Part Two: The caring economy

Emotion-based business strategy represents a massive opportunity for differentiation among existing businesses and is fueling new disruptive business models. In my earlier post, I outlined my theory that emotion should be at the heart of business strategy, not only marketing strategy. I ended that post with the promise of a follow up that would provide some examples of how to put emotion into practice in defining your product strategy, organizational structure, non-marketing customer touch points, and even the way decisions are made about how to compete against threats in your category.
Here are a few further insights that might be useful.
Not all emotions are created equal.
In the 2014 article by Lerner, et al that I quoted in my previous post, the authors talk about what they call ‘Integral emotion’, which are emotions that arise when faced with a decision and which can include a bias based on past experience. I think of this as analogous to the purchase impulse  that many marketers utilize in their marketing strategies (especially at point of purchase/checkout). Grocery stores have been very good at understanding integral emotion, which is why the items that are positioned for sale near checkout are often small items that have a high margin (gum, lip balm, magazines, candy) and lots of color. Grocery stores have historically taken advantage of the inherent emotional soup of this moment of waiting (and, for some, of worrying about how much they are about to spend, or seething over how annoying their shopping experience has been) by a) extending the purchase experience all the way to the very last moment, b) playing on customer insecurity that they might have forgotten something, c) tempting the children with items that parents may not want their kids to have, but which they can’t shield their kids from seeing, and d) providing an ‘acceptable’ place to pick up unhealthy or trashy items. With the trend towards more health consciousness among consumers, grocery stores have pivoted their check out options. Stores like Wegmans, for example, sell health-focused magazines and have removed candy from the check out. This pivot to more health conscious items represents an awareness of bias and (possibly) an awareness of the emotional context of waiting in line to check out.
There are a number of ways that businesses can take advantage of integral emotion and bias. For example, many movie theater chains now offer the ability to purchase assigned seats in advance. These chains have taken advantage of the integral emotion that goes into deciding to go out to a movie theater, or to simply wait to see a movie at home post release. By removing the fear that you won’t get a good seat, or that you’ll have to arrive early to ensure you can sit with your partner/family/friends, movie theater chains remove a potential emotional bias and encourage a purchase. It is a strategic choice to offer this service, that requires systemic changes, but it is also a choice rooted in understanding the emotional context of a purchase decision.
Buying a car is an emotional decision that is riddled with potential biases. Car buyers may have a negative bias of your car based on its name, or a bad experience with your car brand in the past. They may have anxiety over the safety of the vehicle (especially parents buying a car for their teenage kids). They may have a skepticism or lack of trust of the sales process or person based on the general impression that there is always a deal to be had and that car salespeople are shady. Smart auto companies will take advantage of these emotions by creating a purchase experience that tackles the potential bias head-on or, at the very least, by providing training for sales people that ensures they understand how to overcome these hurdles. Even more imaginative companies will structure their auto manufacturing strategy to tackle key emotions that influence purchase: a car for parents to buy as a first car for the kid, a car for those afraid of flying, a car for those embarrassed that they don’t know anything about cars. I’m not talking about marketing here: I mean actually designing cars that meet these emotional needs.
Lerner, et al, also describe ‘incidental emotion’, which are those emotions that should have nothing to do with a decision but are passed from one situation to another. If, for instance, you are angry at someone, this anger may transfer to your purchase decision. This suggests that a key part of any business strategy might be creating the emotional context that you want your customers to experience. Virgin America and Apple both do this very well online and off – when you interact with these brands you have an immediate sense of the emotional quality of the brand, and this impacts how you feel as you get to know their products and services, and eventually purchase something from them.
 
Environmental factors impact emotional experience.
There has been a lot of chatter recently about open-plan working, largely inspired by a Washington Post article about Google’s open-plan office. The New Yorker and the Washington Post argue that the ‘false sense of collaboration’ of open-plan offices creates more social bonds but also masks low worker productivity. Others have argued for of a middle ground, saying that it isn’t as black and white as open-plan being bad and that instead there are a number of factors that contribute to whether a workplace environment is successful or not. My own experience is that open-plan offices are too loud for me to be productive in, so I wear headphones most of the day. I also camp out in conference rooms because I often have confidential information on my screen or sensitive, private conversations that I need to have. Being in an open-plan causes me intense anxiety as I feel like I can’t really focus. I worry that someone will see something on my screen they shouldn’t. I don’t take breaks because I am afraid someone will walk by and see me on Facebook and think I’m not working. Open-plan = stress for me.
My interest in this debate is not productivity-based but rather in the emotional context that office design sets for employees – from spatial layout (open-plan or not), lighting, sound, color, textures, and even smells. All of these things feed into how productive we are, of course, but they I think the real differentiator is quality. In Bachelard’s famous 1964 book ‘The Poetics of Space’, he takes the reader from the basement to the attic of a house on a metaphorical tour of the way that physical space impacts how we feel. It is a beautifully crafted treaties on how space impacts how we feel. My own PhD was focused on how space impacts perception. In fact, there have been many studies of how design affects the way we feel and the truth is that, like most things, it is not an exact science. What is clear, however, is that spatial dynamics impact how we feel. And how we feel impacts how we work and what the quality of our work output. If we think about Lerner’s notion of incidental emotion again, having anxiety over people looking at your screen or being stressed by the noise of the office around you may transfer to the actual work you are producing. Working in a state of anxiety, even low-level, can’t be good for the work we do.
For businesses there are obvious implications that are both customer facing and organizational facing. Companies have experimented with different working environments ranging from so-called ‘smart working’ (where no one has an assigned desk), to co-working, working from home (or working from pajamas as I like to call it), war rooms, pods, and old school cubicles. I think any business should structure their office environment to reflect a) what they are trying to achieve from a product standpoint and b) the type of culture they are trying to create. For a company whose employees work in teams and are in meetings frequently, it makes sense to utilize open-plan and/or war room approaches to architecture. For businesses where people need to be on the phone or having private conversations a lot phone booths, hot-offices (aka hot desks with walls), or old-fashioned offices make sense. For businesses who are trying to create a more collaborative environment, having places that encourage natural gathering make sense. In all cases, knowing who your employees are, and what your corporate values are, should lead you to understand what kind of emotional landscape you want your employees to work in. As part of the interview process, potential employees should experience the space and be encouraged to think about if they can work in that kind of space. During annual reviews, employees should provide feedback about how the space works for them.
The consumer facing implications of spatial dynamics and how they create emotional contexts are very well documented and exploited, especially in retail. Hollister has mastered the art of the teenage male emotional state with its dark lighting and intense cologne-infused stores. Whole Foods has created a pornographic food mecca (albeit a cramped and somewhat stressful one, in my opinion). Others have been less successful at thinking through how their spaces make people feel and how this might impact decisions that customers make. Going into a Ikea gives me a panic attack because of the narrow, guided lanes they force you through like a mouse in a maze. But maybe that’s just me! When it comes to digital products, smart user experience designers are leading the way in creating an emotionally rich experience that takes advantage of the way that digital devices make us feel. Some companies (Amazon among them) seem to have taken the approach of ignoring good UX and simply going the everything, everywhere route with a chaotic use of space that forces users to rely heavily on search. This makes me want to get in and out as quickly as possible because it is so emotionally unpleasant trying to find anything on Amazon. There is no encouragement for exploration (yes, I know they are brilliant at product recommendations below items) – the spatial journey is very much a self-service, find it on your own, experience. For me, this is emotionally unpleasant (this works much better on their App, I should say). Other companies, like Nest for example, use brilliant storytelling to replicate the values of their brand and connect digital channel, to physical product, to controller in a spatially intelligent way through really simple use of parallax. They don’t have the same challenge of Amazon since they have far fewer products, but I want to spend time exploring a Nest because the spatial experience is delightful. Nest protects against potentially negative emotions (smoke alarms, temperature controllers? not products that have the most positive emotional affordances) brilliantly.
Some final thoughts.
I have a lot more to say about this, but I’ll end this post by saying that along the consumer decision journey popularized by McKinsey, I think there are a number of opportunities to take advantage of both integral and incidental emotion – as consumers consider their options they may experience a range of feelings from being overwhelmed or uninformed during the awareness and consideration phases, to feelings of pride and regret post purchase, or they may just be transferring emotions from one situation to another. Smart businesses will protect against incidental emotion by building in transition moments, or transformative emotional experiences into their brand strategy and will take advantage of integral emotion by recognizing the emotions consumers experience when they decide to make a purchase.
More soon.
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