By Katharina Kuehn

Published on Smart Company, 21st August 2013

At a client conference last week on the future of consumer behaviour, we were asked the following question: “It seems that consumers are looking to make more of an emotional connection with brands. Is this a fair observation?”

In fact, this is a great observation and let me explain why.

We are reinventing the ways we socialise and communicate

Consumers are reinventing the way they socialise, communicate, gather information, make purchases and entertain themselves and others.

Along with this, consumers’ expectations towards brands have changed dramatically: brands are no longer just suppliers of functional products that they transact with from 9 to 5pm.

Rather, they interact with them across multiple channels and 24/7, follow them on social media, connect with them on Facebook, expect them to be socially and economically responsible, transparent, personalised and so on.

They connect with brands who share their values and lifestyle, much like we connect with people/friends for the same reasons, and equally look at brands to provide guidance and orientation in an increasingly fragmented and complex world.

So the emotional connection has become the centrepiece of why people do business with you. Consumers want to identify and be friends with the brands they do business with. Think Apple headphones as an example: from their pure function, they are not even the most brilliant product (in my humble view). But they are a statement. A statement pertaining to lifestyle, attitude and social inclusion: being seen with these signature white headphones, you belong to the Apple community and to what is associated with it. And you want others to see it.

“People will never forget how you made them feel”

This presents a huge opportunity for brands – not only to think about what this means for their brand and consumer, but also to embrace these new expectations, to encourage an emotional connection and thereby heighten consumer loyalty.

The wise words of the American poet, actress and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, are more true and relevant than ever: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The economic impact of emotional connection

Despite its importance, an emotional connection is not easy to attain. A recent study by research firm Motista, assessing consumers’ relationships with major online and bricks-and-mortar retail brands like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Gap, Crate & Barrel, Macy’s, Nordstrom and Walmart, claimed that only 18% of consumers reported an emotional connection to a retailer.

Emotionally connected customers were highly desirable from the retailers’ perspective.

Compared to customers who were just satisfied, emotionally connected customers were four times as likely to shop first at their preferred retailer.

They were twice as likely to respond to direct mail.

Nearly four out of five became evangelists, were 50% more likely to endorse the brand to their friends and family, and four times as likely to follow their brands on Facebook and Twitter.

In brief: satisfaction is nice; emotional connection is behaviorally relevant.

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Source: The Real Time Report

How to build an emotional connection?

There’s surely no single recipe to build that emotional connection with customers. A good starting point is to get to know your customers intimately, as you would with a new acquaintance.

Take time, listen to them and learn from their feedback. What are they all about, where would they like to be and how are you able to help them? Finally much like with friends, don’t yell at them with generic messages, but have a two-way conversation and provide them with something that is meaningful to them.

Amazon was one example of the brands people felt emotionally connected to: their website has lots of helpful and tailored information; learns more about you every time you visit; the ordering process is simple; delivery is fast; and the communication efficient.

My favorite independent coffee shop is another – they know exactly how you like your coffee without having to repeat it, employ staff that are nice and likeminded and give you a complimentary cookie if it looks like it’s going to be a tough day.

The fashion brand Hollister is a third – the minute you enter their multisensory brand experience, you are part of the cool crowd, taking pictures with their live beach model crew, seeking out their hottest new product in the cozy, laid out living rooms and watching California’s beach break via live stream. Back home, putting on one of their hoodies, you feel like you’ve come back from a beach holiday with your friends.

How much do you know about your best customers? What resonates with them? How do you recognise them for being loyal with a brand experience that is intimate, meaningful and rewarding?