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Getting Emotional with Thought Leadership | Christopher Brace

Getting emotional with Thought Leadership | Christopher Brace

Injecting emotion into thought leadership to engage and inspire.

An interview with Christopher Brace about creating emotional connections that allow brands to tell stories and inspire others to action.

Today’s guest is Christopher Brace, a global executive successful at building highly effective integrated marketing teams across complex organizations to drive awareness and product sales.

We start our conversation off by discussing how you can emotionally bond customers to a brand of consumer product. These same techniques are used to create an emotional connection to an idea.

Connecting Stories to Brand

Christopher shares how he gets his customers to tell the stories that connect them to a brand. Next, he explains how he is able to fast track focus groups to get to the emotional core. Afterwards, Christopher reveals how the information can tell a story that can inspire and ultimately alter behavior.

It takes more than simply getting people emotional to create loyalty. First, you need to dislodge customers from old ideas before they’ll accept the new ones. Christopher walks us through that process. In addition, he discusses why you should be careful to avoid changing too many behaviors at one time or you risk people digging in and not budging at all.

Finally, this episode is a fascinating look at how emotion can rule our choices over rational thinking. It shows how thought leaders can use that for a positive change!

Three Key Takeaways

  • Thought leadership that connects on an emotion level allows you to engage people in your brand’s story and inspire them to action.
  • Research into what clients like or dislike about your thought leadership content must move beyond rational thinking. It should delve into the emotional realm where we make our choices.
  • The average person is only capable of changing three behaviors at a time. To avoid clients resisting change, ensure your thought leadership does not attempt to change many habits too quickly.

Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.

And if you need help scaling organizational thought leadership, contact Thought Leadership Leverage!



Bill Sherman Hello. You’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership, I’m your host, Bill Sherman. And today we’re talking about organizational thought leadership, the process of creating, curating and deploying thought leadership on behalf of your organization. How do you get someone to embrace your idea and make it their own? Well, classic consumer packaged good marketers have wrestled with this question for over a century. How do you create an emotional connection between a product such as a brand of bleach and your consumers? Today, I invited Christopher Brace to join me for a conversation about creating emotional connections. Christopher has spent his career in the marketing ad agency world, working on projects for global food and packaged good brands. Christopher and I have been having a conversation about emotional meaning for over a year. Specifically, I want to ask him what thought leadership practitioners can learn about creating emotional meaning for their ideas so that they can activate their target audiences. Ready? let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Chris.

Christopher Brace Bill, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Bill Sherman So let’s dive into a conversation. You and I have been having for over a year now about the relationship between thought, leadership and marketing, specifically in the process of creating emotional engagement. You want to talk a little bit about your world from marketing and marketing strategy and where you come from on this point of view to help set the audience’s expectations.

Christopher Brace Yeah. So, you know, most of my career, in fact, all my career has really been spent in consumer-packaged goods, mostly fast moving consumer packaged goods. And we have always a big topic of discussion is how do you bond consumers to the brand emotionally. emotional bonding is a very simple human thing, right? We are emotional creatures, and in fact, if you look at neuroscience and sociology and anthropology, we react most, you know, we react emotionally first to things. In fact, studies have shown that when we are presented with a decision or a choice, it is our emotional wiring that actually triggers first, then our logic and reasoning wiring. OK, so you just start from there, and that’s a simple human truth. We can’t even really argue it. It’s scientifically proven to be true. So if we are to start from that fact, then would it not make sense that brands should first strive to connect with people emotionally? Because once you connect with people emotionally, you’re in the perfect position to then engage them in your brand story so you can then inspire them to take some type of action. And if you continue to do those three things connect, engage, inspire, what you’re going to do over time is you’re going to emotionally bond the consumer to your brand.

Bill Sherman So, here’s where I want to jump in on this and make the connection between the two, I think then you and I have teased this out before, but the relationship between connecting Gage and Inspire for the package of bleach that’s sitting on the shelf or the fabric softener is strangely related to the process of connecting, engaging, and inspiring for ideas. And this is one of the things that on the surface, they seem like they’re in different worlds, but they’re much closer, right? Because if you’re trying to practice thought leadership and get someone to become. Activated on an idea, you first need to connect with them because it’s a noisy world, and if they’re not paying attention, guess what, your idea, whatever it is, flew past on that LinkedIn screen or they saw your 50-page white paper. And what? Yeah, right? Not reading that they made that three second decision and moved on.

Christopher Brace So –

Bill Sherman Go ahead. Go ahead. Sorry.

Christopher Brace No, jump at. Exactly. So if any, if any consumer packaged goods marketers are listening to this podcast and they say, you know, I’m sorry, I don’t agree. Actually, I think that bonding between a brand and an idea are very different. So I thought leadership ideas are very different. And if that is what’s being said, I would challenge people to think that when I say connects people to a brand, I don’t mean connects people to the product of bleach. What I mean is if that brand of bleach does not have a higher, bigger idea, then I don’t care if we want to call that brand purpose, brand vision, social response, whatever label you want to give it. People are not going to emotionally bond to a bottle of bleach unless that brand has a bigger emotional idea that is a reflection of my self-identity. I would argue it’s the exact same thing for thought leadership idea, right? It’s an idea. There is nothing concrete there yet. So the only thing I can bond to is the idea. And if the idea is not in some way a self reflection of my emotional being, I’m going to struggle with that idea.

Bill Sherman Well, and on the thought leadership side, one of the things that I often talk about is relevance. Someone has to counter your idea and recognize that it’s relevant to something that they care about, that they value their perception of themselves, the world, etc. It is much harder to engage someone with an idea where they have no connection point. You have to find that way in that it has that initial plug in. Otherwise, it’s just abstract.

Christopher Brace I remember years ago I was in a new business meeting and these guys were developing a kind of online concierge digital concierge service for buildings in New York. And they said, Oh, you know, we went to this conference and Marc Benioff of spoke and he spoke for 40 minutes. I had no idea who he was. I didn’t even know what his company did. But at the end of that 40 minutes, I had a bot. Whatever it was, he was selling me. And so I asked these guys, Well, why did you think that was all? He convinced us that what he was talking about was right? And I said, Well, what if he actually tapped into something you already believed to be true before you even walked into that room? What he did is he struck an emotional resonance with you, and that’s why he had you eating out of the palm of his hand. That’s what I imagine we need to do and thought leadership, and it’s the exact same thing that any brand needs to do trying to create a bond with our consumer.

Bill Sherman Let’s dig a little bit deeper. We’ve used the bottle of bleach as an example from a marketing perspective of building that relevance, that resonance, that connection, which we’ve talked about, is that first step. How do you do that? And and what could have thought leadership practitioner learn from the world of CPG?

Christopher Brace So I think this is probably one of the biggest struggles brands have, which is how do I understand what that deeper, emotionally resonant story is that my brand can tell? So we’re going to go in a little bit of a different direction here because I’m going to I’m going to talk a little bit about the word story. I’m actually right now working on a new project, and I’m doing a ton of reading and academic studies about the importance of stories intergenerationally across families and how vitally important they are, and creating a very strong sense of not only self-identity, but identity for the family. And so if a brand wants to understand what is that deeper, emotionally resonant story, what you need to do is you need to talk to your consumers and get them to tell you. The story is that they have that are related to the different emotional territories that that brand owns or sits in. And most research is, and brand people know what those emotional territories are. But what we often do is when we research, we research the surface of that rather than researching the depth of it. And it is the depth of it. That’s where that emotionally resonant story sits. And I think the reason that we do this is because we focus too much on the product rather than the bigger emotional idea that sits above it. And I think it’s too few brands know what this is.

Bill Sherman So let’s unpack that a little bit and let’s stay using sort of the CPG world. The focus group. As an example, I can imagine plenty of focus group conversations where you sit up on top and you’re talking about different brand promises or packaging or positioning and that sort of thing. How do you focus group or not go after getting someone to tell you the stories that aligned to that territory? How do you draw them out? What sort of questions do you ask and in what environment? Because it almost sounds anthropological in nature.

Christopher Brace It is. It is, absolutely. And that’s a great way of saying it. While the process that we use and it was a research methodology that I kind of created and evolved over time is what we call it, facilitated storytelling. And basically, we don’t do it in a focus group because I read this study years ago is to really smart women did a study and they said that it takes an average of twenty two minutes of the typical what I would call facilitated dialog in a typical qualitative setting where the moderator asks the question, there’s some discussion, the ask probing questions, and then you get on to the next question. In that setting, it takes an average of twenty two minutes for any one person to actually get beyond their conscious rationalized explanation and then get down into the deeper emotional territory. So what we need to do is we need any type of research methodology that skips the first twenty two minutes and gets right to minute twenty three. And the best way to do that, I found, is by engaging people in telling stories about their lives. You know, sociology and anthropology has taught us that people reveal their non-conscious emotional truths through the stories they tell about their lives. So really, it’s a matter of how do you ask the right questions to get the right stories? And then how do you listen with that storytelling ear to understand what is that story telling me about them?

Bill Sherman So can you give me an example that opens that up a little bit more and fleshes it out?

Christopher Brace Yeah. I mean, we did a I’m going to use I’m going to use Serta Simmons bedding because I know you interviewed Melanie Hewitt and I worked with her on on their brands and the questions. The fundamental question was how do we sell something more than a mattress? And if there is something more than a mattress, what is that?

Bill Sherman So the matter is, you think of it in many ways as a commodity, right?

Christopher Brace Yes, exactly. I mean, and when you look at the competitive analysis it is, they all say exactly the same thing and they use the same terminology and it’s all very confusing and it’s very hard for consumers to sort through it. But there’s I mean, you think about this. What do we spend a third of our life a third of every day doing sleeping, so it’s pretty important. So there is an immense amount of stuff to talk about there. So what we did is we actually did qualitative research, but where we interviewed people in friendship die ads. So these are two people who have a very close emotional relationship. What that does is it allows them to be much more vulnerable and honest, and you get such deeper research results. And what you well, you know, what we did is we talked about things like, so I want you to think back in the past two to three months when you woke up feeling great and you were ready to tackle whatever you had to tackle that day shouldn’t be a special occasion, not a wedding or anything like that. Just it was an everyday, Monday through Friday. You had to go to work. You woke up and feeling really great and then you just now. Tell me about that experience. What did it mean for you? How did the people around you react to you, your significant other, your kids, your coworkers, your boss, whatever it might be? And it’s amazing what you find. People observe very deep things about themselves as they tell those stories. And then really, once they tell the story, the role that the story plays is it makes it opens them up emotionally. It makes them vulnerable. So then the researcher can start asking those questions that you really want to start asking at many minute twenty three, not minute one through twenty two, but minute twenty three. And that’s when they reveal all the goal.

Bill Sherman If you are enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about the podcast, please leave a five-star review and share it with your friends. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all major platforms, as well as at Leveraging Thought Leadership dot com.

Bill Sherman And here’s one of the things that I think about leadership falls into a trap even more often is when you’re sharing an idea you’re actively going after. In many cases, that rational, logical thinking framing, you’re activating that rather than the story and the emotional state. And so you have to as you’re thinking about how you’re going to communicate the idea, consciously make a choice to be in a storytelling mode rather than a logical. Here’s the information. Here’s the data. Here’s the statistic here’s what you should do.

Christopher Brace So when I was running my consulting firm, this was I think my one of my biggest weaknesses was if I had a really great new process that I felt brands could benefit from. What I struggled with was. How much to talk about the process versus how much to talk about the story of the vision for what this is going to mean for that vice president on that brand? Right. And the process is the logical, rational aspect of it. But the vision for the future is the storytelling aspect of it. And that was what I I just, you know, just to be honest about my self-reflective, that was the one thing I just never really nailed, right? But that’s what’s so important. And again, I think in thought leadership that is so important because thought leaders have to sell other people on their vision of what the future is going to be.

Bill Sherman And that sale, at least from a thought leadership side, typically takes more than one touchpoint, which may be different than the experience in CPG, where someone goes into the store knowing they’re buying soup or they’re buying bleach. And it’s a matter of which brand am I picking up? Right? They’ve got a generic list of items, eggs, et cetera, that they’re purchasing.

Christopher Brace Well, yes and no, it depends on the situation, right, like if I’m a loyal Clorox -.

Bill Sherman Right, right, and push back on me on that because there’s a nuance there that I – go for it.

Christopher Brace You know, if I’m a loyal Clorox bleach buyer, you’re never going to, you know, I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to get me to buy your brand. Now, if I am a category switcher, OK, now I’m a free agent, so you may have the opportunity to alter my behavior and get me to buy you more often. And who knows if you know how to do it right? Maybe I’ll maybe I’ll stop being a categories friend switcher and become loyal to your brand. Right? But in that situation, you have to connect with me, emotionally engaged me in the version of the brand story that is going to alter my behavior. So you can then inspire me. Sorry. The part of the brand story that is going to alter my emotional perception of your brand that is then going to inspire me to change my behavior. Right. I would say in the field of thought leadership, you’re still doing exactly the same thing when you go in and you’re selling an idea, you first have to help people overcome their perceptions of the old ideas and say, OK, what I want you to do is in that in the business of being an idea category brand switcher, I now want you to switch your old idea with this new thought leadership idea because this is the true vision of the future, but you have to dislodge them from the old in order to get them to accept the new.

Bill Sherman And with that, going back to your point on Clorox, for example, as a bleach, right, as a brand loyal consumer, that position isn’t earned with one touch point. It takes time to develop that relationship to become the established incumbent. So if you’re trying to disrupt the incumbent, whether it’s a brand of product or an idea, you need to know what stories have already been told and sold because that gives you a sense of where the opportunity to connect is, as well as what story people have connected with.

Christopher Brace Yeah, I think that’s very well put. Yeah, I think that’s very well put. And again, it comes down to story, right? It comes down to story. Benjamin Franklin said, I don’t I don’t say this quote very eloquently, but you cannot rationalize someone out of an idea they were emotionally sold into. Meaning if I’ve bought into something emotionally, you’re not going to bullet point me out of it.

Bill Sherman Absolutely. I think the piece there is that rational argumentation that we often go and it’s I have the data that proves it. It’s the right thing to do. Those data based ethical appeals are good on their own, but they only take the listener or the audience so far in that process of swaying them.

Christopher Brace And it’s also it makes me think of an experience that I had with VP of strategy at a company, and we had had three different hour-long meetings with him. And then finally, at the end of this third session with him, he said, Look, I get it. Your process much better than ours. This solves my problem. Except by bringing you in, it creates even more problems, so you have to understand the implicit versus the explicit. So and oftentimes it’s the kind of unstated hurdles that are the more emotional ones that are the hardest ones to overcome. And again, that’s where I think to your point, earlier understanding what are the stories that have been told and what are the stories that actually haven’t been expressed because those are the ones that usually turn out to be the deadliest?

Bill Sherman Say a little bit more on that? Of stories that haven’t been expressed. What do you think?

Christopher Brace Well, so basically in this story, what this VP of strategy then revealed is, look, you’ve shown me PowerPoint, PowerPoint, presentation and slides and bullet points, and I get the process and I see the benefit of it, said. But here’s what you don’t understand. If I bring you to the table. With all of my agency partners, you’re now another voice at the table. You are now going to be viewed as a threat to the other agencies at the table. So if I work with you, I am creating a political nightmare for myself and explaining why you’re here and why the other agencies weren’t why, why you’re here and the other agencies are going to want to know that they’re going to see you as a threat. So –

Bill Sherman The better mousetrap wasn’t necessarily the solution that he could embrace.

Christopher Brace Right, exactly.

Bill Sherman Instead, it was a better idea. He acknowledged it was a better idea, but couldn’t act on it.

Christopher Brace Yeah, exactly. See it now. Had he actually said that, say a meeting one or meeting two, I might have been able to counteract that in meeting three. But it but he didn’t. It didn’t come out until the very end. And then at that point, you know, there wasn’t – there was no – there was no place to go from there.

Bill Sherman So in terms of, again, moving back to CPG, how do you unearth unvoiced stories? How do you do that within a consumer group? How do you get those stories to emerge?

Christopher Brace Well, I think I think, you know, when you are a consulting firm, when you’re an agency partner, you have to consumers, you have your actual clients. Mm-Hmm. But then you have there the consumers of the brands. And so you have to understand, how do you sell the client, right? That’s the B2B part, right? This is why it’s interesting, always. It’s interesting being a b to B, B to C when you’re an agency in a consulting firm, that’s in essence what you are. So first, you have to sell your vision for the future to the – through the B to B, then help the brand with their B to C side of the formula. Right. So that is and how you do, those two things are quite different.

Bill Sherman Well, and this goes into something specific that relates to thought leadership. Often you have to influence people for should carry an idea where they are not the end user that needs to embrace the idea. They are someone who they become an ally who opens a door. They become an ambassador who speaks the idea on your behalf and you need them to reach someone else with the idea. And so that working through intermediaries adds on to the complexity of all of this.

Christopher Brace Yeah. And it requires I mean, certainly when you’re when you’re talking about thought leadership, thought leadership typically requires a fair amount of organizational shifts and organizational shift scarce people. They don’t. Yes. They find that very it’s terrifying for them. And I don’t care how many times you tell them, Oh, no, I mean, there’s, you know, there’s really simple ways to do this. They have to they recall too many horror stories in their in their work experience of where these types of things have gone awry. And so it’s hard to overcome that. But I won’t just share this kind of funny little thing I learned and I always found. The super interesting is that we, as human beings, can only really manage changing about three to five key behaviors at any one time. In fact, I would just say three, and when I look back in my experience where any company that I worked for decided we’re going to execute something new, write a new thought leadership idea. We had to change all the key behaviors, all at one time, which is why it failed every single time. So I think that’s, you know, when it comes to helping clients understand, well, here’s how you activate the thought leadership idea. One thing to think about is what are the first three key behaviors that need to change and only focus on? Those don’t go anything beyond three.

Bill Sherman And I think that’s a really good point to dwell on is that often thought leadership has to focus. You may see a future around the corner that you want everybody to go to, but you can’t pull them there overnight. You have to give them small, actionable steps that will take them towards that future. And what can they do today if you overwhelm them? They’re going to paralyze. They’ll just dig in their heels or they’ll walk away. And so part of the art of thought leadership is not only seeing the future, but the art of persuasion.

Christopher Brace So here’s a question for you.

Bill Sherman OK.

Christopher Brace In your experience of working with companies and thought leadership, how long do you feel it takes an organization to embed culturally embed that idea into the organization? And let me just say what I mean by culturally embedding is, is that people are so comfortable with the idea they begin to, they can start improvising on that idea.

Bill Sherman So it depends on the topic and the piece of thought leadership that you’re working on. It depends. I would say your average is probably 12 to 18 months if it is something new. OK, if it is totally new for people to own it, to absorb it and say this is the future. And that’s why you can’t rush it. You have to build those actionable steps. The way that I use as a visual metaphor is you’re building a bridge across a span between today and the future. Even in thought leadership, you spent all of your time thinking in the world of the future. You’re standing on that far edge of the bridge. You’re instinctive response when you try to connect with people is to show them the end of the bridge, which is the first step for you, which is the furthest step from them. And so you have to put that circuit interrupt in and recognize that when you go to people and you say, here’s the future, here’s how we prepare for it. You have to start with the steps that are closest to them. Otherwise, you get the fear. You get the hesitation, you get tuned out.

Christopher Brace I love that. That – I will. I will take that bridge image with me forever.

Christopher Brace Wonderful. So, Chris, before we wrap up any other advice from the world of marketing and packaged goods, that might be a useful insight, something that a head of thought leadership or a thought leadership practitioner might need to know or might learn from the world of marketing. What’s a trick you could teach?

Christopher Brace Well. I mean, just to build off of what we just talked about, timeline timing, right? When you were, you said 12 to 18 months, that to me, this a little bit surprising in my world because I think in consumer packaged goods organizations, it’s about two to three years, OK? And I think a lot of that is because we as brand marketers have just been so entrenched in that very traditional Acre, you know, Northwestern Graduate School of Business, way of brand building that we have a hard time. We have a really hard time moving our way out of that. And it’s a very, very slow evolution to really kind of accept and embed something to the point where, like I said, people can really start using it and improvising with it. So I would say, though, I think for me, the biggest thing that I really have started using with clients and even in my own work is that really that’s that three key behavior number. What happens is that we say, Oh, we’re going to put you in a three day training class and we’re going to roll this out. And then you expect people to go back to their desk on day four and just go, poof. It doesn’t happen, you know? But what happens is they get back there now. They’re now three days behind in their work. What are they going to do? They’re going to revert back to the most efficient, easiest way to do just go right back. So all that three days of learning just goes right out the door.

Bill Sherman So what? We’re going to need to wrap up here. I want to thank you for joining us today.

Christopher Brace This was very enjoyable, Bill, I always enjoy our discussions, they’re usually very full and fast.

Bill Sherman If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please join our LinkedIn group organizational thought leadership. It’s a professional community where thought leadership practitioners talk shop about our field. So if you’re someone who creates, curates or deploys thought leadership for your organization, then please join the conversation in the organizational thought leadership on LinkedIn.


Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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