The case for functionality

The vogue for building brands on emotional appeal overlooks the real drivers of consumer perceptions.

The marketing world has got all emotional. I have lost count of the number of brand managers and marketing directors who have told me that they need their brand positioning or brand propositions to be more emotionally led. They are worried that their brands are too – or solely – functional.

Sometimes they have a point: their brands would benefit from being more emotional. But others are taking this to extremes. They are trying to flip their brands a full 180 degrees. And like many things in marketing, there is a tendency to see things as black or white, rather than accepting a duality. When these brand leaders say “emotionally led”, they don’t mean a balance of emotional and functional. They mean emotional, period.

Perhaps surprisingly for an emotionally led person, I want to make the case for functionality – or rather the case for a balance of what I’ve long known as “emo-func”. The term was introduced to me by Paul Walton, one of the co-founders of The Value Engineers. It relates to the notion that the best brands are a combination of what you need (the functional – how a brand performs), and what you want (the emotional – how you perceive the brand and how it makes you feel). 

I was taught that there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule as to what balance between the two makes for the best brands. For many years, P&G put more emphasis on the functional and Unilever put more weight on the emotional – and both were highly successful. But there was always a combination of the two sides to their brands. Likewise, a brand like BMW combines Germanic engineering prowess with the pleasure of driving.

I believe one of the reasons for the current vogue to bias brands toward the emotional is because of the prevalence of technologically led brands. They are often, by their very nature, functionally led. Some people cite the famous Ridley Scott-directed “1984” commercial for the Apple Macintosh as the guiding star for how technological brands can be emotional, positioning the soon-to-launch computer as the antidote to a dystopian, conformist future (a dig at IBM). A more recent example of effective branding for a technology solution was the launch of the iPad. Its advertising was very straight-forward, demonstrating the functionality and practicality of Apple’s innovation. Both ads were successful despite taking very different start-points.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for including functionality comes from recent research by PwC. It found that what consumers really value is a good customer experience. Not only was this a key deciding factor in choosing a brand, but product performance – not brand image – was found to be the thing that truly drove perceptions of the brand’s value. 

The results may be slightly inflated in terms of the expressed preference for performance. People dislike admitting that they buy brands based on their image and ‘personality’. Yet in recent years people have been more willing to say they want brands that match their beliefs. The results of PwC’s research are so clear-cut that it seems unlikely they negate the findings completely. The bottom line: performance and functionality are key for success.

This brings me back to the importance of duality, and reminds me of a quote from F Scott Fitzgerald, who said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” In other words – make sure your brand thinking is emo-funcky.  

Giles Lury is a senior director at brand consultancy The Value Engineers.