Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Branding in the age of cat videos, take two

Read Time: 9 minutes

Branding ins the Age of Cat Videos, the power of leveraging intimate connections, was presented to the Marketing Executive Roundtable on October 27, 2021.

Let’s start with branding
Branding is the process of building an emotional relationship between the consumer and a product, a service or an organization.

Branding derives from recognizing needs and expectations. Then, building on the feelings that people already have, creating memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one organization, product or service over another.

Here’s a brand story for you
It was finally summer. School was out, and I had nothing to do on that glorious afternoon. So I walked to our neighborhood store. The big kids were hanging out on the steps shooting the breeze, drinking Coke. And then the magic happened. Gary asked, “Hey Teddy, wanna Coke?” And he passed me an ice-cold Coke. I had arrived. We never had sugary drinks at home, and here I was with a whole bottle of the forbidden Coca-Cola, all to myself. Better yet, the sharing of that Coke meant I was in the gang.

Years later I was driving across the state to work on a farm for the summer. I was a little nervous about bunking with a new group. Concerned that they might not accept me, being the only city boy.

Along the way I stopped at a small gas station in the middle of nowhere. I pulled in and filled up. When I went to pay, I grabbed a Coke out of the cooler. With one sip I remembered the sunny day and being given a Coke by the big boys on the steps of the neighborhood store. I remembered the sweep of pleasure from being accepted into the group.

Thinking back on that Coke at the gas station, the memories of fellowship it summoned were a relief from my anxiety.

That’s the power of a brand.

Branding is about building associations
Branding is the process of discovering, bringing life to and placing a singular idea or concept you own inside the mind of a prospect. Coca-Cola through the power of a sugar-dominated flavor, store placement, signage and mass-market advertising, became a social connection for me and millions of others. For me Coke was the “real thing;” Pepsi was second-rate, only to be chosen when Coke wasn’t available. And I genuinely felt the emerging store brands of cola were almost poison, with their slightly-off flavor.

I hardly ever drink a Coke. I avoid sugar to stay healthy. So the functional benefits provided by a sugary hit of Coke no longer meet my needs. But despite that, I still get a warm feeling when I think of Coke. Coke created an intimate feeling that captured my heart.

It’s all about feelings
Branding is recognizing or creating the emotional connection between a person and a product, service or organization.

Branding is the creative process of making us feel that products, services and organizations have emotional as well as functional benefits for us. Function is important. That hit of sugar is the signal Coke uses to reminds us of our connection to the brand. But it’s the associated feelings it evokes that bring us back over and over. So when we execute branding, we’re trying to create…
·      Intimate connections that capture people’s hearts.
·      Shortcuts to people’s deepest feelings.
·      An instant promise that we’ll fill an emotional need.
·      A set of memories that trigger positive emotions.

Whether we’re creating new brands or revitalizing existing ones, we’re trying to create emotional connections that result in sales, understanding, appreciation or a change in people’s feelings about something. And we know strong feelings create strong memories.

Coca-Cola does it, and so do thousands of others.

So what is it about cat videos?

Cat videos
Cats are immensely successful at creating intimate connections that capture our hearts. And they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. There are more kitties in the world than any other pet. Just as sugar is the dominant sweetener in the world, cats are our most favored pets.

Cat videos capture more attention online than anything except porn. So what can brands learn from cat videos?

First, I believe there’s a three-step formula that results in a brand creating a feeling:
1.     Start with new technology.
2.     Add a way to get the message out.
3.     Then latch onto an existing need that taps into our feelings.
Executed successfully, the result is a small dose of feelings.

With cats, smartphones are the technology. Social media gets the word out. We already love kitties, so there’s the feeling. What we get is a small dose of love, whenever we feel the need to access it.

Prior to internet-enabled smartphones that give us easy-to-use videos and playback any time we want, we could only enjoy our kitties in person. It’s the combination of accessibility, new technology and our existing feelings for cats that fuels the cat-video phenomenon.

With Coke, the technology was globally distributed bottling plants. Stores plus mass-media advertising got the word out. The feeling of need is triggered by the sugary taste. And the result is the emotional associations that built the brand.

Brand formula
Technology + Media + Existing Need = Mass Emotional Connection

Start with a new technology that makes an existing need more accessible. Add some kind of media to spread the word about the availability of something that meets a demonstrated need. Done right, consumption will increase.

The popularity of cat videos is the direct result of the way new technology connects us to the need for intimacy we’ve always had.

Boots was my first cat. I can still feel his soft black fur and see his white feet kneading me as he curled in my lap.

Boots was a lover. He purred and arched his back and rubbed against my leg, asking to be stroked. Looking up at me as he turned, leaning in against my other leg on a second pass asking to be picked up, stroked and held.

I would reach down and pick him up, careful to cup his two back legs in my left hand while holding his chest in my right so he felt safe, just as Mom had shown me. Boots would purr, and we would sit together looking forward to the day.

On summer days Boots liked to sit by our small fishpond. Watching the goldfish, one paw raised and at the ready, the hunter cat waiting for his prey. Then it would happen. In a blur of action, Boots would strike, his paw swipes striking the water. But, off-balance and not considering the precariousness of his slippery perch, Boots would quickly be upside-down in the pond. With a blood-curdling cry of failure and disgust at being fully immersed in the much-hated water, he’d be up and out and on the run to a safe place under the porch.

My Boots cat video in my mind plays in a loop whenever I think of my long-gone, much-loved kitty.

Sometimes my memories of Boots bring tears. I notice the tears come when I’m feeling vulnerable for one reason or another.

It’s not just Boots I remember so vividly. All my now long-gone kitties and doggies are memories tucked carefully away for viewing when the need arises.

Comparing cat videos to brands isn’t really fair. Cat videos ask almost nothing from us, and deliver a huge pleasure payload in return. Thanks to the technology, we can get a hit of love and relief from the stresses of modern life anytime we have a moment. The kitties aren’t selling us anything. They’re not asking us to change our minds, or promoting any agenda. They’re just there providing pure delight whenever we feel the need.

So what brand is most like cat videos? Perhaps it’s the seemingly free ones. Brands like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest. Brands that do provide a hit of feeling and at least seem to ask nothing in return. We all now know, of course, that they get our personal data in return, which they can resell to advertisers, making billions in the process.

I just spent a few days in the Denver and Boulder area, attending Robin’s son’s wedding.  Using Google gave me a hit of comfort and assurance every time I needed to find an event, an Airbnb, a restaurant, the church or anything else. Google Maps didn’t give me the same good feelings of love and comfort my kitties do. But Maps did keep me feeling safe from being lost. I have to say that giving up my personal data to Google for not getting lost seemed like a great deal. However, if I get harassed or arrested for admiring Karl Marx, or for my increasingly strong feelings for the need for more socialism, or for writing anti-capitalist stories, I won’t feel so good about giving up my privacy.

Reviews, games, self-publishing, YouTube how-to videos, Facebook friends, Twitter conversations, Pinterest boards, Instagram sharing and TikTok are all activities that engage us on a far more personal level than in the past.

What’s changed about branding with these new technologies is the instant payoff.

We can get an instant hit of cat-video pleasure when we’re bored.

We can make the perfect Linguine with Lemon dinner ourselves, with a how-to video.

We can get instant reassurance that we’re going in the right direction from maps, or an answer to a question, or the comfort of knowing our coffee will be ready and waiting when we arrive at Starbucks.

Cat videos provide the pleasure of having instant access to the antics of our favored pets. A moment of intimacy with a kitty doing kitty things gives us a dose of pure love on demand. The videos also build communities through comments and online discussion, as others share and follow the kitties and the lives of their owners. And most important of all, they don’t ask anything of us in return. Nothing to buy. No political position to support, no donation required. The lack of agenda is key to their appeal.

Occasionally I’ll see advertising people––people who are well aware of the popularity of cats––use cat videos to promote themselves. These efforts can be fun to watch. But I find myself uncomfortable watching. Uncomfortable because I resent the cats being used to promote the agency. I feel like it’s just too much of “Aren’t we the clever ones.” They’re exploiting cats for their own purposes, without honoring them.

So branding in the age of cat videos means using the tools and techniques of our digital world to engage and build relationships—through conversations with people who need what you have for them. Tap into the emotions your offer touches. Don’t make people feel stupid with your interface. Make your connections as easy and painless as possible. Remember that it’s always about how we feel.

The differences between now and then are speed and availability. Things that took days or weeks to create are now accomplished in hours. Things that took specialized skills to produce can now be done by many. Things that took time to acquire are quickly available. Online platforms make it possible to reach relevant communities across the globe with your offer.

My cats, Phinney and Greta, are followed by people all over the world. My clients are on almost every continent. That’s what branding in the age of cat videos is all about. Community. Global community. Without exploitation.


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