When companies connect with customers’ emotions, the payoff can be huge. Consider these examples: After a major bank introduced a credit card for Millennials that was designed to inspire emotional connection, use among the segment increased by 70% and new account growth rose by 40%. Within a year of launching products and messaging to maximize emotional connection, a leading household cleaner turned market share losses into double-digit growth. And when a nationwide apparel retailer reoriented its merchandising and customer experience to its most emotionally connected customer segments, same-store sales growth accelerated more than threefold.

Given the enormous opportunity to create new value, companies should pursue emotional connections as a science—and a strategy. But for most, building these connections is more guesswork than science. At the end of the day they have little idea what really works and whether their efforts have produced the desired results.

Our research across hundreds of brands in dozens of categories shows that it’s possible to rigorously measure and strategically target the feelings that drive customers’ behavior. We call them “emotional motivators.” They provide a better gauge of customers’ future value to a firm than any other metric, including brand awareness and customer satisfaction, and can be an important new source of growth and profitability.

At the most basic level, any company can begin a structured process of learning about its customers’ emotional motivators and conducting experiments to leverage them, later scaling up from there. At the other end of the spectrum, firms can invest in deep research and big data analytics or engage consultancies with specific expertise. Companies in financial services, retail, health care, and technology are now using a detailed understanding of emotional connection to attract and retain the most valuable customers. The most sophisticated firms are making emotional connection part of a broad strategy that involves every function in the value chain, from product development and marketing to sales and service.

In what follows we’ll describe our research and our work with companies—to our knowledge, the first to show direct, robust links among specific emotional motivators, a firm’s actions to leverage them, consumer behavior, and business outcomes.

Defining Emotional Motivators

Our research stemmed from our frustration that companies we worked with knew customers’ emotions were important but couldn’t figure out a consistent way to define them, connect with them, and link them to results. We soon discovered that there was no standard lexicon of emotions, and so eight years ago we set out to create one, working with experts and surveying anthropological and social science research. We ultimately assembled a list of more than 300 emotional motivators. We consider customers to be emotionally connected with a brand when it aligns with their motivations and helps them fulfill deep, often unconscious, desires. Important emotional motivators include desires to “stand out from the crowd,” “have confidence in the future,” and “enjoy a sense of well-being,” to name just a few.

Identifying and measuring emotional motivators is complicated, because customers themselves may not even be aware of them. These sentiments are typically different from what customers say are the reasons they make brand choices and from the terms they use to describe their emotional responses to particular brands. What’s more, as we’ll discuss, emotional connections with products are neither uniform nor constant; they vary by industry, brand, touchpoint, and the customer’s position in the decision journey.

Why Emotional Connections Matter

Although brands may be liked or trusted, most fail to align themselves with the emotions that drive their customers’ most profitable behaviors. Some brands by nature have an easier time making such connections, but a company doesn’t have to be born with the emotional DNA of Disney or Apple to succeed. Even a cleaning product or a canned food can forge powerful connections.

The process, in brief, looks like this: Applying big data analytics to detailed customer-data sets, we first identify the emotional motivators for a category’s most valuable customers. High-value automobile customers, for example, might want to “feel a sense of belonging” and “feel a sense of freedom.” Next we use statistical modeling to look at a large number of customers and brands, comparing survey results about people’s emotional motivators with their purchase behavior and identifying spikes in buying that are associated with specific motivators. This reveals which motivators generate the most-profitable customer behaviors in the category. We then quantify the current and potential value of motivators for a given brand and help identify strategies to leverage them.

The model also allows us to compare the value of making strong emotional connections with that of scoring well on standard customer metrics such as satisfaction and brand differentiation, thus highlighting the potential gains from looking beyond traditional measures. We find that customers become more valuable at each step of a predictable “emotional connection pathway” as they transition from (1) being unconnected to (2) being highly satisfied to (3) perceiving brand differentiation to (4) being fully connected.

Although customers exhibit increasing connection at each step, their value increases dramatically when they reach the fourth step: Fully connected customers are 52% more valuable, on average, than those who are just highly satisfied. In fact, their relative value is striking across a variety of metrics, such as purchases and frequency of use.

The pathway is an important guide to where companies should invest—and it reveals that they often invest in the wrong places. To increase revenue and market share, many companies focus on turning dissatisfied customers into satisfied ones. However, our analysis shows that moving customers from highly satisfied to fully connected can have three times the return of moving them from unconnected to highly satisfied. And the highest returns we’ve seen have come from focusing on customers who are already fully connected to the category—from maximizing their value and attracting more of them to your brand.

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