Emotional marketing

The five most memorably emotional marketing campaigns

27th Nov 2017
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The oil refineries of Cleveland, Ohio may seem an incongruous setting for the potential birthplace of emotional marketing.

But in 1943, when Roy Stryker took up a position with Standard Oil as a public relations manager, he set about humanising his subject matter, embarking on a seven year-long photography project that would document the working lives of the people – not the product – behind the company’s success.

In his own words, Stryker wanted to paint a picture of “what a truck driver, or a farmer, or a driller or a housewife thinks and feels and translate those thoughts and feelings into pictures that can be similarly comprehended by anyone”.   

In delivering on his mandate he was subconsciously giving an emotional marketing campaign to wartime America; building a “consumer-centric, relational, and story-driven approach to forging deep and enduring affective bonds between consumers and their brand”.     

Roy Stryker

A collision of heart and wallet

Fast-forward 75 years and marketing campaigns are well attuned to tugging at the heartstrings of their prospective customers.

In the 1990s, the companies at the vanguard of marketing were investing heavily in the seemingly new idea of ‘emotional branding’, culminating in advertising campaigns that sought to tell real human interest stories, successfully serving on the brief of being able to “collide heart and wallet”.

Two and a half decades ago, perhaps the best proponent of this was Yellow Pages, with its advertising campaign helping to shift the rhetoric away from the product – a seemingly mundane business directory – to hone in on the emotions being felt by the people who used it.  

However, if the 1990s were emotionally-driven, the new millennium and the age of the internet appeared to find marketing campaigns trialling different approaches.    

"I think what’s happened is that the ad industry has spent the last decade celebrating bitterness and cynicism and being mean to people,” Pereira & O’Dell's chief creative officer, PJ Pereira recalled in a Fast Company article.

“For a while it was great because it was different from everyone else, and then it became a trend and people got sick of it. It wasn’t funny or interesting anymore. So when things started to pop with a totally opposite voice, the customers totally reacted."

Subsequently many brands spent the late-noughties shifting their rhetoric back to the emotions of the audience, so much so that it gave rise to the term ‘Sadvertising’ – for those marketing campaigns that tugged at the heartstrings a little too often.

But whilst sadness is undoubtedly a fundamental emotion still used in advertising with regularity, a number of prominent brand campaigns have come to the fore since, successful playing on a range of emotions beyond simply making us cry.  


The Dutch beer brand, Heineken explored the importance of empathy in its 2017 marketing campaign, ‘Worlds Apart’.  

Drawing on a social experiment that put two people with polarising opinions in a room to see if they could get along, the campaign was able to tackle an important topic without an air of pretence.  

The accompanying ad drew unprecedented engagement levels on social media, achieving 3 million YouTube views just 8 days after launch.


Such is the beauty of Metro’s ‘Dumb ways to die’ song-come-advert, that when the message hits you you’ve almost been lulled into a false sense of comedic security.

Teaming up with infamous gaming brand Dumb ways to die, the 2012 campaign plays on the audiences’ feeling of disgust and despair to successfully highlight the importance of rail safety. The song has received over 150m YouTube views to-date.



Always’ empowering 2014 campaign was such a hit it won an Emmy, a Cannes Grand Prix award and the Grand Clio award for its exploration of the outmoded and derogatory term ‘…like a girl’, devised to evoke feelings of anger and disgust from its audience.  

Negativity is not often an emotion explored by brands in marketing campaigns, yet the success of Like a Girl owes a great deal to its subversive nature, making a mockery of stereotypes and clichés about the brand’s core audience.   


Happiness is the most valued of emotions, but evoking happiness in marketing requires the ability to stand out from an increasingly noisy crowd.

As a brand, Android has the financial clout to do this regardless of the campaign’s quality, yet its 2015 Friends Furever advert was able to bring a wry smile to even the harshest of cynics.

John Lewis

The annual event that is the John Lewis Christmas advert has long played on our feelings of sadness, comfort, trust and joy – the spirit of Christmas, in a nutshell.

There are undoubtedly flaws to repeating the same emotive concept year on year, and John Lewis’ 2017 advert has been somewhat maligned for this premise. Plus, at a production cost of £7m it’s a world away from Roy Stryker’s 1943 version of emotion marketing, involving a few photographers and some willing subjects.

Yet it remains the perfect example of just how powerful it is to evoke the feelings of contentment and charity in your audience, especially at this time of year.  

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