Emotional Design = Emotional Intelligence?

Posted on in BrandBlab

A Russian version of this article was published in the October 2012 issue of Strategy Magazine, Ukraine.

Business managements are in their comfort zone if they can measure outcomes and performance – typically, if something can be measured then it can be managed. Problems start when emotional factors need to be measured and managed. Good design should meet the required operational practical criteria but also satisfy the emotional needs and aspirations of users and audiences. The former can be normally measured – cost and time is relatively factual, but defining quality is not so easy. One person’s beauty is another’s ugliness.

Branding is the creation and management of image and reputation whether a product, service, destination, person, organization, sports team, event, etc. Rational criteria are often used as the prime reason why one brand is preferable to another. A product, for example, must meet basic promised functions, but it is often the emotional perceptions that ultimately make it a first choice. Cars are a classic emotionally-led product. Fuel consumption might be an important issue, but deciding between a BMW or Mercedes is surely about emotional design factors for many and the resulting satisfaction of an enhanced image and reputation the brand provides the driver.

Everyone recognises that Apple’s massive brand equity and therefore market valuation is largely based on the emotional added value of cool design. Coca-Cola’s brand equity is mainly based on its global brand reputation not the tangible hardware of the operation. Despite these often quoted examples, many managements still ignore the emotional factors that could ultimately positively differentiate their offer and organisation in the market. Their comfort zone is management consultancy dealing with tangible figure forecasts and not the creative agency, designers or architects seeking to create experiences for consumers and staff that can meet and ideally exceed expectations and aspirations.

As an architect, I am still a believer in “the form follows function” approach to design. When quoted originally it was endorsing the principle of pure design solutions which reflected directly their function in terms of practical building uses. Today, “functions” are a complex balancing act of rational tangible factors – cost, activity, use, process, flexibility, sustainability, etc. but also the highly emotional issues of aesthetics, moods and feelings of users and audiences. Buildings that are cost-effective and meet latest green criteria may, however, do nothing to satisfy the emotional wellbeing and needs of their users and the surrounding community.

As a brand consultant I am only too aware of the often apparent irrational loyalty of brand lovers who will fiercely defend their decision to buy, wear, drive, visit, eat, support or watch their favourite brand. Clearly there are brands that can talk about creating a relationship based on love. Apple, as mentioned, and luxury brands deliberately engender that highly personal loyalty and satisfaction based on a strong emotional connection. As a consultant we have to ensure every contact with a brand – its potential touch points – will ensure a consistently positive experience in line with the brand promise. That means human, physical and technical interactions. By definition, that means just about everybody in an organisation is involved with creating a positive emotional and rational experience for the target user. Customer-facing businesses, like retailers and shopping centres, have to deal with major challenges in ensuring every touch point is in line with their aim to satisfy customer aspirations.

Just as in humans we talk about the need for emotional intelligence as well as intellectual ability, the same should go for companies and organisations seeking to manage their assets cleverly and effectively. Top managements and finance directors need to realise the true costs of a poor internal company brand culture. Achieving optimum performance from a motivated team requires careful focused effort and investment. Workplaces should inspire and engage individuals and encourage interdepartmental synergy and collaboration. For me, good emotional design is about understanding what makes people tick, what will inspire them to buy, to participate, to engage with any brand offer.

FMCG products developed the concept of branding and emotional triggers in terms of packaging and communication. Retailers have realised the importance of creating a positive customer experience, particularly now with the challenge of multi-channel media and formats. Banks are desperately trying to be more customer-centric like retailers – the experience of queuing at a bank is a classic design challenge in how to alleviate the perceived time involved. Developers are slowly realising their real estate assets, whether shopping or business centres, or urban “places”, all need to embrace best branding principles, i.e. creating destinations and places that people want to visit, work and live in. Should an environment soothe, excite, motivate or simply be a pleasant ambience? Emotions can range from passion to ambivalence to hatred. Clearly the last two should be avoided, but identifying and achieving the appropriate desired reaction is an obvious starting point.

So let’s all apply a bit more emotional intelligence in our business decisions. Designing to appeal to emotions is the basis of marketing. Today everyone wants value in the widest sense and companies that can offer their customers and staff an exceptional experience need to satisfy emotional and rational needs and aspirations. Even discounters have found they need to constantly improve their levels of service and environment – the lowest price is not a sufficient draw. Measuring success today means achieving optimum profits and higher sales and meeting the best ethical and environmental standards.

Managements that ignore the added value of effective design that meets the emotional needs of their consumers should perhaps consider employing a CXO – customer experience officer. This is still a rare position in business and technically should not be necessary if every department is aware they are an essential part in creating a successful aligned customer experience. In reality everyone in the company is involved but in practice no one is responsible. This is an interesting test of a company’s collective emotional intelligence and the importance it places on effective emotional design. Managing and understanding emotional factors and the potential ROI for such intangibles will never be easy but those that try will be the winners.