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Case Study - creating a brand image that's emotionally engaging

Written by Spencer Durrant on April 1, 2016 in Strategies & Tips

pexels-photo-39106.jpegConnecting with customers on an emotional level may very well be the single most important endeavor for an ecommerce store. 

Why? Because people rarely buy for logical reasons. 

According to the late Zig Ziglar (American salesman and motivational speaker), "People don't buy for logical reasons. They buy for emotional reasons." 

Ziglar isn't the only person to push that train of thought. Forming emotional connections between brands and customers is now seen as an imperative marketing tactic - especially amongst the millennial generation. 

Consider this excerpt from a Harvard Business Review article

"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."

Emotional connections, and the payoff from them, are very important for the success of any online store. Yet, the question remains - how do you create that emotional connection?

The above linked HBR article goes into deep detail on how you can create a brand image that's emotionally engaging. I highly recommend reading the entire post. 

What I thought would be more effective than essentially summarizing the HBR post would be to show an example of an ecommerce company that has created an emotionally engaging brand - and compare their efforts with the steps outlined in the HBR article. 

The brand I chose to examine is Howler Brothers - an apparel company that combines a special attitude with quality apparel to offer their customers a unique experience that draws them in and makes them feel a part of the Howler Bros family. 

How does Howler Bros do it?

In the HBR article, there's a list of 10 high-impact "emotional motivators." These are events that, according to the article, inspire customers to act based on a desire.

I'm going to compare how Howler Bros creates their brand image with the 10 motivators listed in the HBR article in order to give you a good idea of how you can apply the same techniques for your business. 

Customers will be inspired to buy from your brand based on a desire to: 

  • Stand out from the crowd
  • Have confidence in the future
  • Enjoy a sense of well-being
  • Feel a sense of freedom
  • Feel a sense of thrill
  • Feel a sense of belonging
  • Protect the environment
  • Be the person I want to be
  • Feel secure
  • Succeed in life

With those motivators in mind, let's take an in-depth look at Howler Bros and how they inspire customers to act on the above desires. 

Stand out from the crowd

Consumers, especially millennials, want to stand out from the crowd. It's a basic human desire to want to feel special

Howler Bros stands out from the crowd in a unique way with their product line, company history, and imagery. Take a look at their homepage. Screenshot_2016-03-30_at_1.01.23_PM.png

From fly fishing and hiking to surfing and camping, the Howler Bros product line targets people who live a unique, almost "surfer bum" lifestyle.

They also stand out from the crowd with the vision behind the name and guiding influence of the company. From their "Company" page

"[The founder's] vision for Howler – and the name Howler Brothers – was inspired by a sound they each heard on surf trips to Costa Rica: the call of the loudest animal in North America, the Howler Monkey. If you’ve heard it, you know how loud and startling the sound can be. But, after hearing it a few times, the sound becomes a part of the collective feeling of being in Central America and serves as a constant reminder that you’re in a good place, doing something you love."

Immediately in this messaging, Howler Bros is tapping into that group of people who live life deliberately chasing experiences instead of a paycheck. Their distinct audience, combined with their unique product line and the fact that every product is a limited-run release, sets Howler Bros apart from many other sporting apparel companies. 

Have confidence in the future

How can you convey a sense of confidence in the future with your products? The HBR article says your brand can achieve this by helping customers, "Perceive the future as better than the past; have a positive mental picture of what's to come." 

Again, I'll go back to messaging on Howler Bros Company page: 

We are Howler Brothers. We are not really related by blood. But we are bonded by many shared callings: Surfing, fishing, paddling and the good things that come with these pursuits. Things like fire pits, really good tequila, limes, and pre-dawn coffee.

The activities mentioned resonate with people who live the lifestyles Howler Bros represents. Talking about those moments, communicating them in imagery and social messaging, will help the people who may work in a cubicle all day look forward to the weekend just a bit more. Howler Bros helps a customer look forward to and have confidence in the future, and when that attitude is reflected across your entire brand image, you’ll connect easily with your target audience.

Enjoy a sense of well-being, freedom, thrill, and belonging

I've grouped these three feelings together because they can all be accomplished at once with the right marketing material.

Howler Bros chooses to achieve these sensations through videos. As I've written before on this blog, video marketing isn't just for companies with money and large resources. It's possible to create a video, or other types of messaging, that help customers enjoy a sense of well-being, freedom, thrill, and belonging. 

Take a look at how Howler Bros does it with their video promoting seasonal clothing lineups. 

The video focuses a lot on product, but it also creates a feeling of camaraderie between the customer and the company. It's as if buying a Howler Bros shirt will somehow let you live the life depicted in the video. 

Does that sound cheesy? Maybe a bit. But it works. 

Take a look at another video from Howler Bros. It advertises one product, but does an even better job at creating a sense of freedom, well-being, thrill, and belonging. 

Again, remember that you don't have to travel 20,000 miles and produce a cinema-quality video in order to make your customers feel an emotional connection to your brand. However, you will have to find other ways to connect and resonate with your audience. 

Protect the environment

This may be a motivator that is tricky to pull off, simply due to possible trouble connecting what you sell online to an environmental issue. It makes sense for companies like Orvis to donate 5% of pre-tax revenue to conservation efforts across North America. But, what about for an online store selling jewelry? How can you tie in environmental responsibility while selling precious metals? 

This is an area that even Howler Bros doesn't address. Nowhere on their site is there mention of any "giving back" campaign they run, nor is there any mention of the amount of sales dollars dedicated to conservation projects. 

This is one of the motivating factors that the HBR article found to be very influential, so it should be something you consider incorporating into your brand image, even if it's subtle.  

Be the person I want to be and feel secure

The HBR article defines this motivator as helping a customer fulfill a desire for ongoing self-improvement, or to live up to their ideal self-image. 

The product descriptions Howler Bros uses helps achieve the latter part of that sentence by writing copy that compels a customer to think that wearing a Howler Bros shirt or hat is going to help complete whatever self-image they're chasing. 

Take the description for the Guayabera Shirt for example: Screenshot_2016-03-30_at_1.50.32_PM.png

The product description says it's possible to wear that shirt at a wedding or on the beach - perfect for people who live a casual, laid-back, no-worries lifestyle. Or, more importantly, for people who want to look as though that's the life they live.

A good product description can help customers see how your products can help them feel secure in pursuing their dreams without worry, and can enforce an emotional connection. 

Not everyone will actually live the lifestyle reflected in your brand, but many may desire to be perceived like they do. Tapping into both audience segments that either live the brand lifestyle, or want to look like they do, is important. 

Succeed in life

I really like how the HBR article defines this final emotional motivator. The article states that brands should help customers feel that they, "Lead meaningful lives and find worth that goes beyond financial or socioeconomic measures." 

Howler Bros is particularly effective at this with their messaging, because their entire goal behind every shirt or hat is to inspire people to live a deliberate lifestyle. It's reflected in their Company page copy, product descriptions, and every bit of marketing material they use. 

That's how heavily you need to integrate your own marketing material with a sense of meaningfulness that goes beyond clocking in and out of work. 


Creating a brand image that is emotionally engaging is one of the best ways to connect with millennials, improve your sales, and ultimately build a company that's trusted and loved by its rabid consumer base. 

Remember - I used Howler Brothers as an example in this post because of how effectively they communicate their brand story and values. You don't need their large budget, or product line, to convey the same emotional senses within your own brand messaging. Don't feel like you can't create an emotional connection with your customers because your business is smaller, your budget tighter, and your catalog not as extensive or high-end as what Howler Bros offers.

Instead, learn from their example, incorporate some of their ideas and successful techniques into your own marketing messaging, and with some serious effort, should see a spike in emotional engagement between your customers and your brand. 


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