Navigating emotions: Sensitive or taboo subjects in brand experiences

How can brands and brand experience agencies navigate the complexities of their customers emotions? Cat Botibol, creative chief at agency pd3 gives her tips.

pd3 worked with Save the Children to create 'Forced to Flee'
pd3 worked with Save the Children to create 'Forced to Flee'

Experiences define our views on life, our belief systems and the way that we choose to behave in the world. As such, a well-crafted experience can be the most powerful and effective way to positively change the way that people feel about your brand, your product, your beliefs or your cause. 

But with power, as always, comes responsibility.

As experience creators, we have a responsibility to ensure that this powerful tool is used with an awareness and understanding of the impact that we can have on the world. We have a core responsibility to our audiences - to develop that emotional connection between them, the brand, the product and the cause, and to make sure that they leave feeling something different to when they arrived. Often with taboo or sensitive subjects you will be telling the story of other living beings; with that comes a dual-responsibility to audience and contributor, with both sets of emotions to consider.

At Pd3, we’ve recently worked with Save the Children to create Forced to Flee, an experience that empowers audiences to take action to help refugee children. And with the Terrence Higgins Trust to create It Starts With Me, a campaign that is driving people to take action in preventing the spread of HIV. From our learnings through creating these experiences, here are 3 practical tips to help navigate the emotional landscape when working with a sensitive or taboo subject matter.

Script your audience's emotional journey

Ask yourself, what is the one emotion that you want your audience to leave the experience feeling? Pity? Sadness? Helplessness? Inspired? Joy? Fear? Shock? Empowered to take action? Once you’ve worked that out, work backwards from there – plotting the emotional journey that your audience might go on to get there. Remember that if your starting subject matter is sensitive or taboo, then it is already imbued with emotions and there will need to be multiple journeys plotted - your audience will each begin their experience from a different emotional starting point.

Hero tuth and authenticity 

To ensure that your contributors and subject are shown with respect, experience creators have a responsibility to deliver a professional ethical rigour that other journalistic practitioners have. Take a documentary approach to any real-world fact or information, as opposed to a ‘reality TV’ approach. Make sure that your facts are from ethical and trusted sources and represented in context, allowing them to be understood as intended. Think about whether audiences are guided through information, or if they’re free to discover and consume at their own pace, in their own order. Consider what the consequences of each way might be.

Upfront preparation for the audience reaction/aftermath

Experiences are the most powerful way to get people talking and can evoke extreme emotional reactions in people, so everyone involved (from contributors, to collaborators, the client and the production team) must be prepared for the public debate that comes afterwards. Ensuring that everyone involved has clarity and understanding of the key issues and the potential reactions, at the very beginning of the production process, is the best way to make sure that the experience never falters in delivering the intended message.

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