How can brands build better emotional connections with consumers online?

As a growing number of brands roll out direct to consumer offerings, building effective long-term marketing strategies is vital to ensuring long-term loyalty.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director


We live in the age of extreme convenience; consumers are used to getting what they want, when they want. From the rise of two-hour delivery slots, to the impact of an ‘on-demand’ ecosystem, the art of anticipation is a marketing tool that often does not extend beyond luxury brands. 

In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, where consumer buying habits have been changed irrevocably, an array of new direct-to-consumer buying habits are springing up daily. From the myriad local coffee shops who have pivoted to online delivery to restaurant chains offering cook at home products, a plethora of brands are filling the gap left by traditional online grocery names which lack capacity. 

Yet as a growing range of brands look to enhance their direct to consumer offerings, questions remain as to how brands can better build long-term connections with consumers. While many brands have now overcome the logistical challenges of how they get their brands to consumers, the key marketing challenge emerges: how do they ensure consumers want those brands in the first place?

Effective marketing strategies have never been more important. While there is no question that consumers may not want to take every new consumption habit into the post-lockdown world, the opportunity to create new and lasting relationships remains.

With this in mind we asked a selection of industry experts how brands can build better emotional connections with consumers online?

The online world in many ways both accelerates and magnifies the offline world.

Stephen Maher

Stephen Maher

Stephen Maher, MBA.jpg

CEO // Chair


I have been very privileged to chair the IPA Effectiveness Board over the last few years with many big brains around the table, from System 1’s Lemon author Orlando Wood to leaders from Google and Facebook. Luckily, I can ‘borrow’ some of their wisdom to help answer this thorny question!

The online world in many ways both accelerates and magnifies the offline world. Expectations are raised and patience is reduced. Utility can be furiously celebrated.

Yet we know that ‘the consumer’ is ultimately the same human being and that emotional connections in marketing and communications will nearly always trump the rational or at least help post rationalise the rational.

So, the same humanity needs to be applied online to build effective brand storytelling and create action as it would offline, albeit in new forms, so for example...

Be personal and not just personalised on email. Honour your customer and workforce communities and their stories and activities on social. Make the journey to purchase fast and frictionless but don’t try to pull the wool over people’s eyes with too smart UX. Be transparent over price and its justification online. Nurture the CRM relationship after but don’t oversell or bombard. Offer easy to use feedback opportunities at every stage across all tech platforms.

I know ‘authentic’ is an overused term today but for me it is the simplest and smallest answer to the big question. Digital and ecommerce can make the best market stall owner in one location offline into the biggest and best market stall owner across the globe online but only if they never forget to put that very same customer first. That is how brands build better emotional connections with consumers online.

Brands need to undertake research into different audiences to be able to adapt their messaging and product to people’s personal experiences.

Stephanie Watson

Stephanie Watson

Stephanie Watson.jpg

Senior Behavioural Planner

Total Media

Emotions drive 80% of the choices we make as humans. During a time of crisis emotions are heightened and changing at a fast pace, as people have been forced to adapt to a socially distant and digital world.

Whilst there are clear collective shifts in behaviours which can cut across audiences, fragmentation in sentiment is becoming visible. For example, according to Global Web Index, 50% of people approve of brands running ‘normal’ ad campaigns that aren’t related to the pandemic, while 20% disapprove and 30% are indifferent. McKinsey also reported that 32% of people disagreed that their income has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, while 31% agreed. People’s pandemic experiences have been vastly different, as will be the extent to which they’re impacted coming out of the crisis, based on factors such as social class or location.

The emotional range of reactions and differing impacts on audiences are yet to fully come into view, but it’s important to understand that people are feeling differently to each other and will therefore require more personalised approaches that are tailored and relevant to different audiences and their developing emotions and sentiments.

Brands need to undertake research into different audiences to be able to adapt their messaging and product to people’s personal experiences. The approach for this should be long term, and there needs to be a consistent process about how you can listen to and understand consumer groups to know what they need.

Biometric testing can help understand deep emotional responses to online experiences and content. Galvanic skin response, eye tracking and facial coding can help determine how a user is feeling, the intensity of that feeling, the emotions they're feeling and where their attention is directed. When used alongside other rich data sources, such as ethnography or mobile diary studies, brands can begin to unpick human responses and adapt their online experiences to build better emotional connections with their consumers.

People have lost control in their lives so modify your message to help them feel safe, secure and more empowered.

Dave Lawrence

Dave Lawrence

Dave, Brave.JPG

Planning Partner


Coronavirus has dramatically shifted consumer behaviours and attitudes. People want brands and experiences that offer safety, control or emotional release. But building strong emotional connections online is a challenge.

Brand messages need to resonate quickly and effectively; emotional engagement is more important than ever. Brands can now take risks and creatively bold, to stand out and tap into these unique feelings.  

Steps for better emotional connection: 

  • People have lost control in their lives so modify your message to help them feel safe, secure and more empowered. Reassure, and offer comfort. Restaurant brands like Wagamama are sharing the secret recipes to their most popular dishes with their customers. 
  • Be honest and open. Speak to the heart of how people are feeling at this moment. Even non-vital brands can take small actions or collaborate with other brands to re-engage with their customers. 
  • Foster a sense of community. Social media is deserving of its ‘social’ name right now; conversations, games, cooking tutorials and fitness classes have all moved online. Nike made its Training Club app free to let all exercisers join the community.  
  • Be brave and have fun. Look for the entertainment value and light-hearted relief in your brand. ITV has asked viewers to recreate their favourite ads and #ganniWFH challenge encourages customers to share pictures of the outfits they’ve created at home.

Brands that can continue to really connect emotionally during these times will likely be the ones that are remembered and build longer relationships that will last beyond the pandemic.

A real emotional connection is bigger than just swiping right on the brand you fancy.

James Champ

James Champ

James ChampLR, Stack.jpg

Chief Strategy Officer


Online means screens, which are pretty much the best emotional delivery system around. An online ad might not be Stranger Things, but it’s great for making our audiences notice us, feel emotion when they do, and choose our brand off the back of it.

But a real emotional connection is bigger than just swiping right on the brand you fancy. It’s more like learning to embrace your partner’s habit of leaving teabags in the sink.

One of my strongest brand relationships is with Riverford, the organic foodbox people. Now, no brand is perfect. I’ve fumed at a terrible, one-off, customer call. Around this time of year, I get really fed up with courgettes. And I find it hard to recall how I felt when that first box appeared on my doorstep many years ago.

But we have a real connection. They’ve quietly helped me get to know them over the years, on and offline. They’ve explained what they believe, why they do what they do, and, most importantly, what they disagree with.

This is how online touchpoints and channels can offer better emotional connections; by building familiarity, developing routines and habits together, and encouraging a shared worldview.

An emotional connection comes from learning about someone over time. Make sure your brand has something worth finding out.

Emotional triggers and responses transcend digital or non-digital mediums.

Mark Preston

Mark Preston

MarkPreston, Reprise.jpg

Client Strategy Manager

Stickyeyes, part of the Reprise Network

I’m keen to resist the urge to talk about emotional connections specific to online experiences, because when we do, what we’re really talking about is technology; technology as the vehicle for carrying the stimuli that contribute to those emotional connections.

Emotional triggers and responses transcend digital or non-digital mediums; an advert can make me respond emotionally in a certain way whether I see it on TV or on my phone.

When we think about creating emotional connections we probably think about communications. John Lewis epitomises emotional advertising in the UK but has seen three years of successive profit decline despite its annual Christmas ad campaigns becoming a much-anticipated seasonal event. There is no doubt that the creative is emotionally appealing. But the problem is that the emotional connection John Lewis has worked to inspire is tied to a level of service expectation that does not meet operational experience, on or offline.

Inconsistent customer service and little to no join up between online and offline journeys means if consumers feel that the emotional promise made in the ad doesn’t reflect the real-world purchase experience, then there is a big issue. And it doesn’t matter if that message had been delivered via a primetime TV spot or a YouTube Masthead takeover.

Longer term emotional responses to brands are perhaps most influenced by, but not wholly limited to communications so it is crucial that all brand touch points and manifestations, the website, the pricing strategy, the customer service, are also aligned with whatever emotional experience it is trying to create. When it comes to making connections, brands need to be emotional, not notional in their commitment.

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