Get Irrational

Visit Las Vegas, and you’ll find pirate ships, volcanoes, a miniature Eiffel Tower and a replica of the New York City skyline – right there in the middle of the desert. Plus, as long as you’re gambling, drinks are free.

Last year, more than 100,000 people visited Las Vegas on an average day. As you read this, players are winning thousands and thousands of dollars – and losing more than that. The percentages always favor the house. Even the most favorable game is simply the least unfavorable.

But there they sit at the gaming tables, free drink in hand, apparently convinced this was all built as some kind of charity, because they think to themselves: “Today’s the day I’m going to win big!”

Las Vegas is a great brand, and it offers a great lesson: If you want to jet-propel your brand, get irrational.

The Heart Trumps the Head

By “irrational,” I don’t mean “stupid.” I mean you should get in touch with the emotional side of your brand.

It’s easy to get so hung up on logic, reason and proof points that we miss the fact that most decisions are made with the reptile brain. We might “know” something in our heads, but most of us listen more to our hearts.

Let’s shift gears to the auto industry. Despite the price of gas, sport utility vehicles remains strong sellers, even though they cost much more to purchase and maintain than the average vehicle. Ask a typical owner why, and you’ll get a list like this: “I need to take the kids to soccer practice, I have to cart around groceries, the family likes to vacation…” Really? If those are your true needs, my rational friend, then why not buy a minivan and save yourself $15,000?

Our power to manufacture rational reasons for irrational behavior knows no bounds. Deep down, most people drive SUVs because they convey status, power and image. They’re making a statement about who they are, how they want to be perceived and how they wish to feel. That’s pure emotion.

Help Your Brand to Get Irrational

In today’s marketing world, it’s important for your brand to find and support its emotional core. For one thing, most “rational” elements are difficult to defend. Most product features can be quickly imitated. Your competitors can easily mimic the logic flow of your sales presentations. And while there are tactical occasions for which a rational approach makes sense, humans are basically irrational creatures. Great brands understand and act on the power of emotional connections.

Consider the words of Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, when describing a shift in focus: “We thought that we were selling the transportation of goods. In fact, we were selling peace of mind.”

How do you find your brand’s emotional core?

Start with your values. Not the stuff on paper, but the stuff your brand really lives. (Not living your values? Then you have other problems.) If you truly stand for something larger than “moving product,” people will recognize it.

Consider what your brand truly does for customers. How does it serve? What emotional needs does it meet? Starting with even a short list of product features, you should be able to develop a longer list of psychological benefits. Those your brand is best equipped to deliver (or that competitors do a poor job delivering) are a good place to start.

Rethink the business you’re in. Gatorade could be in the sports drink business. But the company believes itself to be the “ultimate liquid athletic equipment.” This requires a deep understanding of the athlete’s needs and mindset – not to mention a bit of swagger. It’s not an easy position to take, but once you truly do it (as opposed to just saying it), it’s nearly impossible for your competition to replicate.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on June 29, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.