cognitive arguments. Apple's famous "1984" campaign and IBM's Charlie Chaplin campaign for its PC were early examples. Apple Computer's more recent "Think different" campaign associates itself with radical thinkers throughout society, without one mention of either the hardware or software (although these are described in more cognitively focused advertising).


Southwestern Bell marketed a new voice messaging system by showing a young woman fruitlessly trying to retrieve an invitation for a date from an old-fashioned answering machine. A second ad shows a man professing his love to a date in his home while a message from a second woman is audible in the background on his answering machine. The association is not with technology but with personal privacy, love, embarrassment, and lost opportunity. One Philadelphia-area stereo retailer stressed that it sold "goosebumps" rather than trying to explain the quality of its highly technical merchandise.


Multiple generations of products. For products such as chips, software, and automobiles, with planned obsolescence of each version of the product, affective approaches can bring continuity to the customer relationship. Even when cognitive benefits and features are rapidly changing, affect remains. For example, Intel's use of its "Intel Inside" branding, along with a distinctive set of musical tones and cool-looking, clean-room-suited representatives, uses an affective strategy as the connective tissue for a set of products with shifting features and benefits. Affect is used to create an emotional link, so customers will continuously upgrade based on the relationship.


Service. Service comes from the heart, so it's particularly important to use affect in positioning service. When American Express tried to sum up the impact of its credit card and related services, it used affective relationships with celebrities to make its point. Its "profiles" campaign focused on how the card improved the lives of high-profile individuals. This allows the company to pull together a complex bundle that includes a less tangible service component. Affect fuses together a wide range of features and benefits that are not, or cannot be, clearly articulated. Insurance companies show hurricanes and other disaster to make an emotional appeal.


Credence goods. Products can be divided into search goods (e.g., clothing and furniture) whose quality can be judged before consumption; experience goods (e.g., travel or restaurant meals) that have to be experienced to be evaluated; and credence goods (e.g., medical diagnosis and auto repair) that customers cannot evaluate even after experience. Because of the trust needed for credence goods, affective positioning may be even more important.


Familiar products. Affect can help ensure that a familiar product remains among the limited consideration set from which customers make their purchases. The emotions associated with the brand or product become part of the consumer's autobiographical memories, making them stronger and more accessible. For example, the powerful affective associations with Coke or Pepsi are often the determining factor in purchases. In contrast, unfamiliar products that tend to evoke more cognitive effort on the part of the customer are less susceptible to affective approaches.


To develop strong brands. Affect helps strengthen brands because it adds another distinction to the brand. If a Home Depot builds its brand identity only around broad selection, high quality, and lower prices, its customers may quickly defect if another competitor moves in with a larger selection or lower prices. But if the brand also has an affective association-there are some relationships, emotions, or warm feelings associated with the store (i.e., friendly personal service)-the brand becomes a more powerful force in holding customers. For example, the Traveler's umbrella or Prudential's Rock of Gibraltar are designed to appeal more to the feeling of security than to any specific benefit.


Discontinuous innovations. Discontinuous innovations require customers to change their current behavior to adopt the innovation. For example, online grocery shopping and using video telephones require substantial changes in behavior. Because their attachment to the old product or service may be based on sound reasons, affect can be a way to break through this wall of arguments and encourage more innovative behavior.


Unmentionables. Unmentionable products (e.g., condoms, hygiene products, funeral services) are generally difficult to market. Marketers may use affect to market these products because they are difficult to position in cognitive terms. A commercial for Trojan condoms uses a super hero character. A Fort James ad shows a roll of toilet paper and merely says, "Imagine your life without it." If a product is unmentionable, you need more than words to encourage customers to be comfortable considering it.


Some Pitfalls


Even as marketers begin to understand and use affective approaches, several pitfalls are worth noting. In particular, companies using affective positioning have to be careful of the following potential problems:


Dissonance between affect and cognitive messages. The affective messages are out of step with one another, the cognitive arguments, or the actual product experience. If the affective cognitive positioning is based on high quality but customer service is shoddy, the positioning will be undermined. One of the problems of the milk campaign may have been that it was very effective in positioning its product as hip and healthy, but the supermarkets still offered the product in the same old bland containers. The advertising was giving one message while the packaging and distribution strategy sent another one. Milk producers could have moved more aggressively to take milk into different packaging that would be more consonant with its milk mustache positioning.


Cultural differences. Affect is very susceptible to differences in interpretation across cultures. The Milk Processor Board's "Got Milk?" campaign became the unflattering "Are You Lactating?" when translated into Spanish for Latino audiences in the United States. This unwanted overtone and differences in family relationships led the advertiser to create a separate Latino campaign targeted toward mothers that asked, "And You, Have You Given Them Enough Milk Today?" Instead of athletes and models, the campaign showed mothers cooking traditional milk-rich Latin foods such as Plans in the family kitchen. On the other hand, Latino focus groups found that teens may identify more with English language "Got Milk?" campaigns than with those specifically targeted toward Latinos. (Wartzman, Rick (1999), "When You Translate 'Got Milk' for Latinos, What Do You Get?" Wall Street Journal, June 3.) As in all cross-cultural marketing, defining where the global market ends and the local market begins is an art.


Lack of credibility. To be effective, any positioning (cognitive or affective) requires the marketer to understand what's important to the customer and to show that the product or service delivers on those expectations better than anyone else. The message has to be credible to be believed.


Confusion. Even though affect can be effective in reaching out to diverse, heterogeneous segments, it's also more open to interpretation than cognitive arguments. Not everyone relates to the same humor and mood of the advertising. What one person finds hilarious, another may find baffling or shocking. Most marketing research is limited to testing the cognitive impact of marketing and doesn't generally address the affective dimension of positioning. We need to develop and employ better techniques for testing the effectiveness of affect. Sometimes, even without cultural differences, the message doesn't come across. What the advertiser intended with the affect approach is not received that way. Some of this can be avoided through careful testing, but by its nature affect is less precise than cognitive approaches.


Unwanted overtones. Affective relationships can be very hard to manage because they are highly personal and emotionally charged. When American Express used Body Shop founder Anita Roddick as a profile in its advertising campaign, there may have been a disjoint between the images of the Body Shop and American Express. While some potential customers would be positively moved by the association, others might find it a negative association. When partnering with other companies and seeking to evoke certain emotions, managers need to carefully consider whether the affect of one product is compatible with the other.


Winning Hearts and Minds


Affect has a powerful role to play in product positioning today. With care, affect can be a powerful addition to positioning based on features and benefits. It should be in the arsenal of every marketer, no matter what their product or service. In fact, it can be powerful in an industry where this approach has not been used extensively in the past.


In a world of information overload, rapid change, and complexity, increased need to build relationships with customers, and the growing availability of Web-based product and service comparison data on any attribute from performance through style to price, affect has never been more important.


We need more experimentation in this area. If you're not already using affect, how can you add it to your positioning? If you are using it, how can you increase the affective appeal of your positioning? How can you make it more effective by avoiding the mistakes discussed previously? If you are overlooking affect, you may be missing out on an opportunity to make a more powerful impact with your positioning and to forge deeper and more enduring relationships with your customers. It is the affective, rather than the cognitive, story of and about your offerings that will win customers' hearts and minds, and this is what companies need to do to create, manage, and harvest emotional brand loyalty.



Vijay Mahajan is the John P Harbin Centennial Chair in Business and professor of marketing at The University of Texas, Austin. He may be reached at vmahajan@mail.utexas.edu. 


[Author Affiliation]

Yoram (Jerry) Wind is the Lauder Professor and professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management. He may be reached at windj@wharton.upenn.edu. 





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