Strategies & Tactics

To Capture Attention, Brands Need Emotional Connections

March 4, 2019


Every day, you race by brand messages designed to grab your attention: billboards along the freeway and sponsored posts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Video pre-roll on YouTube. Emails from your favorite brands in your email box.

And if you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll notice that whether it’s a paid message, an owned message or an earned message, brand owners have mere seconds to grab your attention.

Our attention spans are actually becoming shorter, according to a 2015 study by Microsoft as reported in Time magazine. The fact is: Consumers are bombarded by so many messages every day, and marketers and communicators have never been as challenged as they are today in grabbing someone’s attention. This is especially true if you’re trying to attract new customers to your brand.

The challenge is not merely getting attention. It’s making your message stick long enough that someone will pay attention to your next appeal — and the next one after that.

It’s in those precious first seconds where brand building begins, or fails.

That’s because branding is not a logo. It’s not an ad. It’s not a positive story about your brand in the media. It’s not an event. Or a coupon.

It’s a relationship between people — those who own the brand, the employees of an organization (business, nonprofit, government agency) and the person who needs a particular product or service.

Create emotional connections

At lunch one day, my friend Dan Wallace, co-author of the book “The Physics of Brand,” said, “Think of brands that have been around for a really long time. They were named after real people — Ford, DuPont, Nestle, Lloyds of London.”

That human factor is a fundamental principle of branding we should never forget. At its core, branding is the experience that one person promises to another.

For example, when I need a really good donut, I go to Granny Donuts in West St. Paul, Minn., near my home. Behind the brand are its owners Xuan To and his wife, who immigrated to Minnesota after the Vietnam War. From the first time I stepped through the doors of their donut shop with its 1970s-style décor, they have served me graciously and joyfully. And yes, the glazed blueberry Bismarck, my usual, is out of this world.

It’s that combination — of a quality product or service that meets a need and the experience of buying and using it — that makes the brand.

Even in this digital age, the best way to capture someone’s attention is still through word-of-mouth referrals. To hold the attention of a new consumer (or employee, investor, vendor, etc.), you have to connect with that person emotionally. That’s why it’s so important to never forget or take for granted those with whom you’ve had brand experiences.

Focus on enthusiasts

Every brand has a range of people who’ve had personal experiences with it, from super fans who go out of their way to share their experiences with as many people as possible, to the brand haters who look for every opportunity to trash a brand to the world. Fortunately (and unfortunately), social media, review websites such as Yelp and Glassdoor, and email facilitate both brand love and brand hate.

It’s best to focus on your brand’s core enthusiasts, the people most likely to refer your brand to others looking for a product or service to fill a particular need. That’s how I found Granny Donuts.

When my wife Rebekah and I moved into our new home 12 years ago, our neighbor went on and on about how I had to try Granny Donuts. And so I did. In turn, I became a zealot for the brand myself.
The same process has led me to many of my other favorite brands — the Alta ski area in Utah, Trek bikes, Ping golf clubs, the Montreal Canadiens hockey team, Toyota, Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and Pearson’s Nut Goodie candy, among others.

At the center of those shared experiences are stories told with emotion.

As I searched for Christmas gift ideas for Rebekah, I recalled a new brand that my friend Kelly Groehler, APR, a Minneapolis PR consultant, had started. She loves art and wants to wear the work of contemporary female artists, so she teamed up with artist Kate Iverson to create the startup brand Alice Riot, which has an art gallery and an apparel line. The brand offers women’s dresses, skirts and scarves that feature limited-edition prints by female artists.

A year after I first learned about the brand, I bought an Alice Riot scarf for Rebekah. She immediately loved it. We were having breakfast with friends on New Year’s Day when another diner came up and asked, “Is that an Alice Riot scarf?” Now Rebekah shares that story with others who ask her about her scarf. And I’ll probably buy more Alice Riot products in the future. This is branding at its best.

Here are five points that will help you create similar emotional connections for your brands:

  1. Listen. Go back to your customers and listen to their experiences with your brand. What caught their attention, and what kept them engaged? Was it a story?
  2. Plant a flag in the ground. Stop trying to be everything to everyone. Stand for your values, your employees and customers.
  3. Live your attitude. What attitude does your brand convey and how are your existing fans and potential new fans receiving it? All brands, even donut shops, have an attitude. The question is whether it’s the attitude they want for their brand. Find yours and start living it.
  4. Collaborate with your customers. To find attention-grabbing stories, invite your stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, etc.) to tell their stories about your brand. That means collaborating with them and being confident enough in your brand to let customers share their brand experiences on your social media accounts.
  5. Kick the keyword habit. Keywords on websites or in social media posts might sometimes attract new visitors, but stories told with authenticity and conviction are what win the day.

Learn More

On March 7, Stephen Dupont, APR, hosts a PRSA webinar titled “A Step-by-Step Process to Elevating Your Organization’s Brand to Keep Loyal Fans and Attract New Fans.” The webinar is free to PRSA members, and will be available on-demand starting March 14. Visit for details.

Stephen Dupont, APR

Stephen Dupont, APR, is vice president of public relations and branded content for Pocket Hercules (, a brand-marketing firm based in Minneapolis. He blogs at Contact him at


Barbara B. Nicol, APR says:

Fabulous article and spot on. Thanks, Stephen!

March 5, 2019

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