Marketing: It’s the emotion, stupid

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As humans, we excel in fooling ourselves into thinking that we are rational choice engines. We like to believe that the things we do and the decisions we make are fundamentally based on logic and reason – but this just isn’t the case.

Nobel Laureat and cognitive scientist, Daniel Kahneman, explores in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the model of two distinctive modes of thought characteristic of human cognition. The first is automatic, almost instinctual, and heavily based on past experiences, while the second is slow and calculating, with the conscious employment of logic and rationality.  This, along with a lifetime body of other work, proves to us all we are not in any way masters of our own decisions.

So, what does this have to do with marketing? Well, quite a bit. Understanding the central role emotion plays in decision-making can be the difference between an ad that captures attention, gets remembered and prompts action, or simply blends into the background noise of our daily lives.

Emotional decision-making

The two systems outlined in Kahneman’s book are but one eye-opening glimpse into the mechanics of human decision-making, and call into question how we like to think of ourselves. Behavioural scientists know that are brains are not like computers, they don’t weigh up the odds, calculating the best decision based on logical outcomes and reasoning, instead, they’re much more like that first mode of thought described by Kahneman – fast, instinctual and most importantly – emotional (“emptions” being a word we give to powerful instant reactions).

In fact, even deeper than this, our brains are exceptionally skilled at providing ex post facto rationale to support those emotional decisions we previously made. We aren’t even aware that this is what’s going on.

We evolved this way because this past experienced based “feelings” response is efficient. Gut instinct makes for quick decision making which, in evolutionary terms, could be the difference between life or death. Faced with a lion about to attack, there’s little point in starting a bullet-pointed discussion on the pros and cons of fleeing. Outside of wild animal attacks, which are somewhat rarer in modern life, emotion-based decision-making, which relies on patterns we are familiar with, is still efficient and takes much less cognitive effort. But remember, this isn’t a choice. Its just how the brain works.

Why emotion matters to marketers

The crux of this is that emotion really matters in marketing. Most marketers and advertisers get a fraction of a second to grab their audience, meaning we need to trigger a fast response if we can. It’s the key to capturing interest. Based on the behavioural and cognitive science of how we know our brains work, if we neglect to engage emotion to gain attention and drive our message home, it will most likely fail.

This golden rule applies to marketing in both B2C and B2B – though the specific emotions we’re dealing with might change. Research has demonstrated that adverts that elicit feelings of happiness or cuteness work better than those that don’t. Even negative emotions can work.

In B2B marketing, decisions are more likely to be underpinned by feelings like familiarity (“I know those guys”) or trust (“They are dependable”). Confidence is as much a business gut feeling as any logical calculation, and B2B marketers understand the value of tapping into this not entirely logical construct.

Often, the common denominator for both B2B and B2C marketing is humour. While it’s tricky to get right, and can be painful when done wrong, making the audience laugh (intentionally!) is a fast route to getting them to feel good about a brand. It’s a way of getting under the radar.

Memorability plays a huge role in marketing success. Science shows that it’s actually the emotion created that encodes those ads into our memory, as we remember based on how something makes us feel. The stronger the feeling, the more vivid the memory. Emotive marketing, therefore, isn’t just more powerful, it’s more memorable, too.

Marketing that is forgotten is marketing that may as well have never happened.

Making sense of emotion

While we’ve discussed emotion-based decision making as compared with logical decision-making, let’s not make the mistake of thinking there is no ‘sense’ in these emotional responses.

As consumers, we’re faced with ongoing micro-decisions regarding which brand of cereal to buy at the supermarket, or which brand of stationary to stock the office with. However, in the grand scheme of things, most of these decisions are of limited importance in our lives. We don’t want to spend hours agonising over every last detail before making such decisions, and in these instances, emotional short-cuts can be a useful time and energy saver. Often, the brand-we-know is enough to tip the decision.

Even in B2B, a genuine logical choice is actually a very hard thing to arrive at despite what we tell ourselves. It can be nearly impossible to fully compare specifications and capabilities of, say, two competing software products.  Therefore, that emotional short-cut allows us to make a decision and get on with things. And remember – the boss’ emotions (or those of our teams) can come into play here, too.

Pushing the right buttons

It may seem that asking for marketing and advertising that pushes emotional buttons is somehow risky or odd, but in fact the opposite is true, and the science backs this up. Fail to tap into our preference for emotional decision-making, and the chances of your marketing budget working hard for you is vanishingly small.

Of course, there is an implication that your marketing may feel “riskier”. A bullet point list of features and benefits feels “safe” (even if it won’t actually work). It’s important that you therefore seek objective feedback on your work rather than assume you are getting the emotions right first time. A smart way to reduce that risk.

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