The Press, August 2013

If it was a commercial business, the Labour Party’s latest policy announcement on restricting foreign house buyers would be smart marketing - using emotion to connect with its customers. In the hands of a political party it is the same old ‘dog whistle’ politics.

The policy, to prevent non-residents from buying existing houses, is designed to alleviate the relentless upward pressure on New Zealand house prices.

“I will restore the Kiwi dream of home ownership that has slipped out of reach for tens of thousands of Kiwis.  I don’t want to see our kids become a generation of renters,” said Labour Leader David Shearer in announcing the initiative.

“This policy will reduce demand and help take some of the heat out of the market.  It will put Kiwi buyers at the front of the queue  . . . (it) will mean first home buyers get a fair crack at getting into the housing market,” says David Shearer.

Shearer’s language is designed to evoke an emotional response, “restoring dreams”, giving young Kiwis a “fair crack”. It paints a picture of hordes of greedy rich foreigners buying up our housing stock and inflating prices.

With housing affordability such a big issue it has been the focus of considerable examination by private sector economists and government agencies. The consensus from the experts is that non-residents purchasing houses has a marginal impact on overall house prices, and other factors are much more significant.

Clearly the policy is more about grabbing attention than being a serious solution to the housing affordability problem. And Labour are hardly the first political party to use emotion: Winston always wheels out his anti-immigrant shtick just before elections, the Greens regularly raise the spectre of environmental collapse, and the National party love to stick the boot into beneficiaries.

Politicians do this because emotion is a very effective way of connecting with people, as it creates drama and noise, and makes us react. In early humans it might have been the emotion of fear to run from predatory animals, in more modern times Merivale housewives reacting to the emotion of pride to run to the Ballantynes sale.

Labour would not have garnered the same publicity if they had released a balanced mix of policies aimed at housing affordability, instead of ‘bold’ moves to stop those rich foreigners stealing houses from under the noses of young, hard-working Kiwi couples.

Emotion sells, but the problem for politicians is that it has been reduced to a cheap trick. That’s because politicians (of all stripes) regularly use emotion to appeal to voters, but rarely deliver on the promise they make.

How can a business use emotion to sell something as dry and rational as a machine, electronic device or piece of software? No matter how clever, aren’t they dry, boring and mechanical - as unemotional as you get?

The emotion in any product lies not in what it is, but what it does for the consumer of that good or service.

A 80 year old woman won’t get emotional about the hi-tech polymers used for her hip implant, but she will feel very happy about being able to walk easily again. A teenager wouldn’t get out of bed to think about integrated website-IOS app software, but they will become animated about using Snapchat to communicate with their friends.

Understanding the emotion your product delivers and then emphasising that in your marketing is a powerful tool.

You couldn’t get much less emotional than a brick, but US-company Acme Brick is famous for differentiating its humble product.

Part of Acme’s success has been to understand the ‘emotion’ around a brick. Customers don’t care about a brick’s composition or thermal properties, but are very emotional about the longevity and stability of their homes.

In the early 1990s Acme started connecting with this by introducing an aggressive marketing campaign around their now famous 100 year guarantee, a powerful promise to someone buying a house. Acme can now command a 10% premium over other clay bricks, and a 50% share of their home Texas market.

How can you inject some emotion into your marketing?

To connect with people on an emotional level you need to have a high level of understanding about them. Who are they? What do they like? What are their problems and concerns? How does the product affect their lives?

By doing this you can uncover the primary emotional benefit customers get from your product e.g. security, confidence, freedom, happiness etc. Weave that into the story you tell your market so you can trigger a reaction.

Of course for technical products particularly you also need the “rational” foundation: the facts and figures e.g. features, pricing, metrics. They need to be understood, expressed in the customer’s language but then used primarily to justify the emotional promise that you are making.

Using emotion is a compelling way of telling your business’ story, but it’s only effective if the experience a customer has is consistent with those promises you make. Anything less is little more than a cheap political trick.

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