THE BLOG
01/29/2015 05:18 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Follow the Feels

As I look back on 2014's veritable non sequitur of brands behaving badly and inexplicably across the digital and social presences they invested heavily in creating, I must say: I am feeling optimistic.

It's not because the missteps--and there were many--were not complete communications fails on all levels.

They were.

And it's not because I think that all brands, and the brand managers and communications professionals they employ, have sobered up and recognized the corrosive dangers of discursive, disorganized and discordant messaging.

They haven't.

We should have seen it coming. After it became clear, through the rapid migration to global, digital publishing platforms, that brands would now be responsible for the daily curation and creation of content on volatile communications outlets that offered stakeholders an equal role, obviously we were in for a real monkey's tea party. That was 2014.

And so, in retrospect--after the hot shock of watching brands publishing everything from amateur pornography to executive meltdowns has had time to cool--the chaos is understandable.

I am feeling hopeful because I see a pattern emerging--a trajectory of engagement that is truly encouraging.

Because what comes next--what often follows chaos--is something we can all deeply look forward to and appreciate. And that is connection.

Connection is what all the innovation was supposed to be about--and for. But we as marketers have a tendency to become mesmerized by shiny objects. In this case, the speed and reach of social and digital media and the host of outlets, metrics and analytics that coalesce around it. Many got distracted by what they could do and lost sight of what they should do.

In that mesmerizing process, many brands mistook connectivity for connection.

This central misunderstanding gave rise to a lot of--I believe the technical term is--crap. Bad strategy, or no strategy at all: Clickbait, gimmicks, tricks, lurid images and messages designed--either consciously or not--to trigger the compulsive response of the reptilian stems of our brains.

In the crowded, rapid digital space, some believed the most we could hope for was fight or flight.

Often, the result was recognition all right: Several brands became viral laughingstocks. But the true connection that forms the foundation of all great positioning? That proved to be far more elusive.

That said, we are moving on and beyond. Pause for a sigh of relief.

More and more brands are coming to realize that we are, lo and behold, not reptiles. We are mammals--highly social animals that respond deeply to each other. Now, it is not about going viral. It is about going emotional.

As a result, smart brands are following the feels. That's short for "the feelings": The sudden, uncontrollable, unexpected emotional response--usually to something sad, funny or touching--that allows people to suspend disbelief and skepticism and be momentarily transported to a place of pure connection. This is where digital shines.

Far from being just another stakeholder touch point, digital platforms--social via mobile in particular--have become a very prominent and intimate part of people's lives. Recognizing and embracing this reality opens up an extraordinary wealth of interesting, powerful, creative possibilities.

And the game changer--the most powerful connector of these emotional dots? Visual engagement, often catalyzed by film and video as delivered through mobile devices. The medium has not lost its ability to bridge from rational to emotional with the seamlessness and efficiency of a dream state. And now, that ability is amplified exponentially through the efficiency of mobile and the relevance of social.

More than ever before, brands have the opportunity to harness the power of great creativity and insight and deliver it with deep intimacy and immediacy. There is now the possibility to form true brand-consumer communities, as content is shared individually and communally, from one close relationship to another.

This central realization is bound to change the way brands communicate. Whether through humor or pathos, reason or sentimentality, brands and agencies that are willing to be boldly and unabashedly original and creative--who stretch the possibilities of narrative, and marry it to the incredible proficiency and accuracy of aligned visual digital engagement--will find themselves experiencing a year like no other.

Not only will these brands forge stronger connections than ever before possible--they will also rocket past those still blinded by outdated, self-defeating patterns of chaos creation. As they do, they will invariably show--and lead--the clear way forward.