top of page

Emotion versus function: how I miss smoking, and what that has to do with building a solid brand

A one-size-fits-all, purely emotional approach to brand-building doesn't work in the internet age. Access to information about product/service functionality makes the functional benefits of brands more salient to consumers. And while emotions drive many purchase decisions, they aren't always at play. A solid brand respects the complexities of human decision-making and knows when to pull both emotional and functional levers.

Sometimes I miss smoking cigarettes.

That’s right. I said it.

I am not a naysayer about the harms of smoking. I believe cigarettes are terrible for your health, and I don’t think the drawbacks are overblown. The smell of cigarette smoke makes me ill. When I’m subjected to someone’s second-hand smoke, I agitatedly wonder why s/he didn’t get the memo.

I’m also not craving nicotine. I like knowing that how my afternoon goes doesn’t depend on whether I get a fix or not. Besides, I don’t have an addictive personality. Quitting smoking wasn’t physiologically hard for me.

Here’s where I’m coming from: before smoking was gross, it was acceptable, and when it was acceptable, it was what all my “cool” friends were doing. I smoked when I met White Zombie backstage before they hit mainstream radio, and when I irritated Trent Reznor with my questions the night he stopped by the radio station I DJ’d at. I associated smoking with feeling edgy, which I will likely not feel again. Because, you know, I’m not young anymore, and there’s only so much edge you can have before you can’t pay a mortgage.

But smoking was also meditation. It was an excuse to get up, step away, and breathe – even if the breathing was laced with carcinogens. When I took smoke breaks, I didn’t perseverate over school or work. I didn’t stress about friends or family. I just breathed in, and I breathed out. Meditation breaks could possibly replace this, but for some reason it’s harder to justify taking meditation breaks over the course of a work day in 2020 than it was to justify smoke breaks in the 1990s.

What I’m trying to get at is this: I don’t want to smoke cigarettes; I want to feel the way I did when I smoked cigarettes.

Companies who care about brand-building try to create exactly this phenomenon. They try to generate associations between their brands and specific, desirable emotional experiences. Want to feel rebellious? Harley Davidson is for you. Want to feel special? Get some Chanel earrings. Want to feel empowered? Buy a pair of Nike shoes. If you build a strong emotional connection, you’ll win brand fans and grow your business.

The idea here is that a brand's functional benefits can only offer so much appeal. People make decisions based on their emotions. As long as brands lean into their emotional benefits, they'll do well.

Despite the widespread popularity of this belief, it isn’t always true. Building a brand by prioritizing an emotional connection doesn’t always work – and while it might work in some categories, it might not work in others. Because even though consumers are humans, and humans are emotional, humans are also concerned with functionality. They just need to hear about it first.

And these days, they're hearing about it.

When it came to my smoking, the emotional benefits mattered because I didn't have accurate information on the functional benefits - because tobacco companies wanted it that way. Once the harms of smoking were no longer debatable, I was able to evaluate its functional benefits for the first time. Functionally, smoking doesn't do much for you. The buzz can hook you, but addiction isn't functional as much as it is dysfunctional. Getting cancer isn't too functional either.

What I'm getting at is three things.

First, you're not the only source of public information about your brand. You might spread the news all day long about your brand's emotional benefits, but people are online all the time evaluating the functionality of products and services, based on their own experiences. Widespread access to this sort of information makes purely emotionally-driven brand strategies born in the 1980s or 90s about as outdated as smoking. If people are hearing about functionality, they will consider functionality. And they are hearing about it.

Second, if you prioritize your brand’s emotional benefits but lose sight of its functional benefits, your brand’s strength probably won’t last. Consumers buy products and services they care about and that actually do what consumers need them to do. Products or services wrapped in pretty emotional paper won’t be enough if the functionality isn’t there.

Third, assuming that there’s one best way to build a brand is assuming that all people make decisions in the same way all the time. They don’t. Decision-making is complex because people and life are complex, and brand-building must respect these complexities. People vary in how rational or emotional they can be – depending on their personalities but also on context. I have done more than one research study where I found consumers caring almost exclusively about functionality when it came to choosing a brand. Whether emotional benefits matter should not be an assumption. It should be a question.

Ultimately, brand-building is about engaging and connecting with your consumers. It’s like walking into a party and doing what it takes to make sure that the people you want to hang out with also want to hang out with you. Sometimes that means being clear about what you can do for them. Other times it means making them feel good. But unless you know what your people respond to, you can’t know how to appeal to them.

Contact me if you want to learn more about how a Decision Science approach to brand-building is different from traditional brand strategy approaches. Also reach out if you miss smoking like I do, because I can’t be the only one!


bottom of page