Laying claim to our emotions: BMW targets joy

The recent BMW ad entitled ‘Joy’ and narrated by Patrick Stewart states that “BMW makes Joy”. The unique and individual nature of joy makes this statement difficult to believe. This ad is a good example of how companies are getting it wrong as they scramble to position themselves in the new “Experience Economy”.

The general theme of the ad is good: “We realised a long time ago, that what you make people feel is just as important as what you make.” It is also visually beautiful and plays well to BMW’s already extensive brand collateral. However, the editorial – particularly the line ‘BMW makes joy’ – does seem disconnected with this new economy and what we know about human behaviour.

Driving can bring joy, but the experience doesn’t end there. It’s a myriad of things that contribute, like the road, where you are, who you’re with, where you are going or have come from and what you’re listening to, to name but a few. Products don’t make experiences without context. Context means how the product fits into people’s lives and how it makes them feel.

Showing a good understanding of people, car manufacturers spend a lot of time designing the driver’s door handle and gear stick of their cars. Why? Because they’ve recognised that the impression left by the first touch is critical in forming opinion. Showing less understanding of people, this ad targets the emotion of joy in an attempt to re-market BMW.

The Experience Economy marks a switch from mass and segment marketing to a focus on the individual and what matters to them. It’s surprising that a claim to commoditise joy, which is a fleeting, individual and an elusive sensation, is made at this time. If we were to believe that BMW makes joy, then to whom do we go to for truth, enlightenment or wonder?

BMW attempts to commoditise joy in the hope of connecting emotionally with potential customers. Many companies are struggling to connect with people as they change their focus away from ‘what they do’ to ‘why they do it’. Even more difficult to believe is British Petroleum (BP). This company want us to believe that it “contributes to a better quality of life” as it struggles to stop the flood of oil into the US Gulf of Mexico.

In this new economy, innovative companies like Apple are dominating. Apple delivers the sensation of freedom, beauty and wonder through the iPod and iPhone, without explicitly laying claim to these emotions. As Jared Spool points out in “Innovation is the new black”, Apple’s true genius is not the iPod but instead it’s the experience of using the iPod, iTunes and going into an Apple store. The marketing of iPod focused on the ‘coolness’ of the device. Apple made people believe that having one would make them more accepted among their peers. They appealed to our sense of cool but did not tell us what to feel. They let the product do the talking.

Apple, and others flourishing in this economy, know that there is a disconnect between what you tell people to feel and how they feel. Simon Sinek brilliantly explains the biology (not psychology) behind this disconnect in his TED talk on “How great leaders inspire action“. He highlights that in this economy, people don’t buy ‘what you do’ or ‘how you do it’; they buy ‘why you do it’. Sinek states that our emotions are controlled by a part of the brain called the limbic brain, which is responsible for feelings, human behaviour and all decision making, but has no capacity for language. The neocortex is the part of the brain that deals with language. Hence, using language to appeal to our emotions is not straightforward.

We have a rich and colourful vocabulary to describe this disconnect:

  • Words can’t describe
  • Speechless
  • Tongue-tied
  • Lost for words
  • Not feeling it

All these terms are used when we simply haven’t the words to describe how we feel. They are needed because the part of the brain driving this feeling has no capacity for language, hence lost for words. In reverse, trying to plant words like joy in this part of the brain in the hope of eliciting an emotion, simply doesn’t work. This is where the ‘Joy’ ad falls flat.

So, what should BMW have done? They could take stock of the extensive brand collateral already existing. As the ad visually demonstrates, just owning a BMW causes a sense of validation and accomplishment for many people. These are important emotions in any economy. Good or bad, people’s experiences of a product or a site, which includes the context of use, will decide how they feel. No amount of marketing or telling them how they should feel will change this behaviour. For BMW, just let the cars do the talking and chances are they will get the joy they are looking for.

For other companies? Accept that biologically, people’s emotions can’t be easily claimed using words. Remember that emotions like frustration, and even anger, are the easier to make people feel through poor design and user experience. Ensure products and sites cause no such emotions. Listen and observe users to know when, where and why frustration could occur. It’s at these points, or ‘moments of truth’, where excellence in design needs to be assured.

For now, no joy BMW, but great heritage and cars.

Posted Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 under brand, User Experience Design, UX.


  1. Show me an ad that claims the product makes joy, and I’ll show you a marketing agency with a lack of respect for the viewer.

    Ditto for the brand.

  2. Thank you Alan
    This is probably one of most intelligent and well referenced postings I read in a long while.
    You explain very clearly how Apple communicate their brand values by simply demonstrating their products. They do this in their advertising, their website, instruction manuals and even Steve Jobs has the formula perfected in his now famous product launches. The consumers are left working out how that makes them feel. Its a truly co-created brand.

    It never ceases to amaze me how manufacturers and marketing directors get swept along by their ad agency’s oh-so-clever ‘creative’ idea for promoting a product without understanding truly who, and how, people are going to use it and importantly why we should care.
    A recent example is the Christmas advert for Amazon Kindle. A Peter Gabrielle Sledgehammer video styled advert (I know I’m showing my age) showing a young couple fishing Kindles out of pond and looking happy. Fortunately for Amazon I recognised the devise. I asked my wife whether she knew what the advert was selling before the logo was put up at the end – she had no idea and was still none the wiser after it was. Amazon completely failed to connect with my wife who is professional writer, an avid reader of books and regular Amazon shopper. Ooops!

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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