Lukas Cottrell: How strong brands reach the heart of their target group

Familiarity with target groups, their behavior patterns and convictions is indispensable for effective brand work. Now a representative study reveals which emotional aspects are relevant to consumers in Germany. The strongest brands are those that succeed in playing a leading role in the life stories of their target group.

Brand managers and agency partners all want to achieve the same thing: the strongest possible brand. But what exactly does that mean? How do you measure brand strength? There are different approaches, and they often lead to rankings that refer to perceived values, sales figures and awareness levels. Undoubtedly, these factors are important. Unfortunately they don't reliably say much about which brands are actually firmly anchored in the hearts of their target groups. But this is precisely what matters most. Strong brands are those you don't have to think about much; they just naturally feel like they are part of our lives. These brands have an advantage when it comes to purchasing decisions. Long before the mind speaks, the heart has already made its choice and given its own "Passion Brand" a head start. 

The strongest brands are therefore not those that succeed in communicating their image across all touchpoints. The strongest brands are the ones that play a part in the life story of their target group.

The German study reveals Life Stories.

A Germany-wide study investigates precisely this connection. A total of sixty brands were included in the analysis, and were compared with the life stories of a representative cross-section of the population. The list ranges from Amazon to Zalando; international players such as Facebook or Tesla are represented as well as German medium-sized businesses, food brands and automobiles. Is it even possible to compare such fundamentally different brands with each other? Of course. Because as different as they are, they can often be found in the same situation. People who stream Netflix films probably do so in a certain context – perhaps sitting on the sofa with a beer and a bag of chips? The Germany study gets to the point: Netflix, Schweppes, Capri Sun, Campari and Airbnb are all part of the same life story.

The empirical study makes it possible to draw a very differentiated picture, including with regard to people's attitudes toward life events, formative stories, social topics, but also to sensory impressions, personality attributes and design elements. Through implicit testing, the study participants allocated around 250 topics to the "emotional dimensions" of creativity, adventure, dominance, discipline, harmony and openness. In addition to the allocation itself, the time required for the respondents to make their decision was also decisive. Clear and unequivocal assessments – decisions that are based on emotional criteria – were given more weight than assessments that were provided more hesitantly. The findings represent an "emotional map" from which concrete life stories can be derived. Similar people share similar life stories, and thus form a target group.  

Brands are relevant when they become the protagonists in the life story of their target group.

Just as it's possible to map the life stories of individuals, brands can also be mapped emotionally. Brands gain strength when they succeed in playing a comprehensive, relevant and unique role in the consumer's daily life. Then they have what it takes to become a true Passion Brand.

First finding

United in gut feeling: People and brands come together through emotions.

For a long time, target groups were defined according to sociodemographic factors. Age, gender, marital status and income were traditional characteristics for creating a supposedly concise picture of buyer groups. Today this consideration is being questioned – and rightly so, as an example shows: Two East German women, both 64 years old, Protestant, high earners, well known. Both are no longer in their first marriage and have an appreciation for music. They have a lot in common – and yet they move in fundamentally different life stories. Their names are Angela Merkel and Nina Hagen. 

It is therefore understandable why brand managers and agency strategists take care to make their target group tangible in terms of personality, for example by describing their behaviors and values. The German study helps here. It documents what connects or separates target groups, and reveals the decision drivers and codes they respond to. 

One example is the group of optimistic hedonists. They move within the four need emotional dimensions of harmony, openness, creativity and adventure. In contrast, dominance and discipline are virtually insignificant; optimistic hedonists do not respond to the codes they imply. "Elbow mentality" and striving for power are alien to them. Their life story is rather characterized by sociable get-togethers and shared experiences. They are adventurous, appreciate variety and sometimes also enjoy a small dose of thrills. Optimistic hedonists opt for rock'n'roll instead of rules, for Picasso instead of perfection, dialogue instead of dominance. Brands that play an important role in their lives include Airbnb, Schweppes and Netflix.

Second finding

Established codes are the lever for the targeted development of brands. 
People with identical life stories have a shared, fundamental understanding of how to interpret sensory codes, experiences and social themes. Brands can use this knowledge to translate abstract terms into concrete communication. At the same time, however, it is important to also look at possible sub-segments within a life story. Of course, income differences also exist among optimistic hedonists – and a brand from the premium segment will have an enhanced focus on codes that are anchored in the hearts of high-income earners. 

We know, for example, that optimistic hedonists associate modern art with creativity. But what music does this association correspond to? Here, the study found an interesting shift: Those who earn less money associate jazz with creativity. Those with a high income, on the other hand, tend towards classical music. So let's assume that a manufacturer of high-quality automobiles wants to link itself more strongly to the value of "creativity" among well-earning optimistic hedonists. Then it would be appropriate to use classical music in a TV spot that shows the product in the context of modern art.

Third finding

Three factors turn successful brands into real passion brands.

Even if brands are present in the life story of a target group, this does not say anything about how effectively they actually reach them. Because in every life story there are leading and supporting actors – brands we come into contact with on a daily basis, but also brands whose products we only use very rarely, but which are so firmly anchored in our hearts that they immediately come to mind as our "first choice." The study therefore not only looks at the relevance of a brand, it also examines the factors of uniqueness and emotional depth. Only the intersection of all three aspects makes it possible to specify which brands have what it takes to become Passion Brands. 

Big names don't necessarily end up at the top. A company can be an established market leader in its segment without triggering clear emotions among its target group. However, this is exactly what the Germany study looks at. Because: Appealing to consumers' emotions can influence purchasing decisions much more effectively than a one-sided focus on awareness and reach. 

Capri Sun and Schweppes are examples of strong Passion Brands. For decades, Schweppes has managed to position itself as a sour-tasting beverage in contrast with all other soft drinks. The puckered face of a consumer tasting a sour refreshment is not only celebrated visually, but also shapes the brand's entire communication. Capri Sun, on the other hand, consistently conjures up the world of adventure and harmony in which optimistic hedonists feel at home: light-hearted, colorful and cheerful, and something you want to take along when you're on the go.

Fourth finding

Fit with the Life Story is more important than differentiation at any price!

A wide variety of brands are part of one and the same life story. Must they try to distinguish themselves from each other and make it clear who is the true Number One in the customer's heart? No – because the fit of the brand to the life story of the target group is much more decisive than differentiation from other brands. In addition, what matters is the emotional peaks that a brand triggers.

From an industry ranking in which a soft drink ranks fifth, the manufacturer is often unable to derive any recommendations for action. A more meaningful piece of information is an assessment of the context in which the drink is consumed – is it at home on the balcony or rather on the schoolyard, the sports field or in nightclubs? If companies know this, they can optimize their communication. Whether other brands use the same codes is of secondary importance.

The context also helps identify cooperation partners. Why does Nutella go with football? Does it make sense for a brand to place a TV spot before the evening news, or does its target group stream films on Netflix? Brands that move in the same life story use identical codes – so communication can take place for both without frictional losses or compromises. Or to stick to our initial example: Airbnb is a suitable cooperation partner for Schweppes, while a five-star hotel chain is less appropriate.

Fifth finding

What Germany agrees on – and where we are thoroughly misunderstanding each other.

The results of the study are of interest beyond their implications for brand work. They provide an exciting look at how people perceive social events, established codes and associations. What do Germany's residents think about the European elections or the Oktoberfest? What do they associate with driving on the Autobahn, and how do they feel about German reunification? The study shows how people in different realms of life feel about these topics, but also makes it possible to form clusters independently of them.

For example, how has Germans' opinion of "Europe" changed? Older respondents still associate the topic with adventure, while the younger ones associate it with openness. It is interesting to note that Southern Germans anchor the topic more strongly in the adventure dimension (34%) than Northern Germans do (9%). Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the reunification of Germany still reveals clear differences between East and West. For West Germans, it is associated with openness and harmony, while East Germans rarely associate it with openness. For them, it is more strongly linked with the adventure dimension.

Sixth finding

Harmony smells like roses – but "soft" is often quite diverse. 

Perhaps you are familiar with the situation: Long discussions about the direction the brand should go, resulting in a revised strategy with abstract statements like, "We need to develop more openness" or "In the future we will communicate a more adventurous spirit." As fitting as these resolutions may be, they are generally difficult to translate into operational business. 

For us as a brand and design agency, it was therefore important to map sensory stimuli. The Germany-wide study enables us to specify quite concretely how a brand that wants to communicate dominance should feel – or what adventure smells like. We also collected responses to various visual designs, mood boards and colors. This makes it possible to assign specific design approaches to the respective life stories. 

However, there are also differences of opinion within Germany about how to assess sensory stimuli. There are differences in terms of the life story, but also between genders and regions. The assessment of "soft," for example, is an interesting case. For 93% of East Germans and 78% of South Germans, it is quite clearly associated with the dimension of harmony – but only 28% of North Germans see it that way. The latter associate it predominantly with openness (50%) – an assessment which, in turn, is shared by only 3% of Southern Germans. One can guess that it could be difficult to advertise a detergent uniformly throughout Germany on TV; digital advertising media, with their greater potential for differentiation, might promise greater success. On the other hand, there were no such extreme deviations in the assessment of similar terms like "velvety" and "fluffy." This also makes it clear: the more pointed the analysis becomes, the more worthwhile it is to take a second look at the data for individual brands or target groups.

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