Culture vs strategy

How research proves emotion is more powerful than logic in marketing

29th Sep 2016

Behavioural psychologists have long argued about the processes in our brains that determine how we make decisions and what informs those decisions. The question at the heart of this debate has always been the same: is our decision making driven by our logic or our emotions?

This question has implications that go far beyond pure academics. Perhaps unsurprisingly it’s a field that marketing strategists have always taken a keen interest in, producing a great many studies and theses on what drives consumer behaviour.

In this article, I want to look at a couple of those studies, and explore how and why emotion trumps logic when it comes to marketing.

Logic vs emotion

For a long time in the logic vs emotion debate the rationalists tended to hold sway. As the early marketing pioneer Claude C Hopkins said in 1923: “All advertising is salesmanship.” This cast advertising as a mere extension of the salesman’s pitch, the hard sale, appealing to the potential customer through direct rational persuasion and reasoning.

As our understanding of human psychology has progressed drastically (compare the sanatoriums of Hopkin’s time with clinical attitudes towards mental health today), so the rationalist paradigm has waned. Our emotional responses, it turns out, hold far more sway over our decision-making processes than we had at first realised and brand marketing has adapted as a result.

Apple are masters of strong brand marketing and their 2014 ad is a really potent reminder of how powerful emotions can be. The iPad featured in the commercial is almost incidental (but it’s still there – helping to drive positive associations).

System 1 and System 2 thinking

Behavioural psychologists have boiled down the decision-making processes that go on in our brain to two distinct systems, which they call System 1 and System 2 thinking:

  1. System 1 thinking is perceptual and involuntary and thus happens very fast. This is what one might refer to as our gut reactions or initial impressions, and they influence our thinking and behaviour at a subconscious level
  2. System 2 thinking is slower and more considered. This is the rational and logical part of our brain that assesses the facts and uses deductive reasoning to reach a conclusion

To some degree separating these processes is misleading and polarises the debate, because at some level both these processes influence each other. The question therefore tends to fall back onto the somewhat more abstract and theoretical question of what type of thinking system is tipping the scales between interested party and the decision to buy?

For me, the evidence clearly points towards the emotional and I’ll explain why…

The myth of free will

As our understanding of the human subconscious has developed, so too has our appreciation of just how far it influences our decision making at every level. This has given rise to the notion among behavioural and cognitive psychologists that free will, in the way we have traditionally understood it, is actually false and that we are primarily driven by our involuntary emotional responses.

Nationwide’s lost scarf TV ad was produced by Aspect and is a perfect example of how so much brand marketing is moving away from product lead content to storytelling that relies on evoking a strong emotional response.

Rational System 2 thinking may well be overlaid onto our assessment of the world, but that still leaves us with the inescapable fact that emotional System 1 thinking shapes our initial impression of things and that this happens quickly and at a subconscious level. This leads one to conclude that emotional response plays a far greater role at the initial ‘awareness’ stage of the marketing funnel than logic. More so, it frames much of our rational thinking from that point onwards.

Compelling evidence

A 2012 study into emotional marketing from Brain Juicer produced convincing evidence to support this theory. It found that advertisements that performed well on traditional evaluative measures such as persuasion, cut through, brand linkage, key message, do not see such strong performance replicated in market.

The study suggests that emotional appeals play an even stronger role in B2B decision-making.

Conversely advertisements that performed poorly on these same measures often did well. The study cited the famous Cadbury Dairy Milk Gorilla that performed poorly on traditional measures.

The sensational, distinctive and unforgettable Dairy Milk Gorilla advert didn’t conform to any of the measures of success in advertising but was still a huge success.

In other words, message-led advertising often performed poorly compared to emotional lead marketing. The study concludes that:

"Theories around System 1 thinking help to explain why emotional advertising works; advertising that succeeds in moving people will draw them closer, facilitate instinctive and effortless System 1 decision making in favour of the brand, and reduce their price sensitivity toward it.”

The power of emotional marketing over more rational persuasive forms has also been shown in a study by Google and CEB and, contrary to popular belief, is also true in B2B marketing; an area often thought of as being driven by hard facts and figures. In fact, the study suggests that emotional appeals play an even stronger role in B2B decision making.

One of the key conclusions of the research was that the emphasis on business value by marketers is misplaced. The study found that where differentiation did exist only 14% of business decision makers were willing to pay a premium for it. In other words, business value is table stakes and yet much marketing activity is still pre-occupied with it.

Layering logic and emotion

None of this evidence precludes the existence, or indeed the importance, of strong rational and evidence-based appeals in marketing. Many hugely successful advertising campaigns have been built around hard facts and figures.

Dyson’s vacuum cleaner ads are a prime example of this, reeling off technical specifications and the inner workings of Dyson’s iconic product. If emotion has been stripped away here to be replaced with product specifications, then this example surely discredits the efficacy of the System 1 lead theory?

The academic consensus amongst psychologists is that we are not rational beings, but that we are nonetheless rationalisers.

Well not quite. The difference with brand Dyson is that the product itself elicits the emotional response, without any need for the advertising to do it for it. With so much emphasis on design and, to some extent, the image of Dyson himself as the clever enigmatic inventor, the product itself has become the brand and to a large extent has sold itself.

James Dyson features prominently in the company’s advertising helping to reinforce the emotionally based notions of British engineering excellence and design that allows Dyson ads to eschew emotional appeals.

So, the instinctual and subconscious emotional response is still there, it just hasn’t been created by the advertising. This is a crucial point when understanding how logic and emotion layer together in advertising. As author and advertising executive Douglas Van Praet explains:

“While emotions overwhelmingly drive behaviour, it is misguided to believe that thinking and feeling are somehow mutually exclusive. Emotion and logic are intertwined.”

The academic consensus amongst psychologists is that we are not rational beings, but that we are nonetheless rationalisers. We are evolutionarily predisposed to System 1 thinking for reasons that almost certainly stem from early survival instincts (if our ancestors paused to rationalise the world, then they were far more likely to get eaten, hence the survival of genes favouring System 1 thinking over System 2).

Therefore, in an advertising context the use of emotion shouldn’t replace all rational persuasion in the marketing mix, as this will inevitably lead to irrelevancy and style without substance. When used at the right time and in the right way, rational and logical pulls will form the glue that helps to reinforce and support the initial emotional response in the viewer.

This is what Daniel Kahneman calls “affect heuristics”. If you are able to create the right emotional resonance around your brand at the awareness stage of the marketing funnel, then consumers will naturally gravitate towards the rational evidence to back it up. In other words, using emotion in the right way created a bias towards your brand; your job then is to use rational appeals to reinforce this bias.


Like the nature-nurture debate the question of logic vs. emotion in marketing attempts to pit two opposing forces of influence against each other and work out the complex reactions in the brain. As with the nature-nurture debate, most commentators now accept that things are not black and white in human psychology and the truth lies in some form of synthesis between the two.

Despite the difficulty in untangling the logical and emotional sides of our brain, ongoing scientific enquiry suggests we are driven by our subconscious desires to a far greater degree than we first supposed. This has led many to refute the common understanding of free will.

As a video marketer it seems clear to me from the evidence that emotion is a primary driver of human behaviour, including our purchasing decisions and that good advertising should learn to play on this. By creating emotions, brands are able to create a positive sense of association in the consumer that will colour all his or her thinking thereafter. In this sense emotion is the most powerful form of persuasion available to you.

Evelyn Timson is managing director of Aspect Film and Video.

This piece originally appeared on MyCustomer's sister site BusinessZone


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