Showing Emotion is the New Black

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At a recent event in Seattle sponsored by the Word of Mouth Marketing AssociationHeather Oldani of McDonalds told the audience, “For brands, showing emotion is the new black.”  It resonated with the audience, and was one of the most tweeted takeaways from the event.

Oldani’s comment was a continuation of thoughts she had shared in September when she was the keynoter at the PR News Platinum Awards luncheon.  At that event she explained further:

“Listening, having a conversation, and building long-term relationships are all key traits that we as humans possess and employ at various times.  However, it hasn’t been until recently that the idea of connecting these ‘human elements’ to brands has been made. Ella Luna from IDEO declared at a recent design forum here in NYC, in which Fast Company quickly authored, that in today’s environment, being human is the ‘new black’ for brands. Specifically, and increasingly, companies are looking to show a more human side to their communications and the way in which they share content and involve others with the brand.  They are taking on traits like humor, honesty and openness in the campaigns they activate and in their ongoing communication and dialogue with key audiences.”

Oldani went on to say, “Every brand or organization has a story. It is those that tell it the best that will win.  And bringing a level of humanness to the stories you want to share and to your overall brand communication is key. ”

The importance of emotion and of storytelling was also a key theme in my presentation at the same WOMMA event, and a topic I have written about previously.   Most brands today appreciate the importance and value of word of mouth and social marketing.   And in pursuit of strategies to build more and better word of mouth, many focus first (and sometimes only) on the channel through which word of mouth can be spread — Facebook, Twitter, experiential marketing, etc.; or on the people who will share word of mouth — activating influencers and brand advocates, for example.

However, job one in creating a successful word of mouth strategy is to focus on your story – why should people talk about your brand?  You need to fill in the blank:  “When people talk about me, I hope they will talk about _________.”  Only after you have focused on your story, does it then make sense to focus on the people who will help you to tell your story, which in turn should be followed by the question of the best channels.

Further, it’s not just about having any old story to tell.  Ideally, it’s an emotion-filled story.  Research by my firm has found that strong emotional content is key to people’s desire to pass along things they hear about brands, either though word of mouth or online sharing.

More specifically, we have found that positive word of mouth is more “viral” than negative, and in particular conversations with positive emotions are especially viral.  While there is an assumption that people are more likely to spread negative news or experiences than positive, this turns out not to be the case.  On an overall basis, people are far more likely to have positive conversations about brands than negative.  And, they are one third more likely to tell others about conversations in which they hear positive things about brands versus when they hear negative things.

A similar conclusion was reached by Wharton professors Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman when they undertook a study of the “most shared” articles appearing in the New York Times.  They found that positive stories get shared more than negative ones.  And the ones that are especially likely to get shared are emotion-laden stories– in particular, ones that inspire awe.

With the growing recognition of the value of recommendations, many marketers are now trying to uncover the keys that will trigger conversation and sharing.  The takeaway from these research studies is that while it’s common to assume that bad news travels further than good news, and that “funny”, “quirky” or “clever” are the keys to helping something “go viral,” this is just not true.  Give people things of value and they will share it (e.g., the utilitarian items such as coupons or tips for healthy living); or give them something that will drive strong emotions (what psychologists call “activation”) and they will feel inspired to share it with others.

To all of this, McDonalds’ Oldani reminds us that brands also need to bring humanness to what we say, what we share, and the stories we tell.

About Ed Keller

Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group, has been called "one of the most recognized names in word of mouth." His new book, The Face-to-Face Book, was recently published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster. You can follow Ed Keller on Twitter, Facebook and Google+, or contact him directly at



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