What behavioural psychology teaches us about using emotion in marketing
Research by behavioural psychologists continues to shed light on the complex processes that take place in our brains that influences human decision-making. Unsurprisingly, this work is being watched keenly by marketers, eager to capitalise on any breakthrough into the human psyche.
And one key area of behavioural research that has captured the imagination of marketers in recent years has been the role of emotion in decision-making.
Historically, it was assumed that decisions were the result of the logical part of the brain, privy to rational thought. In 1923, early marketing pioneer Claude C Hopkins, reflected this when he said: “All advertising is salesmanship” – in other words, advertising relied on rational persuasion and reasoning.
But our understanding of human behavioural psychology has, of course, developed enormously in the last 100 years, and with it our appreciation of the influence of emotion in decision-making. And this in turn has influenced the way that marketing is conducted.
“The psychologist Paul Ekman has studied human faces across almost every culture in the world to isolate seven core emotions that they all have in common,” says Tom Ewing, a senior director at System1 Group, and co-author of System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth. “From smiles of happiness to sneers of contempt, the fundamental emotions are the foundation stones of all communication.
“And we really do mean all communication. We don’t get less human just because we’re writing a business report or trying to clinch a deal, and neither do the people we’re talking to. The reason we learn to communicate our emotions so quickly and express them at a species-wide level is that emotion is absolutely critical to decision-making.”
It’s one of the baseline heuristics – mental shortcuts – that guide what psychologists call “System 1 decision-making”. System 1 is the rapid, intuitive, emotionally-driven mode of thought which plays a part in every decision we take, and has sole charge of most of them.
System 1 and System 2
Behavioural psychologists describe System 1 thinking as 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.
This contrasts with System 2 thinking, which 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.
And while it may have been under-appreciated in the past, it turns out that the emotional part – System 1 – is absolutely crucial to decision-making, as Ewing explains.
The reason we learn to communicate our emotions so quickly is that emotion is absolutely critical to decision-making.
“The famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once encountered a patient who had suffered an accident which robbed him of the ability to feel emotions. Damasio realised something very strange. Minor decisions most of us take in an instant – like which day to make an appointment on – had become almost impossible for the man. Without the tiny emotional prompts nudging him in one direction or another, the man simply could not choose between similar options.”
The fact that both logic and emotion influence decision-making raises many questions. And while at some level both processes influence eachother, there has understandably been a desire to identify which type of thinking system will ultimately tip the scales so that an interested party makes the decision to buy.
So what’s the answer?
“Emotional System 1 thinking shapes our initial impression of things and that this happens quickly and at a subconscious level, and that emotional response plays a far greater role at the initial ‘awareness’ stage of the marketing funnel than logic,” says Evelyn Timson is managing director of Aspect Film and Video. “More so, it frames much of our rational thinking from that point onwards.”
As evidence, she points to a 2012 study into emotional marketing from Brain Juicer, which 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.
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.
Timson notes: “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-led marketing.”
Message-led advertising often performed poorly compared to emotional-led 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.”
Timson also notes that 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,” says Timson. “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.”
Indeed, Ewing believes that emotional advertising is the core of marketing effectiveness, regardless of what industry you’re in. He points to the pioneering work of Les Binet and Peter Field, who spent a decade analysing the IPA Datamine, a vast resource of case studies collected by the Institute for Practitioners of Advertising in London. The Datamine includes all IPA effectiveness award winners and entries, in both B2C and B2B categories, meaning it provides remarkable insight into what makes advertising work.
And at the heart of Binet and Field’s work is emotion.
“They look at ad campaigns which use purely emotional ads, ones which use purely ‘rational’, message-driven ads, and ones that mix the two. The results are stark,” says Ewing. “Even in the short-term, emotional ads beat the rational and mixed ones on generating large business effects (like profit growth and share gain). In the long-term, purely emotional campaigns are almost twice as more likely to do so.”
Emotional and rational layers
While this all sounds compelling, there is of course a long history of successful marketing campaigns that 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 the 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-led theory? Not so, according to Timson.
“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.”
It is misguided to believe that thinking and feeling are somehow mutually exclusive. Emotion and logic are intertwined.
This demonstrates 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.”
Indeed, the use of emotion shouldn’t replace all rational persuasion in the marketing mix, as this could lead to irrelevancy, or creating something that is all style and no substance. Used at the right time and in the right way, rational and logical elements can 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.
Nonetheless, ultimately, it is System 1 thinking that is in the driving seat.
“There’s a reason why we talk about ‘service with a smile’ and ‘surprising and delighting’ customers,” says Ewing. “Leaving positive emotional impressions makes a huge difference. In fact, it’s far more important than the lists of features and reasoned, persuasive arguments for buying a brand or winning someone’s business. Those ultimately appeal to System 2 thinking.
“But as psychologists like Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman have shown, System 2 thinking comes in after System 1 has already pushed you one way or the other. Those lists of selling points and persuasive reasons are mostly useful for people who’ve already made an emotional choice in your favour, and are looking to back it up.
“System 1 in the driving seat, selecting between choices on the basis of a handful of instinctive factors – how familiar and recognisable a choice is, and whether it feels good. Brands that can trigger these positive emotions in their customers and prospects have a serious advantage.”
In Ewing’s book, System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth, he and his co-authors examine several case study examples of how brands have capitalised on the link between emotion and great advertising.
One example is Emma, an award-winning 2014 ad for French toilet roll brand Le Trefle by Leo Burnett.
A highly emotional ad, when System1 Research tested over 500 of the world’s most acclaimed ads for its 2014 FeelMore50 global rankings, Emma came out as the most emotional of them all. It was also highly successful, with the 25 million views that it attracted translating into a doubling of sales in France.
Of course, this wasn’t the first toilet roll ad to tap into emotion. Andrex, for instance, has been doing it for years with its adorable puppies, while Charmin has its cartoon bear. So what makes such a functional product such fertile ground for emotional advertising?
System1 Research suggests that the reason is simple: toilet rolls are not something that anyone wants or needs to see being used, so the ‘pseudo-scientific demo’ approach, much used by shampoo brands, for instance, can’t apply. This has liberated the brands to pursue emotional approaches. But other brands from functional categories could also embrace emotion too – if their products are low-thought, low-involvement purchases, then capitalising on System 1 could be hugely successful.
And there is certainly a shift towards this in some business-to-business categories, where services are sold. One example of this is banking. HSBC, for instance, adopted an emotional approach for an ad designed for its business customers, called Lemonade.
Ewing notes: “It’s a cute, funny ad, and very different from the standard dry B2B approach. It tested far better than the average financial services commercial, and HSBC found that not only did it drive business for their B2B products, it also generated a rise in custom for their currency trading desk, too! Emotion wins.”
But what if you’re not looking for longer-term brand growth right now, but just want some effective customer activation? Should emotion still play a part in your marketing?
“For long-term growth, you need to create positive impressions. For short-term activations, what we call ‘emotional dynamism’ is what counts – the number of different emotions an ad can create, and how intense it is,” says Ewing.
“Surprise, and even negative emotions like sadness or anger, can be vital tools in driving short-term customer response. But whichever approach you take – and many of the best ads do both, leaving positive impressions and creating a rollercoaster emotional ride for viewers – it’s clear that when it comes to customer communications, seduction beats persuasion every time.”
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.