The caring economy: why emotion should be at the heart of your business strategy

In the 90s many businesses moved from strategy to purpose in organizing their missions. As Christopher Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal put it in a Havard Business Review article back in 1994, successful businesses “have moved beyond the old doctrine of strategy, structure, and systems to a softer, more organic model built on the development of purpose, process, and people.” In the same article, the authors discuss the fact that employees no longer simply want to work for a company, but they want to belong. This is true not only of employees. Who doesn’t want to feel like they belong (although perhaps not to an overtly corporate agenda)? Over twenty years on, more and more businesses have at least attempted to focus on the three p’s and to orient their internal structures towards a more distributed, people-first approach. This is a good step – it is important that businesses have a purpose, which implies some kind of value is being added to the world. But purpose isn’t enough in our digitally fragmented economy of the always-on, highly mobile internet. As our digital devices, apps, screens, connected appliances, etc, trigger multiple micro-emotions, and create opportunities for increasing connection to brands, business strategy needs to recognize the importance of emotion as a key factor to identifying, and delivering on, the values of our brands.
Marketers have long been aware of the importance emotion plays in building brand loyalty. Mad Men  successfully mythologized how important it is to anchor marketing messages in an emotional core, while providing a (somewhat spotty) history of the way unlikely brands from airlines, lipstick, panty hose, and Alka Seltzer can tug on the heartstrings all in the service of building brand loyalty. We all know about the Dove ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ from 2013 and Coca-Cola’s iconic ‘I’d Like to buy the world a Coke’ ads from the 1970s, with which Mad Men ironically ended. Many marketers know how use emotion very well – especially via TV spots and print ads. Of course, in an era of fragmented channels, increasing digital platforms, and overall messaging fatigue, getting attention for your brand and building an emotional connection with your customers is more complex than ever.
Despite the wisdom of marketers, emotion has not become a key aspect of the business strategy or organizational structure of very many brands. Product development and the priorities of big businesses across a spectrum of sectors (from financial services, to retail, to healthcare, to technology products and services) are all missing the importance of putting emotion at the center how they run their business (with a few notable exceptions like Virgin and Apple). This is counter-intuitive. Just think about it: most of the decisions we make, whether they are a purchase decision or an investment decision or healthcare decision, are emotional decisions. Substantial research from cognitive science, particularly studies which looked at impaired brain function, highlight the importance of emotion in the decision-making process. It has also been found that emotion impacts economic transactions even when they are irrelevant to the current economic decision (i.e., if flying makes you anxious, you are likely to have a highly anxious experience with regards to purchasing plane tickets – something that airlines should be addressing) [Lerner, Small and Lowenstein, 2004). It is highly likely that whenever we make a decision emotion plays a key role.
Determining how to use emotion to ground business decisions, means that we need a coherent definition of emotion. I prefer the definition that Lerner, et al provide in their article “Emotion and Decision Making” from the Annual Review of Psychology 2015. They define it as, “multifaceted, biologically mediated, concomitant reactions (experiential, cognitive, behavioral, expressive) regarding survival-relevant events”. What strikes me about this definition is the notion that emotions are reactions to survival-relevant events. If that’s true, you could argue that buying a new pair of shoes is inherently not emotional because we don’t need a new pair of shoes for survival. But of course, how we define survival is in itself emotional. How many times has something as silly as the decision of what to order for dinner at a restaurant felt overwhelming? Or what to wear on your first day of work? Or whether to text or call that person you’ve been flirting with? These decisions might seem like they are not survival-relevant (and therefore inherently not emotional), but we are living in a new paradigm where every decision we make defines who we are as a person, and our outward image (our personal brands) have become core to our survival. One only has to look at Facebook, with its emphasis on personal marketing to see how important our every move has become to defining who we are as people. Like it or not, we are living under a microscope, with our every move dissected, tracked, and judged. Our personal survival has become entwined with how we are perceived by others, even in the privacy of our own homes. I don’t think it is much of a leap of faith to see every decision we make that relates to how we are perceived as having an emotional aspect.
So, if emotions go deeply to the survival instinct, and if all (or most) decisions are emotionally driven, then surely businesses have an opportunity to rethink how they are structured to better adapt to the rapidly shifting dynamics of the modern consumption pattern. The question is, what does putting emotion at the heart of your business strategy look like?
I’ll follow up with a post about that soon. In the meantime, feel free to send me your thoughts about this theory, to challenge me, to send me your examples, or to tell me I’m nuts. Don’t worry, I won’t get too emotional about it.
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