Following the recent London Design Festival, Creative Strategist Tom Holliday discusses how today’s functional brands are leveraging emotional aspirations. 

Last week saw the 14th edition of the London Design Festival: a glittering celebration of the industry with a plethora of exhibitions, events and talks to immerse oneself into the landscape of one of the global creative capitals. The citywide series of events showcases not just where design is now, but also where it’s heading.

These trade shows comprise of a huge variety: from some of the world’s most established design brands to the cutting-edge independent designers fresh out of university. However, recently there seems to have been a homogenisation in the approach being adopted by brands large and small, focused on influencing the user’s overall perception of the brand as much as the product itself. This idea of creating a consistent and cohesive narrative for consumers to buy into and believe in is nothing new, it has long since been a prerequisite of luxury and lifestyle brands alike. The concepts behind these brands create far greater impact than the products themselves ever could; they are pure ideas, offering consumers a focus for their emotional aspirations. But we are now seeing a democratisation of this strategy, it is no longer reserved for the upper echelon of products and services. Increasingly, it is the everyday items, even commodities, that are the subject of this more sophisticated and refined style of conveyance.

Historically, all these brands would often be devoid of character and expressive identity, their role would be to provide consumers with a basic service and reassure them that it would work, functionally. Now, the pioneers in these sectors are recognising their potential to be so much more than merely functional brands. Importantly, their strategic positioning enables and encourages them to connect with their consumers on a more emotional and human level.

The success of these brands comes from a series of reasons related to the way they engage with their customers: how they speak to them, what they say, and the way in which they execute the service.

How these brands are speaking

Research from Mintel in February of this year shows there is a close correlation between trust, satisfaction and recommendation of a brand, signalling today’s consumers are savvy and suspicious of companies trying to take advantage of them. In response to this, we’ve seen a global wave of transparency emanating from responsive brands in a show of respect for consumers, with the hope that it will be reciprocated, in turn leading to understanding and trust. The integrity and confidence shown by doing this strengthens the consumer’s perception of the brand, increasing trust and fostering the relationship between the two parties.

What these brands are saying

Limiting products ranges can do an awful lot for streamlining a brand. It’s beneficial for the company itself in optimising the supply chain, focusing attention and encouraging confidence in their specialisation, but it’s also in the interest of the consumer to avoid what has been dubbed the paradox of choice: an overload of options. This simplification of the offer enables brands to become far more accessible, as no specialist knowledge is required to shop the various choices. This has led to a reduction in the usage of jargon from these functional brands as the particulars of their products are increasingly described to the consumer through relatable points of reference; making the brand more approachable and their offer more digestible, encouraging the emotional connection.

How these brands are executing

This shift towards a more emotionally aspirational approach is supported by the care and attention these brands now put into the experience they provide to their consumers whilst they are engaging with the product or service. As the focus moves away from merely selling a product, to creating a memorable and elevated brand experience, a holistic approach becomes imperative, increasing the number of touchpoints exponentially as the relationship between brand and consumer becomes ongoing. As such, the demands on functional brands are becoming evermore sophisticated; it is no longer sufficient for these products to ‘do what it says on the tin’ if they want to thrive, not just survive. Each touchpoint is merely acting as a piece of the experiential jigsaw, a gateway to continuous and meaningful emotional engagement.

As it stands, these functional brands embracing the potential that comes from connecting with their customers on an emotional level are still relatively niche. Perhaps this approach is still regarded as being reserved only for premium brands, or that it doesn’t communicate the products’ functional elements sufficiently well. But in reality, creating a concept behind the brand is more inclusive, more direct, and clearly more engaging than merely providing the service. And importantly, it enables the consumer to aspire to something, whatever the product.


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