Why would a brand choose to upset its audience?


The innovation research team at GDR recently asked Moving Brands to consider whether a business would, and should, create a brand or campaign narrative aimed at eliciting an emotion other than happiness.

You can read the GDR article here, and our full response – referencing Marmite through to Vice – is below.

Brands want to make their audience feel something – this doesn’t always have to be ‘happy’. The world’s strongest brands understand how to create experiences that can elicit all manner of emotion, but the key is that it feels authentic. We know that people are as willing to engage with brands in many of the same ways they’ll engage with their friends; connecting, sharing and liking a brand’s antics on social channels, and actively staying up-to-date with a brand’s new products, features and stories. And, like with a friend, people expect their favourite brands to show different sides of their personality. Look at Vice Media (who has just been valued at more than $2.5bn); they’re best known for their juvenile, irony-laden depiction of the young urban hoards, but they can also credibly deliver a hard-hitting documentary on North Korea. Or look to Marmite, who has built a brand on the reality that their product is not for everyone. Their recent ‘Marmite Neglect’ campaign elicits various emotions from the viewer, none of which could be considered ‘positive.’ This credible approach is far more successful for them than a joy-laden Coca-Cola style narrative would be.

GDR were also interested in the idea of brands being “cruel to be kind,” specifically, toying with customer data in order to better a product or service. We’ve seen this recently with both Facebook and OKCupid manipulating the user experience. We were asked whether this is ever acceptable, or if perhaps only the brands already known for their ‘risk-taking’ character could get away with it. Here are our thoughts:

In the recent cases of customer manipulation, there’s a distinction that needs to be made between a brand with a ‘risk-taking’ personality and one that engages in misuse of data. Regardless of how risky or exciting a brand is, its relationship with its users is built on trust, and they have a duty to clearly communicate their approach to data collection and use.

However, consumers don’t always see the issue as black and white, with their reaction to data science varying from outrage to weary acceptance. This may be a reflection of the user’s emotional connection to the brand, and whether they see any personal benefit in the outcome of data trials.

Take OkCupid, a business that recently admitted to manipulating consumer data, and seemingly ‘got away with it.’ It may be because the business model is built on an algorithm that is already opaque to users, so further data trials stand to improve the end product, thus benefitting the user. It could be because the payoff – a future partner – is deemed worth it. It could simply be that OkCupid communicated the trials in an honest and human way, conversing eye to eye with their audience.

But Facebook is not, in a consumers mind, about algorithms and data. It’s a utility, sometimes seen as a necessary evil, in order to remain connected to the world. Consumer’s lack of emotional connection to the brand, and Facebook’s lack of clarity around data collection and use, has resulted in growing consumer mistrust.

It’s a simple message; consumer data is the property of the consumer, and businesses with access to this data should not manipulate or misuse it without consent.

Stay tuned for a video interview with GDR’s Felix Scarlett and MB’s Darren Bowles on how a flexible identity can support authentic brand communications.


  • Dom

    Hi. Really interesting post, got my mind working hard so thanks so much for that.

    After a coffee and some careful thought I realised I struggle with this because I think the question itself is flawed.

    There are a range of emotions that brands can inspire which speak to the different human motivations of their customers. The problem with the word ‘happy’ is that it is in some ways a meta-emotion.

    Does Nike make you feel ‘happy’ by pushing yourself to the limit and giving it your all? Does Apple make you feel happy be enabling you to express your creativity? Does Hugo Boss make you feel happy by allowing you make a statement of success? Does Volvo make you feel happy by giving you protection?

    Brands, taken as a spectrum can, and should, inspire many different emotions in their customers. Happiness is all too often an unhelpful simplification that allows lazy thinking. It’s an instant stop-off point that goes no further than the surface.

    Many brands with a really powerful and compelling story to tell go beyond the safe-city limits of the Happy signpost and venture out into emotional territory where meaning really comes to life. Brands can make customers feel many different emotions, but ultimately these need to be emotions people resonate to.

    Marmite works because it reinforces the sense of identity for Marmite lovers, that they’re not like absolutely everyone else.

    Just my thoughts!

  • MovingBrands

    Thanks Dom for your well argued comment.

    I completely agree that ‘happy’ is a lazy catch-all. To me, the word happy (despite what Pharrell thinks), is a lot like ‘fine.’ Meh.

    The question shouldn’t be “what one emotion encapsulates our brand,” rather, “how can our brand have the flexibility to provoke a range of emotions authentically.”

    That’s harder to achieve than a catchy as hell pop song 😉