I went into marketing because I loved the creative challenges, the ever shifting landscape, the ability to gain expertise across a range of categories, the need to stay on the leading edge of the popular culture, and of course, the glamorous lifestyle.
Other than the glamorous lifestyle part, it’s all worked out pretty nicely. However, while the work itself has always been fun and rewarding for the most part, it turned out that I was quite naïve in one major aspect of my career choice. I hadn’t realized that actual marketing was just a surprisingly small part of the job. In fact, one day, nearly a decade after starting my own company, I woke up to realize that I wasn’t in marketing at all. I was really in the mental health business.
From a consumer perspective, we understand that brands need to be built with “Emotional Intelligence.” We have evolved from the days of “hard sell” and “Unique Selling Proposition” with the recognition that people don’t simply buy products, they buy aspiration. In an age where technical superiority is fleeting, at best, brands must embrace a promise that transcends any rational feature. Building Emotional Intelligence for Brands requires us to step into our consumers’ shoes to sense how they feel and identify the key emotions that drive their behavior.
Yet there is an equally critical aspect of Emotionally Intelligent Brand Building that often goes neglected. The collaborative process of launching a major marketing initiative in a large organization is fraught with peril. Political agendas, personal insecurities, personality differences, deeply held prejudice about “what works” and what doesn’t, all pose serious risks to reaching consensus.
So as hard as it may be to sell anything to consumers, getting people on the same page internally can be infinitely more challenging. We spend a great deal of time trying to understand the psychology of our consumers, but understanding internal “mental health” dynamics is at least as important.
In a sense, we all are in the mental health business. The clothing salesman knows that telling you how good you look in that suit will be more effective than touting the superior craftsmanship of the garment. The waiter knows that good service alone won’t win over the big tips, but complimenting you on your “excellent” dinner and wine selections will pump up your ego and put you in a more generous mood.
Marketing is an especially crazy business where success is critically dependent on the ability to understand human emotions, relationship management and mental health. This comes to some people intuitively. But as psychotherapy helps those people willing to be introspective, honest with themselves and open to change, emotional intelligence for brands and marketers can also be an acquired skill.
When I started my business, I was convinced that “great work” would always be recognized and make up for any problems encountered along the way many times over. What I found was, more often than not, the work itself hardly mattered. Naively thinking that my openness, passion for the work and a strong desire to deliver results would be recognized and appreciated, I was shocked when truly great work, as confirmed by independent quantitative testing or actual sales, was met with indifference or outright scorn.
There was a new product development project for a major packaged goods company soon after I started my business where the stated objective was to create ten new product ideas so that one could be launched into the marketplace the following year. In addition, there was the expectation that at least five concepts would test at or above the company’s established purchase intent scores in subsequent research.
We delivered close to 30 ideas. At least ten tested well above the norm. Three or four landed in the company’s top ten highest purchase intent scores of all time, and one was the highest ever tested.
Yet the client did nothing but complain from the beginning of the project to the bitter end. After kicking off the process with an ideation session that yielded one great idea after another, the client expressed her serious concerns about my “time management skills.” Though we had generated more actionable concepts than they knew what to do with, my client focused on her disappointment that we were not able to complete all the creative exercises I had planned.
At the conclusion of the process, I asked her directly. “Why do you always seem so angry? You never even say hello, goodbye or thank you to me. And we just delivered big time on an important project for you.” She responded, “Well, I hired you because I expected you to deliver. I would have been fired you at any point along the way if you hadn’t.”
This experience was a great lesson on the definition of “success,” and provided some valuable insight into my own service offerings. While we did everything we were asked and much more, the client was never happy. This has everthing to do with the fact that I was selling new product concepts but what the client really wanted, in hindsight, was probably attention, comfort, the feeling of being in charge or something else I hadn’t made the effort to figure out.
It takes two to create a healthy relationship, and perhaps this client’s personality was such that it all might have ended badly anyway no matter what I did. But I never gave it a chance since I was so focused on results (i.e., being “right”) and not the client’s concerns, real or imagined. My defensive reactions to what I felt were petty criticisms didn’t help either. “What do you mean, I have a “time management problem!” Don’t you understand how incredible that session was?” I’m sure my words were more diplomatic than that, but whatever I said, no doubt my tone was condescending and not empathic.
Of course this can cut the other way as well. Right around the same time, I was working with a company on a regular basis where I had formed several close relationships. One evening after running what I felt was one of my more mediocre focus groups, one of the clients greeted me with, “You’re incredible. That was the best focus group I ever saw.”
There was natural chemistry with that client. They liked me, I liked them, and we enjoyed spending time with each other. The relationships there had evolved beyond a business arrangement to true friendships. With politics and personal insecurities virtually eliminated, there was an implicit understanding that my success reflected well upon them and vice versa.
Of course they’d want to give me the benefit of the doubt and compliment me even when I might not completely deserve it. For in reality, they were also complimenting themselves for working with me. The net effect was that I tried even harder to exceed their expectations, and everyone benefited from more inspired work.
Unfortunately, such ideal clients and collaborators come along rarely. And while working environments are generally not as difficult as the first scenario I described, they are seldom problem free.
Yes, the work is important. But more important is how that work is perceived and how it makes colleagues and clients feel about themselves. In the first case, counterintuitive as it seems, our great work had made the client feel bad. Perhaps she had struggled for some time to create viable new product concepts and she was flabbergasted at the seeming ease with which we generated so many top-scoring concepts so quickly. Maybe she just hated me for some reason. At this point I’ll never know, but you’ve got to believe there’s something is at work when someone’s anger grows in direct proportion with positive outcomes.
Business relationships inside companies and between companies are not unlike marriages, where couples frequently fight not over substantive issues (in our case, “the work”), but due to personal insecurities and poor communication. Body language, tone of voice or simply bad timing can transform the innocuous to the obnoxious. More importantly, insecurity, self-absorption and the inability to understand your partner’s mindset can derail any collaboration quickly.
Case in point, what if I had exhibited more patience and confidence when my client started complaining about my time management skills. I could have asked about her disappointment in not getting through the full agenda in that ideation session, and what could have been done differently. Just the act of listening could have changed the dynamic. Rather than a defensive reaction, I could have said, “I hear you. We may have generated even more great ideas had we gotten through the entire agenda.” I doubt that would have been the case, but the facts seldom matter in these situations. However, acknowledging her disappointment and apologizing, whether that was really warranted or not, would have likely been disarming and very powerful.
One day over lunch with a friend I didn’t get to see very often many years ago, I spent a good deal of timing describing the horrible fights I was having with my (now ex) wife. He said, “What’s your problem? Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”
Happy seems to be the better choice, as “right” can be a very bad thing if your partners are left with feelings of humiliation or frustration. Of course, I still strive to be “right” and would never abandon deeply held principles. But we have to recognize that marketing, as in life, love and friendship, is a collaborative enterprise.
Moreover, “right” will take care of itself over time as the market responds to your decisions. Regardless, the brands you work on, along with your own personal brand, will prosper when an empathetic approach leads not just to “great work,” but sets up the right kind of environment for you and your work to be received as enthusiastically as possible.
In the upcoming Part 2 of this piece, I will recommend specific Keys Of Emotional Intelligence in Brand Building, covering the internal challenges as well as outward, consumer-facing issues. Together, they aim to create the empathetic mind-set essential for success in marketing.