Resonance vs Relevance

Resonance vs Relevance. Two Concepts for Planners.

It's mysterious how words used to describe what we aim for in planning can change planning itself. Normally we think that there's "reality" which we deal with but very often there are just terms and concepts. Like e.g. "relevance" and "resonance". Let's dig deeper into that.

Resonance is a concept widely accepted in the Anglo-Saxon advertising community. Less so e.g. in Germany. The word "relevance" here in Germany is used all the time. "Resonance" hardly ever. This is quite revealing, but the cross-cultural thing isn't the main point.

What's the difference between those two terms? They both point towards the impact power of a communication that "presses the right buttons". But what's the difference between them?

Let's take a look at the syntax that goes with them. We say "relevant to" or "relevant for" - but we say "it resonates with". So it's "for" vs "with". Basically, that's it. That's the difference. Let me explain why.

Relevance is instrumental. No, not the opposite of acapella:) Instrumental in the sense of usefulness for some sort of action or goal. There is no relevance per se. There's only relevance in relation to something a specific person in a specific intentional state aiming for. E.g. good tyre grip is relevant for safety and sportivity, less so for self expression of the driver. Which driver? Right, for car enthusiasts good grip - on the contrary - might be relevant for self-expression when meeting other enthusiasts for a chat about cars. (This is why all those questioannaires asking all sorts of people about "how relevant is this or that for you?" - IN GENERAL - don't make much sense.)
So, relevance is instrumentality related to something on a higher level. Something is important because it's connected to something bigger that is important. Basically, when something is relevant you could ask "what for"?

It's different with resonance. We say "resonate with something". There's no direct expression of beeing "good for...". Resonance is much broader than that. Relevance could be one sort of resonance - a utalitarian one - but there could be other ones. Resonance with cultural preferences, with matters of style, with shared beliefs, with shared dislikes, with memories etc. Resonance as a communication outcome could be even simply about liking. Resonance is more about brands as communicators and less about products as relevant offerings. A product can have relevant features but you would hardly say that the feature resonates with the audience.

Resonance is a musical term. It's also about physics, but specifically physics of waves, e.g. soundwaves. The phenomenon of wave resonance in music is about causing a wave movement in an object by eliciting the right wave frequency with an other object. It leaves you swinging in its wave. Relevance doesn't do that.

What's interesting in practical terms for planners is that you need to find the right frequency, the right chord. I think there are two sorts of such frequencies or wavelenghts. The ones most people resonate with when it comes to a certain field in life. Those are the values and meanings that are widely used and seen as a must have chord to be played. "It's all about you", "wholesome food", "naturalness", "self-expression" all that canonical things considered "right and good" in a given era. And then there are frequencies that cause new, more striking resonances. They do so because they don't re-resonate the "safe" wavelengths that are already swinging in the audience but hope to have found one that is not in their repertoire, yet. OK, that's nothing new - this seems to be about differentiation. But it's more helpful than just that: it shows us where to look for a differentiating frequency to resonate to. Watch out for slight dissonances and tensions between resonances, look into margnal (subcultural) resonances on their way to become dominant ones, resonances in other cultures, and also changes in wavelenghts over time, and most of all into your own brand and it's own "wavelength"!

Let me explain the dissonance thing. Dissonances appear when there are negative "vibes" when you strike a chord. They might come from negative connotations or from conflicts (interferences) between different "waves". An example is Saturn's "Geiz ist geil". Another example? If you look into what's resonating in the airline industry it's clearly the chords of "personal, caring service", "ease & comfort", "big, global network" and "simple and affordable". And it works actually. The problem is: it works for every brand. Let's look into a certain brand and the dissonances caused by it's origin and heritage. The brand i talk about is Lufthansa. It delivers all of the stuff above and it talks about it - just like everybody else. But the dissonance with Lufthansa is that they are German - i.e. cold, unemotional, pricise but like a machine. Here you go: you've found something. It strikes a dissonant chord. It resonates - dissonantly. Now the job is to arrange this wavelength in a way that people resonate more positively with it. Not by striking the common safe chords, but to find Lufthansa's own, resonating wavelength based in thier Germanness. Is Germanness relevant in the market? Doesn't matter here: it's more about resonance, not relevance for a brand.

The Mechanisms behind Emotional Propositions in Advertising

There's a strong tendency - esp. in the Anglo-Saxon world of advertising - to favour extrinsic, emotive propositions over intrinsic, product driven ones.

To clarify what I mean, here's one first example: BMW is all about "Joy ( life)" as an extrinsic, emotive proposition, Mercedes claim "The best or nothing" which is far more intrinsic and product/usage driven. While such wide umbrella brands tend to overarch their diverse products with very broad - thus most of the times emotive - concepts, the difference between emotive vs product/usage driven is more striking on product level or for very lean brand portfolios. Gatorade could be about enhanced performance in sports or about the spirit of perseverance in sports. The latter would be an emotional proposition. Coke Zero in Europe dramatises "Life as it should be" rather than the product related "Real Taste, Zero Sugar - (as it should be)".

Now, we all learned for decades that since products don't differ on product level any longer they must become differentiated on an extrinsic, emotional level. This is the sensible widely accepted thinking and - honestly - there would be little to do for (classical) planning if there was no quest for the emotive lever. Yes, it's true that there's often no alternative to that - e.g. because there's no other differentiator or because you are looking for an overarching idea for a whole portfolio of products. But still, sometimes I just don't fully understand how this actually is supposed to WORK - I mean how this influences purchase behaviour.

People would hardly really believe that Coke Zero delivers on their promise of a perfect life as it should be. I would also assume that they don't really seek for "perfect life in a bottle". The usual answer to that is: "well, people are not that rational, things work beyond ratio". Absolutely - but how does this actually work? "Beyond ratio" is not an explanation, nor is it a sufficient description.

Here are some scenarios how emotive propositions, or say brand ideologies might work:

A) they deliver a noteworthy and legitimate "Reason-to-talk to consumers" - you could pick any plausible and entertaining "story" to be heard and seen
B) they imply certain purchase relevant attributes on product level
C) they just increase the likability of or the respect for the brand - it's cool that the brand tells such a "story"
D) they deliver an emotional post-justification for a purchase - a good feeling IN ADDITION and maybe AFTER having chosen something
F) they become real reasons-to-buy - people buy the product in order to gain the promised emotional benefits (= often unlikely)

Most clients - and agencies - seem to assume it's F) that is at work. And it is in lots of cases. E.g. Smokers do buy cigarettes in order to "inhale" a certain lifestyle. But the problem is that promising all sorts of life- and self- improvements is often an extreme overpromise - causing even reactances. This is often apologised by saying "that's advertising. It's about exaggeration". Well, it depends...
Let's take a look at Coke Zero again: it does not really have to differentiate itself emotionally from equal competitors. There's only one Coke Taste with zero sugar. So why sell it as an enabler of a perfect life? Were emotive propositions not just a way out of the factual parity on product level - as e.g. In the cigarettes market?

It seems to me that we tend to believe that emotional propositions are per se "stronger" than product-level ones. They are considered the standard procedure of "proper" brand leadership. But this simply can't be always true! Product related cognitions are stronger at the shelf than vague emotional tendencies for most of the advertised categories.

This is why I would think that for product advertising scenario B) is the most likely and practicable one. The emotive proposition here would be the nice, enhancing packaging for clear and purchase relevant product or usage attributes. On the other hand sometimes ads explain too much of the emotional benefits of features; people could feel patronised by the brands "instructions" how tu enjoy and value those features. E.g. Insurance companies constantly "explain", how financial safety contributes to life quality when you are old. But really, they don't have to explain that - it's banal.

So there's a thin line between strong, relevant emotional propositions on the one hand and blunt overpromising on the other. It's defintely not true that "emotionalising" a brand is the best way to improve clout. If done without a real insight it's a good way to diminish brand appeal. Sometimes the results of such "emotionalising" attempts are typical ad bullshit and consumers feel that.
And there's a not quite thin line to be crossed between emotive claims and consumer's actual purchase and usage behaviour. Maybe the effect of emotional propositions on purchase behavior is an indirect one. This would change the way we discuss them in client meetings.