Automated for the people: the rise of emotionally intelligent marketing

Campaigns that win both hearts and minds are the mark of so-called emotionally intelligent brands. Here are some that have used cutting-edge digital tech to enhance a compelling narrative

Achieving success in marketing “requires a deeper understanding of the journey of people’s lives, not just more data about the shopper journey”.

So said Kantar’s chief knowledge officer, J Walker Smith, when he ­addressed marketers gathered at the Cannes Lions International ­Festival of Creativity in June. In his opinion, brands need to put the ­human experience at the centre of everything they do.

Research by global media agency Carat supports Smith’s assertion. It asked 15,000 consumers in 15 markets to rank more than 50 ­well-known companies on their emotional intelligence (EQ). Each firm’s score was based on the extent to which respondents agreed with statements such as “this brand ­understands people like me and what we need”. The resulting Brand EQ Report 2022 revealed that the 20 highest-ranked organisations had massively outperformed the world’s major stock market averages on growth in shareholder value bet­ween 2010 and 2021.

It might seem like a counterintuitive idea at first glance, but the latest digital technology can be “an incredible enabler of human connections”, says Ricardo Marques, vice-president of marketing at Michelob Ultra. He’s well qualified to comment: the beer brand has successfully combined a high level of EQ with both artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) on its way to becoming number two in the US by sales volume.

Michelob Ultra’s award-winning “McEnroe vs McEnroe” campaign, by FCB New York, featured a virtual match between the veteran tennis star and digital avatars based on him in the 1970s and 1980s. The AI system analysed more than 1,000 of his past matches, while a motion-capture session with McEnroe helped to generate his movements on the AR version of the court.

“One of the biggest challenges for any brand is to earn, not buy, the ­attention of its audience,” Marques says. “That’s what technology, with storytelling that not only entertains but also lands a purposeful message, can do.”

Celebrating the career of one of sport’s biggest characters was the inspiration behind the campaign, which aimed to “remind our audience to enjoy the ride and have fun in the pursuit of their dreams”, he explains. “In this case, the techno­logy let us bring a different angle to his story by taking him on a journey back in time. That’s the exciting ­opportunity for marketers: to innovate, be purposeful and entertain.”

With more than 10 million views across all of ESPN’s channels, “McEnroe vs McEnroe” drew a bigger TV audience in the US than the average nightly viewership of the six games played in the 2021 National Basketball Association Finals.

It’s important for firms to consider how to connect with their entire audience. Digital technology can often offer them the solution

It’s not only in the sporting world where marketers are using cutting­-edge technology to enhance great human stories. Vodafone’s haptic­-suit experience at the Mighty ­Hoopla pop festival in London this June is another example of a brand hitting the EQ brief.

As Mighty Hoopla’s official connectivity partner, Vodafone used the power of its 5G network to make the event as inclusive as possible. It applied this and other advanced systems to enable festival-goers with hearing impairments to ‘feel’ live music like never before.

The telco’s brand and marketing director, Maria Koutsoudakis, explains that members of her team began by identifying an area in which they felt Vodafone could have the biggest positive impact. Then they explored opportunities to tell an emotive story that had the best chance of resonating with the public. By translating sounds from both the stage and the crowd into vibrations that could be felt across the whole body, Vodafone’s innovative haptic suits enabled their users to experience a live music event as never before.

“We’re really excited about the possibilities,” Koutsoudakis says. “We would love to help make them ubiquitous in live music. But there’s even more we can do beyond that, from game-changing VR experien­ces to letting fans feel the crowd from home.”

Rosh Singh, MD of brand innovation consultancy Unit 9, believes that Vodafone found the ideal combination in this case.

“It definitely helps when a brand has emotionally intelligent activations that match its core purpose or mission,” he says. “As a company that’s focused on connecting for a better future, Vodafone certainly hit the right note. Inclusivity has become a huge topic – and rightly so. It’s important for firms to consider how to connect with their entire audience. Digital technology can often offer them the solution.”

An award-winning campaign for sporting goods retailer Decathlon by BBDO Belgium is another case of a company making effective use of the latest tech in the name of inclusivity. This time, it was all about getting inside the metaverse.

“The Breakaway” created the first e-cycling team for prison inmates, enabling convicts serving time in the top-security Oudenaarde Prison to pedal away anonymously on Zwift, a virtual world where 3 million cyclists ride together.

The French-based multinational had wanted to make freedom its central theme after the widespread Covid lockdowns had restricted ­almost everyone’s movements for months at a time in 2020-21.

Thomas Lejeune Debarre, the firm’s marketing and communications director in Belgium, explains: “We used technology to ensure that a specific group of people, who don’t have access to this feeling of freedom, were able to experience it. Besides cycling, the whole point was to create interactions with the outside world.”

Everyone knows Decathlon in Belgium, he adds, but many people may not know what the company stands for. “Our ambition was to make them realise that, when we speak about making sports accessible to the many, we do mean it.”

High-EQ firms are using compelling narratives – augmented by the powerful new tech at their disposal – to forge deeper, more meaningful connections with consumers. ­Richard Robinson, director at marketing advisory firm Econsultancy, sees this as a successful tactic for any brand seeking to pull away from the peloton. He is a great ­believer in the power of “stories told well, communicated through empathy and evidenced by data”.

Such stories, Robinson predicts, “will become the hallmark of every great brand that manages to survive the 2020s”.