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How Brands Get People to Care. And How Yours Can, Too.

You know all those Subaru commercials starring, um, dogs? There’s a good reason for that.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with car commercials knows, major advertisers play heavily on emotion. Take the Subaru Forester commercial released earlier this month. While the key product takeaways are that the Forester is roomy, trustworthy and long-lasting, the ad doesn’t waste much time getting into specifics.

Instead, it takes us on a journey: We’re led by the family dog through scenes of a family’s special moments over the years. What does the commercial’s imagery have to do with automobile features? Not much. What does it have to do with our purchasing habits? Everything.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that advertising will play to our emotions — but advertisers aren’t doing this only to be noticed or remembered among an endless sea of ads. They’re doing this because emotion is a key driver of decision-making. In fact, most of our decisions as consumers come down to more than just product features or price.

There’s scientific evidence behind that statement: Research conducted by Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman demonstrated that up to 95 percent of purchasing decisions may be formed in the subconscious mind. This is the part of the brain where logic takes a back seat and emotion grabs the wheel.

Additionally, a study published in the scientific journal Neuron showed that exposure to certain brand images (for the study’s purposes, the brands Coke and Pepsi) will light up the part of the brain responsible for emotion, memory and motivation.

While emotional connection won’t always overcome vast differences in quality or price, having an emotional bond with your customers can be just enough to tip the scales in your favor. You don’t have to be a billion-dollar brand to reap the benefits of this phenomenon.

So, what can you as a business owner do differently? For one thing, you can stop focusing just on your product’s features and benefits that could appeal to your customer’s rational mind. Because these factors are not enough. If you want people, to buy, your task is to make them feel something.

How do you do that? Here are three science-backed ways to help spark that emotional connection with your customers:

1. Tell stories.

Parents and teachers know that storytelling is a great way to help kids absorb a lesson, but it’s just as effective a tool for adults. In fact, stories are one of the best ways to tap into the part of our mind that inspires connection, conversation and, ultimately, action.

Not only do stories help us remember and internalize facts and ideas, but they serve as a bridge between people, uniting us through common values and universal experiences. Remember that dog in the Subaru commercial mentioned earlier? More than half of Subaru owners happen to be dog owners, a company marketing executive told Automotive News. By featuring dogs prominently — sometimes as the hero of its stories — Subaru speaks its customers’ language.

Airbnb similarly takes a customer-led approach by featuring stories from its community. Hosts’ personal tales showcase the emotional and financial benefits of hosting. And, for the traveler, these stories underscore the uniqueness of the Airbnb experience: connection with other humans, and immersion into a new culture.

Think about your own brand narrative. What are some of the twists and turns of your life that led you to where you are today? You can weave your brand stories into social media content, blog posts and ads; you can share your origin story. Another place to go is your clients’ stories (share only with permission!).

Begin with general ideas you’d like your audience to take away, then tell stories to illustrate these points. You likely have a lot more material than you realize.

2. Lead with values.

What does your business stand for? What does it stand against? Don’t just say it — live it! A values-driven focus can impact every area of your brand’s health, right down to customer loyalty and purchasing habits. A 2017 corporate social responsibility study conducted by Cone Communications found that 87 percent of people surveyed would purchase a product whose brand’s values aligned with their beliefs.

As a brand strategist, one of the first steps I take with my clients is to help them identify and articulate their core values. From there, we think through how these values touch every aspect of their business, from their hiring process to their marketing, to their product or service delivery.

Glossier is just such a company that leads with its values. By doing so, this still-young makeup and skincare company has made brand evangelists of its customers and made some major waves in its $445 billion beauty industry.

In this context, Glossier shines a spotlight on its values of `”celebrating difference and individuality,” “skin first, make-up second” and “democratizing beauty.” A quick scroll through its Instagram feed shows women and men of various ethnicities wearing Glossier products; in those images, skin, in its sparkling, dewy glory, takes center stage while “product” plays a supporting role.

The brand also strives to make customers feel they’re in the driver’s seat; their opinions and feedback help to shape new product launches.

3. Be human.

Global agency C Space conducted a three-year study of close to 65,000 consumers and found evidence supporting the notion that brands that act human outperform those that don’t. That makes sense: Humans connect more easily with something that feels … well, human.

Consider how your own brand sounds and acts. Make sure it has a clear personality and tone of voice, no matter how buttoned-up your industry may be. (No brand is too professional to have personality — not even a brokerage firm.) Show that there are real people behind your logo. Show empathy by understanding your customers’ hopes, fears, beliefs and self-image; and speak to those things in your messaging.

Being human also means being responsive. Zappos has long been the standard-bearer for responsiveness and personality, but engaging with customers in a timely and human way is no longer “going the extra mile” — it’s a necessity for brands. If you’re not part of the conversation, you’re missing out on a powerful opportunity for connection.

Above all, be consistent in your approach. As infants, we learn to trust caregivers who respond in “an attentive, consistent and nurturing manner,” according to an early-learning research group. The same could be said for the consumer–brand relationship. Trust is critical to emotional attachment, but earning it takes time and intention.

So, final word: Remember that true brand connection should begin and end with sincerity. The goal is never to trick, but rather to form an authentic and lasting bond. That will bring you the customers you seek.

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