The Six Stages of Emotional Branding

By Contributing {grow} Columnist “Social Steve” Goldner

Creating an emotional connection between customers and a brand is probably the Holy Grail of marketing.  Most often, brands strive for this by being the pinnacle of something and then reinforcing that position at every touchpoint.

Maybe the easiest brand to think of in this sense is Apple.  Apple is cool, the hipster of technology.  And they have achieved a level of fanatiscm with their customers by being the pinnacle of innovation and design and then continually reinforcing this message.

Emotional branding goes beyond loyalty and almost creates this “I-am-with-<brand-name>-no-matter-what” mentality.  Recently I was reminded of the awesome power and massive strength of emotional branding.  And this story has nothing to do with a brand you might find in a store.  It involves well-educated, smart people acting in what I consider to be an irrational manner … all for the their love of a brand.  The people I am talking about are my friends (hopefully still my friends after this article) and family.

The brand I am referring to is Joe Paterno, the beloved, long-time head coach of Penn State University’s football team – up until the time he was fired under a cloud of child sexual abuse scandals.  No, Paterno was not charged with sex abuse.  But after a long career of being an icon of integrity, he was ultimately vilified because he had not alerted law enforcement officers about the horrific events when he knew of them.

Joe Paterno was the Penn State University brand.  The passion and emotion of alumni toward Paterno is unbelievable.  Many of these alumni are people from my own network – tons of friends and family that are so emotionally tied to PSU and Paterno, that they refuse to let the scandal tarnish the brand.  This is the acme of emotional branding — a bond so strong that even the most heinous blunder cannot deter the support, love, and admiration for the brand.  I am not emotionally tied to the Paterno or PSU brand and I cannot fathom how bright, intelligent people refuse to move from this irrational, emotional connection. But there it is.

And while the example I highlighted above consists of repulsive allegations, it does represent a situation brands would legitimately want to aspire to – establishing such a bond with your audience that they will stand by you, and defend you, no matter what.

So are there any positive lessons about emotional marketing that we can learn from the Paterno case?  Create brands where winning is a shared experience and then reinforce it.  How does your ideal customer win with your brand?  Incorporate this ideal into every aspect of your product or service.  When building emotion into your brand, think about leading your customer through a continuum:

Emotional Stage 1 – How you get someone interested?

Emotional Stage 2 – How do you get someone to consider a purchase?

Emotional Stage 3 – How do you continually reinforce that their purchase decision was absolutely the right decision, the “winning” decision?

Emotional Stage 4 – How do you create a loyal customer such that they want to continue to buy your product and/or are most receptive to cross selling and value add purchases?

Emotional Stage 5 – How do you create a brand ritual ( so that your brand becomes part of your customer’s life?

Emotional Stage 6 – How do you get your audience to be your cheerleader?

You could literally create a blog post on every single one of these steps and it would certainly be a fascinating concept to explore. But on the social web, where consumer emotions can turn on a dime, doesn’t it make sense to start building loyalty in a truly emotional way?

Steve Goldner is the Senior Director at MediaWhiz where he leads the social media practice. Steve has been a marketing executive for the past 20+ years and engaged in social media for the last 4 years. You can follow him on Twitter @SocialSteve and visit his own blog at .

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  • All I could think of while reading your post was: “I want that.” 
    (Not the whole nasty allegations part– the emotional attachment part.)

    I was trying to apply your highlighted phrase, “Create brands where winning is a shared experience and then reinforce it,” to Apple. It took me a minute but I think I’ve got it. Apple has created cool gadgets with cool interfaces. Their brand is cool. So, if you own an Apple product, you are now cool. Apple reinforces this by constantly making cooler and cooler things that all the “cool people” need to have/already have. It’s a cool cycle.

    The question is, how (specifically) does one start the “cycle of cool” in one’s own business? I’ll be pondering this.


  • Hi Rachel –

    “You want that?”  You can have that.  It starts with empathy.  You must have a complete understanding of your target audience.  What turns them on, turns them off, and as you put it, reinforces their image and perception of being cool.  With Apple – the “cycle of cool” starts with innovation.  They are truly creating complete differentiation.  And while they might not be perceived as cool, think Zappos.  Amazing customer reputation built on stellar customer service.  They “over – deliver” everyday.  Have empathy for your target audience and then determine how do you stand out.  (See if you want more information)


  • I am beginning to really think that The Likeability Factor by Tim Sanders should be forced reading to anyone building customers who want what you sell, and will come back for more. 

    All of your points relate to the 4 factors of likeability and eventually they hang upon the emotions and the strength of them, that your likeability creates and maintains.

    This article reinforces what I am seeing as one of the most missed pieces of being social: being socially liked! If you can pull that together you can generate the emotional connections and loyalty.

    So off to check out your stuff, thanks for the post. Billy

  • Anonymous

    Reading through your example of extreme brand loyalty to the Penn State brand, I have to think that individuals maintain that level of connection because change requires a recognition of disappointment and activity towards finding an alternative. It’s hard to admit that something you’ve so closely identified with is not what you perceived and, in some, the disappointment manifests itself into passionate defense.

    Perhaps that level of intense loyalty isn’t such a great thing for a company or a product. Yes, we may want that solid connection with our customer but maybe a little tension between the two (customer and company) will encourage companies to keep striving and improving the experience.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Jeff Taylor

    I really enjoyed this post.  My book (Bigger Than The Widget) is about the need for companies to connect emotionally with their customers.  I love your six stages.

    One of the points I make is that your customers will fall into three zones.  The Indifference Zone, The Earning Zone, and The Bigger Than The Widget Zone.  The idea is to leverage emotional connections and branding to move customers into the BTTW Zone and become fanatics…making you bigger than the product(s) you make or sell.

    Rachel…I also argue that one of the ways to be “bigger” is town and “-est” or be a “most”.  I actually use Apple and the fact that they are the “cool-est” in the book.  The key is that it is not just about their cool products…but everything that they do.  They are authentic and people that buy Apple feel cool as well.  There is some transference.

    Great post!  If interested in more discussion on emotional branding you can check out  BTW…all proceeds from the book go directly to The V Foundation for Cancer Research (shameless plug – sorry!)

  • Thanks Billy, I will check out The Likeability Factor.  Best, Steve

  • I do not agree.  The point I made in the article is that emotional branding runs so deep that people are not rational anymore.  In the case of Paterno and PSU, my friends and families (yes, people I full respect) literally looked beyond a flaw (one I think was horrible) and rationalized, “Oh, it was one little mistake, and it is not like he was the one that did anything.”  They were not worried about an alternative, but were so emotionally tied in that they could not see the horrible wrong.

  • Thanks Jeff.

  • Anonymous

    I see.  I was trying to emphasize (and did not do a good job) that for people to severe that emotional connection they would have to admit how wrong their continued loyalty is (and one alternative would be to intensely dislike or become indifferent).  You’re right,  in this case the emotional branding has blinded them. 

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  • The first thing that came into my mind is “wow, this sounds like a sales / branding funnel on emotions”. Enjoyed your post 🙂 I’ve been involved in a number of branding processes myself and it is shocking to know that many businesses out there still think branding is just advertising; to have a cool logo, a quirky name and that’s it. 

  • Meg

    Very well put, Steve.  Empathy is key and also being generous with your time and expertise. It almost always come back to help you-even if very indirectly. The world is very small.  Your reputation goes a long way toward keeping folks coming back and giving recommendations.

  • I am intrigued by your six stages of emotional branding. I can see where you’re going with them, based on my own experiences with B2B marketing, but it would be great to see them fully expanded upon.
    I found your Joe Paterno story fascinating, too. Since you published this blog, the Lance Armstrong case has come to light. I think there are parallels between the two stories. It was fascinating following the public reactions to Armstrong’s ‘official’ labeling as a drug cheat, where according to some reports many people have chosen to ignore his alleged doping misdemeanors and still view him as a supreme athlete and winner. They have chosen to stay loyal to the Lance Armstrong brand, which has obvious strong connections with the Live Strong brand, despite it all. Perhaps that’s because people love winners, and when they’ve seen Armstrong achieve so much, this makes such a strong emotional impression on them that it overpowers any rational thoughts they might have about his behaviors.

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