In this highly competitive market, fashion brands struggle to distinguish themselves to increasingly apathetic consumers. To become more competitive, fashion retailers employ emotional branding as a way to engage their customers, addressing the growing trend of consumers’ seeking emotional relationships with a brand. Although brand technicalities such as product attributes, features, and facts may be unmemorable, personal feelings and experiences better shape consumers’ evaluations of brands. This study illustrates why emotional branding is essential, especially to fashion brands, when developing brand strategies in a volatile marketplace. Trends that support a need for these strategies include consumers’ desires for positive experiences, expressing authentic self, achieving warm glow from helping others, and co-creating design or ideas with the brand. We propose a model for emotional branding strategies that focuses on sensory branding, storytelling, cause branding, and empowerment. The case studies we provide for each strategy describe how fashion brands can engage customers through emotional branding.
In an ever-changing and highly competitive market, fashion brands struggle to distinguish themselves to increasingly apathetic consumers (Clark 2017). As press and department stores no longer dictate fashion sales, e-commerce has democratized fashion industry competition. Even with contemporary strategies, such as employing online platforms like Amazon and social media, fashion brands often suffer from stagnant sales. Moreover, customer loyalty is at its lowest levels due to lack of product diversity and high brand switching (Kusek 2016). In this retail environment, fashion brands need to develop new strategies to grab consumers’ attention by speaking to their hearts.
To address this need, retailers employ emotional branding as a way to engage their customers, appealing to their needs, aspirations, dreams, and ego (Acharya 2018). This branding strategy addresses the growing trend of consumers’ seeking emotional relationships with a brand. Although brand technicalities may be unmemorable, consumers do not forget how a brand makes them feel. As opposed to information such as product attributes, features, and facts, personal feelings and experiences better shape consumers’ evaluations of brands (Jenkins and Molesworth 2017; Schmitt 2009; Zukin and Maguire 2004). Hence, emotional branding seems to be a strategy that creates strong brand attachments between consumers and brands (Akgun et al. 2013).
Emotional branding establishes itself as a critical factor in developing brand loyalty, which has been conceptualized as a long-term, committed, and affect-laden partnership devised to characterize consumer-brand bonds (Fournier 1998). Increased loyalty driven by emotional branding, in turn, leads to higher sales. For example, purchase intentions from television advertising are three times as likely to result from emotional responses as advertisement content (Hong 2016). Overall, emotionally connected consumers are 52% more valuable to a brand than those who are just satisfied (Otley 2016). Presumably, emotionally attached consumers are a brand’s highly profitable market segment (Rossiter and Bellman 2012). Because fashion has traditionally been associated with experiential, symbolic, or hedonic products (Fiore et al. 2005; Johnson et al. 2014; Noh et al. 2015), emotional branding is likely a vital approach to directly speak to fashion consumers.
To this end, we define emotional branding as a brand’s strategy that stimulates consumers’ affective state, appealing to their feelings with the aim of increasing consumer loyalty toward the brand. Furthermore, we posit emotional branding is an essential strategic practice, especially to fashion brands, in a ruthless retail environment. As Morrison and Frederick (2007) suggested, creating emotional brand experiences and managing emotional branding strategies requires an integrated approach. First, we explore marketplace trends that support emotional branding defined by consumer experiences, authentic self, warm glow, and co-creation. Second, we propose a model for emotional branding strategies relevant to the fashion industry in terms of sensory branding, storytelling, cause branding, and empowerment. It is important to note that one or multiple marketplace trends are reflected in strategies discussed in this study. Hence, we recommend that retailers use any of these strategies, or a combination of them, to improve brand loyalty. Figure 1 illustrates the framework of emotional branding.
The benefits consumers seek from buying particular brands or shopping trips have shifted from procuring high-quality products for lower costs to seeking emotional rewards from their experiences as a consumer (Kim et al. 2014). Major trends that support this paradigm shift include desires to have positive consumer experiences, express one’s authentic self, achieve warm glow from helping others, and co-create design or ideas with the brand. While these trends influence consumer behavior and change the way traditional retailers conduct businesses, retailers can adopt non-traditional marketing strategies to a greater extent because there are more ways to touch the consumer in an omni-channel market. Indeed, the prevalence of mobile and web-based technologies has transformed consumer experiences from just browsing and purchasing to creating and sharing content via social media (Kohli et al. 2015).
A major factor that explains the importance of emotional branding is related to consumer experience. No longer are consumers focusing on product specifics or service satisfaction; they seek experiences from a brand they like. In experiencing a brand, whether it is a product, service, or a retail store, consumers do not just look for quality or low prices; they want to gain emotional rewards from enticing store atmosphere, superb customer service, and entertaining experiences. They also want to express who they are and the relationships that are important to them through consuming or supporting a specific brand (Kim et al. 2014; Kumar and Kim 2014).
It is important to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1970) when discussing consumer experiences. In his revised hierarchy, “deficiency needs” that include physiological well-being, safety, belonging, and self-esteem, arise from deprivation and are necessary to avoid unpleasant consequences. Usually, when consumers’ deficiency needs are fulfilled, they next satisfy growth needs. Growth needs pertain to those at the highest level of the hierarchy and are necessary for self-actualization and peak experiences that include the need for intellectual achievement, creative expression, and aesthetic appreciation. These needs are never truly met because they are continually refined as people experience self-actualization. In most post-industrial societies, growth needs, rather than deficiency needs, dominate consumer motivations. Consumers’ desire to fulfill their growth needs offers retailers increased opportunities to develop emotional strategies that result in noteworthy consumption experiences and value.
Sheth et al. (1991) argue that value results from emotional responses to product-associated experiences. For example, a gift of crafted jewelry may induce romantic or comforting feelings from one’s past. While Sheth et al. describe emotional value as a perceived utility received from a product’s ability to produce affective states, consumption experience can be derived from receiving service or visiting a retail outlet, which provides consumers with immaterial value (Holbrook 1999; Kim et al. 2007). As consumers increasingly desire positive experiences from consuming a brand, the trend of using emotional branding strategies should grow in the foreseeable future.
A brand experience includes subjective sensations, feelings, and evaluations, which are internally processed responses to brand-related stimuli like brand design, visual identity, packaging, communications, and other environmental cues (Brakus et al. 2009). Therefore, a brand experience can occur at the level of a product, service, store, or marketing campaign. Brakus et al. building upon Schmitt (1999) identification of five sensory experiences (i.e., think, feel, sense, relate, and act), proposed four dimensions of brand experiences: affective, behavioral, sensory, and intellectual experiences. These experiences inspire emotional bonds and lasting impressions in consumers, leading to the success of branding efforts. As more consumers prefer omni-channel shopping, by using multiple channels (e.g., physical stores, websites, social media platforms, and mobile apps) for a single transaction (Parise et al. 2016), the extent to which the brand provides real-time, personalized, and emotional content through myriad touch points determines their brand experience (Lemon and Verhoef 2016; Parise et al. 2016).
A brand becomes more prominent in an individual’s self-image than ever. Thus, the strength of consumer-brand attachment depends on the extent to which consumers believe the brand reflects themselves (Park et al. 2010). There are two forms of self-concept: “actual self” and “ideal self.” Actual self reflects present perceived reality of an individual (i.e., who I am now). In contrast, the ideal self refers to the individual’s aspirational self, which manifests a vision of ideals and goals related to his or her future self (i.e., who I would like to be) (Lazzari et al. 1978).
The actual self is closely related to the “authentic self” that embodies who an individual is and how he/she discovers his/her true self (Harter 2002). This actual self seems to be increasingly influential to consumers seeking authenticity in marketing messages (Gilmore and Pine 2007) that focus their current selves rather than their future, idealized selves. Therefore, branding campaigns that incorporate authentic self as a central theme stimulate intimate emotions and trust (Erickson 1995; Harter 2002).
The fashion industry epitomizes the use of self-identity brand appeal. Fashion companies have infamously marketed to customers that their products will increase their attractiveness, helping them achieve their ideal selves. As a rebuttal to this practice, Aerie, a sub-brand of American Eagle Outfitters, has centered its marketing theme on actual self. Its online media and social platform campaigns feature unretouched models and use the hashtag “#AerieReal” to emphasize authenticity. Their efforts embolden their consumers to be true to themselves and confident.
Authenticity is essential in fashion branding because it is a human element in the brand experience (Deibert 2017). Dapper Dan, Daniel Day, is an authentic Harlem fashion icon who began his career by making one-of-a-kind clothing for hip hop artists and celebrities in the 1980s (Cooper 2017). Although he was sued by luxury brands because he did not have permission to use their logos, he has been a trendsetter in streetwear and hip hop clothing and inspiration for designs of many luxury brands. Now he designs for
Gucci by Dapper Dan in Harlem.
Another example of products that appeal to consumers’ authentic self are old or vintage and retro clothing that serves a unique style statement and juxtaposition to mass produced garments (Fischer 2015). While luxury products have social and psychological meaning relevant in identity construction (Turunen et al. 2011), luxury consumers do not value counterfeit fashion brands because these items are fake and not representative of their authentic self (Turunen et al. 2011). Diesel has a unique campaign, #GoWithTheFlaw that uses irony. It sells its own knock off, heavily discounted limited edition, real Diesel jeans in a pop-up store in New York’s Chinatown where counterfeit products are sold (Megget 2018). This brand building campaign celebrates individuals who disregard fashion status quo, in this case shopping at high-end stores for designer products, but value the brand’s authentic image by appealing to the individuals’ authentic self.
Another way consumers develop positive emotions is through interpersonal relations (Tesser and Campbell 1982). According to Franze (2017), brands gain success when their business models emphasize a collective feeling of “us” or “we,” rather than you or me. A growing trend shows that people enjoy helping others, a phenomenon called warm glow (Aknin et al. 2013). Warm glow can result from volunteering, donating, or spending money on others. In the study of Dunn et al. (2014), regardless of a country’s economic level, consumers report they experience greater levels of happiness from prosocial spending than from self-purchases. For example, respondents who buy a gift bag for a sick child report being significantly happier than do those who purchase the same gift bag for themselves.
Self-determination theory (Weinstein and Ryan 2010) explains when and why prosocial spending or giving leads to happiness. Self-determination theory proposes that an individual’s well-being is dependent upon satisfaction of three basic needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. When it satisfies individuals’ need for relatedness, helping others can be rewarding because prosocial spending allows the individuals to connect with others (Aknin et al. 2013). Furthermore, the ability to pro-socially spend money can satisfy individuals’ need for competence when they see the positive outcome of their actions (Dunn et al. 2014). Lastly, the need for autonomy is satisfied when individuals have a choice about their actions. According to Weinstein and Ryan (2010), experiencing happiness from donating money occurs only if the benefactor can freely choose how much to donate. Based on this theory, it can be assumed that consumers experience warm glow when they feel autonomous, related, and competent by doing something for others.
In the traditional market, firms decided which products and services they were going to produce and consumers did not play any role in value creation. In post-modernity, social media is an increasingly influential determiner of brand value (Arvidsson 2005), and companies are no longer sole dictators of brand message. While traditional advertising communicates a brand’s message, current practices of digital marketers strive to create relevant and compelling content, often through value co-creation, defined as “joint creation of value by the company and the customer” (Prahalad and Ramaswamy 2004, p. 8). This co-creation is especially paramount in the post-modern consumption era where emotional branding defines brand meaning through consumer-brand interactions (Thompson et al. 2006) and consumers’ word-of-mouth referrals significantly hike new customer purchases on social media platforms (Trusov et al. 2009).
Co-creation via content marketing exists in many mediums, such as magazines, newsletters, blog posts, videos, webinars, podcasts and websites (Pulizzi 2012). Weblog content, in particular, reflects individuals’ stories of their experiences, beliefs, and attitudes and usually posts pictures (photo blogs) and video (vlogs). H&M has a new brand “Nyden,” capitalizing the concept of co-creation. This brand’s business model uses input from netocrats, technologically savvy influencers who share their experiences and lifestyles with others, in the production of a design (Neerman 2017).
Based on these marketplace trends, emotional branding can be implemented by employing four major strategies: sensory branding, storytelling, cause branding, and empowerment. Each of these strategies reflects multiple marketplace trends depicted in Fig. 1.
As marketing emphasis has shifted from the product to the creation of consumers’ experiences, sensory marketing seems to be integral to stimulating excitement and pleasure (Douce and Janssens 2013). Sensory marketing engages and triggers consumers’ senses (i.e., sight, sound, feel, taste, and smell) (Krishna 2012). All these five senses elicit emotional responses to goods, services, and the environment with some notable differences such as the sense of sight being most powerful in detecting changes and differences in the environment (Orth and Malkewitz 2008) and the sense of smell triggering the most vivid memories (Fiore et al. 2000). As such, sensory branding influences consumers’ perceptions, judgement, and behavioral responses toward a particular brand (Krishna 2012). As Lindstrom (2010) stated in his book Brand Sense, a brand’s appeal to consumers’ senses allows them to experience the brand more profoundly and have an emotional connection with it at a deeper level.
Fashion retailers have been successful in providing sensory experiences to consumers in their brick-and-mortar stores and, to a lesser extent, online stores. For example, Lush, a fresh handmade cosmetics brand, has been successful in employing sensory marketing: sight from round shapes of visually attractive products and live plants to illustrate the actual ingredients of their products; smell from the intoxicating and sweet scents; sound from knowledgeable salespeople talking actively behind a large bubbling hand bath; feel from unusual textures of the products and smooth and natural packaging; and imaginary taste from products with delicious colors of food (Strang 2015).
Retail technology further enhances sensory experiences among fashion brands. Among the examples are (a) Parada’s “smart closet” where electronic chip tags are sent to an interactive touch screen, allowing customers to virtually experiment with sizes, colors, or fabrics (Lindstrom 2010), (b) Ray Ban’s “augmented reality mirror”, with which a consumer can try any pair of glasses through their webcam and positioning their face on the screen, (c) IKEA’s “virtual reality experience”, with which consumers can customize the layout of home spaces that they have created, and (d) Uniqlo’s “in-store mood stylist”, which uses neuroscience to assist its customers in selecting the best T-shirt based on their moods (“Top 5 Retailers”). These retail technologies particularly appeal to the newer, technology-ridden generations who desire convenient and unique experiences. The following cases illustrate some of the most successful retailers in sensory branding.
Sephora is a company that utilizes sensory branding. Traditionally, Americans have shopped for high-end cosmetics and fragrances at department stores like Macy’s and Belks. In traditional department stores, each brand is isolated at a separate service counter, staffed by a salesperson who only sells that brand, and all products are stocked in closed cases. This creates a high-pressure selling environment, can lead to long waits for service, and makes experimenting with brands very difficult. Since Sephora entered the cosmetics market, it has completely reinvented the shopping experience. Sephora provides a low-pressure environment that encourages its customers to explore and experiment with its products. Open shelving allows Sephora shoppers to touch, smell, and apply any product. With appealing to multiple senses, its open selling environment allows sensory experiences, which are the key to this company’s success (Ostlund 2012).
Hollister Co., inspired by the Southern California surfing style, features beach shack. Its stores place beach-inspired props such as palm trees by the front door, shutters on the window, and wooden beach chairs to engage consumers in the brand experience. On top of this, the brand uses sound in the form of current top hits, and scent in the form of its signature lime perfume to evoke a pleasant response from consumers (Khan 2016). It uses sound sensory marketing strategies as music increases physiological arousal and allows consumers to self-regulate their moods (Khan 2016). Videos shown on wall televisions stream live California beach scenes. Known for its large posters of attractive, sexy models, the Hollister brand targets pre-teens and teenagers. Hollister has an app game, “Surf’s Up”, with rewards like pizza to engage its shoppers outside of brick and mortar stores (Pasquarelli 2017). This is promoted through Hollister’s social media, such Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, and in-store communication. In these ways, Hollister marketing strategies focus on appealing to consumers’ five senses.
Chanel incorporates recurring colors of black and white as brand recognition in all its channels (Chanel Floraison 2014). Since touch increases probabilities of purchase, it places accessories where customers can feel the products. For example, Chanel has LED signage that visually promotes its signature tweed. In New York City, its flagship store lights up in the shape of a perfume bottle at night. Chanel’s London flagship store has a gravity-defying staircase and hand-blown Venetian glass focal point reminiscent of Gabrielle Chanel’s iconic pearls (Larocca 2013). The London store has curtains with hand-stitched pearls as a means of authenticating the brand. Chanel boutiques have a sitting area that features tweed chairs, plush carpet, fireplaces and coffee tables stacked with Chanel books on each floor for visual consistency (Karmali 2017). In addition, the store sprays Gabrielle Chanel’s classic Chanel No. 5 perfume to enhance the customer olfactory sensory experience (Larocca 2013). Indeed, Chanel is one of the successful brands that have utilized multi-sensory stimuli to intensify their customers’ experiences.