Emotional Decency in Marketing


By Colleen Fahey

After living through a pandemic, and now living in an uncertain economy, many customers have recalibrated what means most to them, what is reassuring and what, by contrast, is mere life-clutter.

In light of this, marketers need to reevaluate how they talk to (and with) these more vulnerable, more watchful, more self-examining humans. On the optimistic side, the change will be for the better, with more empathy, more sensitivity and more realism. Ideally, brands will show themselves trying to be helpful beyond their own self-interests. 

But it could get worse, too. Marketers may try to brush it all under the rug and pretend to care, while offering the same old promotional desperation wrapped in fake sympathy, “We care so much about you that we’re OFFERING 35% OFF BUT ONLY IF YOU ACT NOW!” And we may see the same parade of damaging fake perfection of bodies, skin, and families that only make real people feel worse about themselves.

Even now, the constant parade of promotional offers has begun to feel tawdry. Who needs a discount on a fast-fashion dress? Who needs a 99th hair accessory or bobble head doll? Exaggerated claims will trigger repugnance. Will this nice can of beans make the mother a perfect parent surrounded by an adoring family? No. Will it provide an easy kid-pleaser that will get you through till another daunting meal? Yes. And that’s no small victory. 

Brands will need to ask themselves, “What is my legitimate emotional territory?,” “What, in today’s world, represents brand decency?”

These more sensitive consumers will reject emotional manipulation. Do they want their bank to create a beautiful film that causes your eyes to well up with tears? No. We’ve had plenty of tears. The real question will be, “Will the bank treat me with respect and dignity, though I may have missed some payments and need a loan?” and, “Can I talk to a human?” There’s another important one. Following two years of social distancing, human-to-human contact is highly prized today.

The emotional manipulation implied by celebrity endorsements may ring false, too. These more introspective audiences will know your brand is not Beyonce or LeBron James. It’s an implied exaggeration that may feel inauthentic.

Beyond changing policies and sharing purpose, here are three immediate ways to take action to make a brand less two-dimensional and more relatable.

  • Graphics: Stop using fake graphics with perfect –usually retouched– models, homes, golf courses. These are cosmetic changes. We know what price we have to pay to actually attain this.
  • Sound: Tailor-made music for the situation. It can help because music can be sensitively designed to be nuanced and emotionally respectful. A brand’s music doesn’t have to play a triumphant blast of brass or reflect a big party, it can be cautiously hopeful or lightly cheerful. It can reflect what emotion is right for the times and the values that are right for the brand. 
  • Language: So many brands claim to be no. 1 in the world, today they need to demonstrate they are really IN the world by using language as a tool for talking to people in ways they can easily understand.

In the end, emotional decency is just human decency. And we all need a mighty slug of that.

Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash.