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Decoding Your Brand: Language, Emotion, and the Message

September 27, 2020


Decoding Your Brand: Language, Emotion, and the Message

Picture this: you’re watching an ad for a new car. A man in a suit gets into a sleek, black vehicle, its rims shining. We see his watch, then the instruments on the dashboard of the car. We watch him confidently change gears, then effortlessly drive around other vehicles.

We might think we know the message this ad is sending—“buy our car”—because of the bells and whistles we have showcased. But there are many, many layers of communication here. This ad is communicating a lot about what the consumer will get if they buy this car and not another one.

Communication is so critical these days. Message out and message in is becoming more difficult to navigate than ever before. Right intentions and wrong messaging in the world of social media, where we share our brands can be catastrophic. We need to be aware of what we’re actually saying to our customers. We need to know how these messages resonate with our customers, how they’ll react to images and metaphors. And, in a globalized market, the stock metaphors we draw on don’t always translate.

So let’s take a closer look at the language brands use beneath the surface—at what kinds of messages we tap into and why we pick those ones. When we understand the language we’re using and why we’re using it, we’ll be in a better position to decode our brands.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Let’s think about our car ad again. We know this ad wants to make us think that buying this car is the best possible choice. They could tell us about the price or any other bell and whistle, but the imagery they’ve selected is to evoke how they want us to feel if we owned and operated that vehicle:

·          This car is sleek and sophisticated

·          It’s powerful

·          People who drive this car are confident, happy and competent

We might walk away from this ad thinking the car is luxurious. We subconsciously will try and find aspirational attributes in the character presented in the ad that we seek to feel, related to type of person who owns the car: a well-to-do, powerful and confident person.

All the subtleties in the messaging are through music, visuals, lighting, facial expressions, wardrobe, etc. None of this is communicated in the ad copy or voiceover itself. Nobody says to us, “This could be you!” . Every single aspect of the commercial is thoughtfully designed to create the overall message that your subconscious receives and feels and to some degree consciously decodes.

These Messages Are Culturally Constructed

As Marketers raised in North America, we probably rely on particular messages—or archetypes—to communicate. Nothing about that description of the driver in the car ad likely surprised you. You may have felt like you already knew everything that was being “communicated.”

That’s because these sorts of messages are culturally constructed. We grew up seeing these sorts of images and learning them as a kind of shorthand for particular messages. Want to say style and sophistication? Give the guy a fancy suit, slap an expensive watch on him, and let him sip a martini. (Hey, it’s James Bond!) Want to emphasize his masculinity? Let him drive a fast car a little recklessly.

Is he a villain or hero? Give him a British accent.

By contrast, if we see someone who wears a trucker cap, ripped jeans, dirty boots, and a plaid flannel shirt, we’re more likely to think this guy is “salt of the earth.” Maybe he’s a farmer or a truck driver himself. He's a little rough around the edges. At worst, he might be an “uneducated hick”—a redneck or a hillbilly.

The point is we “know” this guy when we see him; we know what kind of person he’s supposed to be. We can think of other examples: cowboys are rugged, ballerinas are dainty, and so on.

These sorts of messages go beyond stock characters, of course. We have all sorts of associations with everyday objects. Roses, for example, symbolize romantic love. There’s nothing romantic about a rose—yet if we want to symbolize romance in an ad, we’ll find red roses everywhere. If we used another flower—like a daisy or a sunflower—the meaning would shift.

Now glance around the world and you might see meanings shift and change. The rugged cowboy archetype might not get a positive reaction in some Asian cultures. The “dandy” or “fop” in a suit might be jeered at by some circles here at home. In Western cultures, black symbolizes death. In other cultures, white might actually be the colour of mourning.

Decoding What Our Brands Are Saying

Once we understand that every selection we make for an ad, our website, or even product packaging delivers a message to our consumers, it becomes easier to see what messages we’re sending.

Let’s take a look at Nintendo. Nintendo has a long history, but in the 1970s, made a pivot and became “the name” in video games. They successfully moved from the arcade to the home with the Super NES. Over the years, they’ve introduced tons of classic games: Super Mario, Metroid, Pokemon, The Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing.

Nintendo first aimed at kids and teenagers, usually presenting their games as “family fun.” That’s something they’ve stuck to over the years, often capitalizing on their most popular properties. Mario hasn’t had a dark and gritty reboot in 35 years. Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been cited as helping people find “normalcy" during the pandemic.

Nintendo has kept with its “cartoony” style—bright colours, anthropomorphic characters, stylized (and even comedic) gameplay. Even a more serious title—like the recent Zelda game Breath of the Wild—sticks to these principles.

Nintendo has also moved to a “gaming is for everyone” position in its advertising. Its Wii, which combined aspects of VR, capitalized on this. With the Wii, you could go bowling in your living room or play tennis. Wiifitness advocated video games as a way to keep people moving.

How Does Nintendo Communicate These Messages?

Nintendo’s brand is about accessibility and fun. It’s family friendly, and everyone can get involved. We can see this messaging in everything from the price-point to the design of systems. Compare the recently released designs for the Playstation 5 and the Xbox; now take a look at Nintendo’s Switch or think back to their GameCube.

Advertising often features familiar characters or cute, highly stylized illustrations. These may bank on nostalgia for older players, but they also appeal to kids. They’re bright and poppy—they say, “Hey! This is fun!”

Even when Nintendo includes people in advertising, there’s an appeal to a broader audience. The message is there: Nintendo is for everyone, including “average” people like you and me. We might see older people, moms in yoga pants, kids, and even dads playing their favorite Nintendo game. The ads might show teens having a party with their friends.

There’s nobody who looks like the guy from our car advert. Maybe he loves a good round of Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros., but the message he conveys—the archetype—is wrong for Nintendo’s brand. Nintendo is accessible and “for everyone”; Car Ad Guy is elitist and exclusive. If Nintendo stuck him in an ad, it would say something like, “Only the rich and powerful can play our games.”

Metaphor Strikes at Emotion

The reason that we communicate this way—aside from it being a sort of shorthand—is that metaphor and other devices often get to the core of emotion. Our car ad can say “driving this car will make you feel confident,” but that doesn’t touch our customers in an emotional way.

When we show them someone who looks confident, we send the message in a way that gets decoded in their emotion centres. It’s a more powerful message for that reason.

The same is true of Nintendo’s brand messaging. The bright colours and cartoon characters may say “childish,” but it also says “innocent” and “fun.” We know we can turn to Nintendo for fun games that aren’t going to make us feel depressed or splatter gore all over our screens. That’s an emotional appeal; it tells us what we’ll get from a Nintendo game. And if that’s something we want? Then we know where to look for it!

The metaphors we use send messages, so we need to be in tune with what our brands stand for before we try to adopt this kind of messaging. If we’re not sure what our brand values are or what our higher purpose is, we can easily select the wrong messages.

And, like usual, if we’re not sure what our brand stands for, we can ask our customers. If they turn to us for the best pricing in the market, we’re not going to get very far advertising with our Car Ad Guy. If our brand inspires confidence and trust, then we may not want to showcase how “wacky” we are.

So, before we think about the archetypes and metaphors we want to use, we need to think about the messages we want to send. And it all starts with the why!


Meet Margo…brand visioning & marketing

Margo Jay is a Master Brand Strategist with a career leading globally recognized brands; developing and launching a proven model that maximizes competitive sales potential and consumer appeal. She has built the model to help companies of all sizes. Her Client roster includes entrepreneurs through to Fortune 100 brands: NHL teams, Global QSR brands, CPG brands, Broadcast brands, Agencies, Non Profit brands, Hard goods…this model and process provides competitive advantage in any category.

Complete clarity. Ownable distinct selling proposition. Shared values. Brand Clarity. Brand Focus. Brand Inspiration. Brand Obsession. Unlocking brand potential is what she does.

And it all starts with why!

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