Why success can demand style and substance

Fans of Bruce Lee may remember the scene in Enter the Dragon, arguably his most celebrated film, in which he gives a young pupil a short lesson in martial arts and philosophy. Unimpressed with his charge’s lack of application, Lee sagely counsels: “We need emotional content.”

This sentiment applies as much to business as it does to kung fu and Zen. Emotional content is becoming a crucial component of more and more products, and its absence is increasingly a precursor to failure.

I was reminded of this some years ago while attending an event showcasing British manufacturers. I was listening to a string of success stories when it suddenly occurred to me that something wasn’t being explained properly.

One of the companies taking part had developed a metal-detecting door portal used by hospitals to prevent objects such as watches from being taken into MRI scanning rooms. Predictably, there was a lot of talk about the product’s technical capabilities, the IP, the supply chain and so on.

What struck me, though, was the portal’s physical design. It was extremely attractive and elegant, and it would have been fascinating to compare the look and feel of this product with those of its competitors. I suspect its mere appearance gave it a genuine edge.

 Another company that took part in the summit was Brompton, whose folding commuter bicycles not only have innovative functionality and design but also generate enormous emotional value. Brompton bikes have attained something akin to cult status, with customers even enjoying weekend rallies or 24-hour races on their beloved machines.

This sort of “feeling” or “connection” represents one of the biggest changes in purchasing behaviour during the past 30 years or so. Consumers now frequently rely on their intuitive and emotional responses, subconsciously relegating more logical and deliberative processes, when they weigh up their buying decisions.

Dr Dipak Jain’s “brand triangle” serves as a useful tool in assessing where this tendency fits into the trade-offs at the heart of a product’s overall appeal. Jain oversaw Kellogg School of Management’s ascent to the status of top-ranked business school in the world, so we can rest assured that he knows what he’s talking about.

The brand triangle is essentially a field or map with three corners, which are labelled Emotional, Functional and Low-cost. Emotional products, which include most luxury items, are bought because they make buyers feel good. Functional products, which basically do exactly what they promise, are bought out of pragmatism rather than love. Low-cost products, such as budget airline tickets, are bought purely because of their price.

A product can be 100% in one of the corners; alternatively, to varying degrees, it can be a mixture of two or three. Placing it within the field or map can help marketers to gauge where it sits in comparison to its competitors.

This analysis has its roots in consumer marketing, but it’s also applicable in business-to-business scenarios. After all, professional buyers are human beings and subject to emotional messages, too.

All of this might be best epitomised by the Apple phenomenon. When I ask workshop participants why they choose Apple they’re often unable to offer a rational justification that survives scrutiny. It’s just that Apple probably connects with its customer base like no other brand.

And the most interesting point isn’t merely that so many people choose Apple: it’s that they choose Apple and pay a premium price. Little wonder that the company became the first in history to boast a market capitalisation of a trillion dollars.

This is perhaps the ultimate illustration of how emotional content can contribute to success. There’s only one Apple, of course, but the fact is that every business – particularly those that are new, small and determined to grow – can benefit from encouraging a certain “feel” or “connection” among its customers.

Like Bruce Lee’s advice to his struggling pupil, the key lesson is simple enough to absorb. Don’t think of it as style over substance: think of it as style supporting substance.

David Falzani MBE is an Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.