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Do People Connect With Brands At An Emotional Level?

Brands want to engage with us at an emotional level. So emotional benefits must be key to understanding what motivates people to buy, right? Perhaps not!

emotional brand


By Neal Cole

Marketing and advertising people often talk about connecting emotionally with the target audience. Brands want to engage with us at an emotional level. They encourage us to like them on Facebook. Indeed, research often brings out emotional responses to products and services. So emotional benefits must be key to understanding what motivates people to buy, right?

Perhaps not! In his book, Decoded, Phil Barden challenges this popular view of how brands should engage with customers. He argues that the use of emotions as a concept is one of the biggest barriers to effective marketing. The concept is “vague” and encourages subjective and flawed decision making.

Sure there is extensive evidence to indicate that our decisions are heavily influenced by our emotions. Behavioral economists suggest that emotions such as fear, affection, arousal and hatred explain why people behave irrationally. However, reliance on irrational behavior doesn’t sound like a sustainable business plan. Apple and Amazon have strong value propositions that don’t depend upon the emotional state of their customers. Our minds are prone to predictable biases and as a result we make suboptimal decisions, but do brands that connect emotionally have an advantage?

The brand police talk about how they have a strong brand and customers are loyal due to their emotional attachment. This is not supported by the evidence. The late Andrew Ehrenberg’s work suggests that emotional engagement with brands is much less prevalent than many marketers assume. Most brand loyalty is the result of  habit and availability. Habits though can be broken and if the latest product innovations aren’t available from established brands customers may soon move onto where they are more easily accessible. We only have to look at the likes of Nokia and BlackBerry to see how rapidly the once mighty can fall.

So why do people by products or brands? Scientists involved in neuroscience research suggest that products or brands that we value activate the reward system of the brain. This has been found to be a good predictor of future sales, much better than subjective likeability. The intensity of the brain’s response appears to be related to the value we anticipate the product will deliver.

Price on the other hand activates a different area of the brain, the insula, which is normally a signal that we are experiencing pain. No wonder we are so strongly attracted to free offers as we naturally avoid pain and we are also loss adverse.

Barden suggests that our brain’s reward system is activated by products or brands because they allow us to achieve our goals. The nature of our goals may vary according to our situation as we often have different motivations for purchasing a product according to what we are doing or where we are located. For instance we might want a tablet computer for work to demonstrate new designs and impress our colleagues, whilst on our commute it is about avoiding boredom and relaxing.

Our brains are sensitive to the difference between reward and pain. If the difference is sufficiently large we may purchase a product. This ‘net value’ can of course be influenced by increasing the expected reward and or decreasing the pain/price. The very essence of many a marketing campaign. Our herd instinct of being influenced by what other people are buying also comes into play because this can affect the  perceived value of a product or service. We don’t like walking into a deserted restaurant because our expectations are lowered, but we are happy to wait if the place is busy and vibrant.

Goals also focus our attention so that even subconsciously we notice products and services that may help us achieve a goal. Products that we believe are most likely to help us achieve a goal get the greatest share of our attention. This may explain why consumers are drawn to guarantees and propositions that appear to promise a desired outcome.

Market research is partly to blame for our fixation with emotional benefits. At a product or category level people usually intuitively understand why they want to buy a product to meet a certain goal. However, brands operate at an implicit, psychological level, that we have limited awareness of. When we achieve a goal though we feel good about it and it triggers an emotional response. Naturally people communicate these emotional feelings when they are asked direct questions about brands they have purchased. An experienced researcher understands this but business people are prone to taking research results literally.

These underlying psychological goals are important to marketers because they allow brands to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Also by using signals that are associated with implicit goals (e.g. long established can indicate security) they can help increase the perceived value of a brand.

Another myth that Barden explodes is that brands are like people and have personalities. Neuroscience suggests brands are objects to the brain. But the more important the goal the stronger we relate to a brand that is highly relevant to the goal. We may talk about brands as if they have personalities but this is more about the nature of language and how our use of analogies is central to how humans think.

To be effective marketing activity needs to build an association between the usage of the product and goals that are most relevant to the consumer. This association makes the brand instrumental in achieving these goals.

“Brands create possibilities and offer fictitious, symbolic rewards that frame the physical effect of the product” Phil Barden, Decoded

Barden identifies six key psychological goals that motivate people to buy brands. But he points out that to create a compelling value proposition it is critical that we incorporates both explicit and implicit goals. By linking implicit to the explicit goals we may translate the proposition into signals which will activate mental concepts within the brain. If these mental concepts are more relevant to an individual’s active goal than those triggered by a competitors they will buy our brand.

If you want to know more about these psychological goals and how they are so important to the success of your brand I recommend you read Phil’s book. I hope you enjoyed reading my post and hopefully it may have generated a few ideas to improve the effectiveness of your marketing.

Further reading: Decoded by Phil Barden, Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman, Herd by Mark Earls (@Herdmeister), I’ll Have What She’s Having by Alex Bentley, Mark Earls (@Herdmeister), & Michael O’Brien

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9 responses to “Do People Connect With Brands At An Emotional Level?

  1. Thank the lord someone has brought some sense back to this business of brands and their relationships with consumers. The problem with social media is that it demands a response and those responses are measured typically by blunt instruments called sentiment analysis. Now the problem emerging is that sentiment is not cutting it as a predictive tool. Next time you are presented with a case study on a highly successful (meaning sentiment generation) study ask your self was there any real sales bump (we might ask why this is rarely reported?). Research so far suggests that that is only rarely the case, so what should be the metric? Perhaps the new area of facial emotions, being more spontaneous, may be better indicators, but measuring Brand Engagement by sentiment is starting to look weak in validity terms. Not only Ehrenberg but also Nielsen longitudinal shopping data has long confirmed the simplistic, mindless and habit formed shopping behaviour for many household packaged goods. I for one will be reading Barden’s book with great pleasure.

  2. This is an interesting concept because it also brings into question how deeply people connect on an emotional level in the digital age. Relationships of all types appear much more fluid and often based on fewer connection levels. One reason is that consumers have access to many more choices and many more value propositions. The circle of influence is often quite large and consumers often try new products or services with minimal direct exposure and often from peer recommendations. It’s much harder now to have a “relationship” with the customer but easier to have a greater web of exposure. Consumers are more selective and loyal with products that meet ‘needs’ but more likely to try new things, especially those that offer a new experience. Brand loyalty is the key because loyal customers will promote both the brand and its products. Delivering on positioning and interacting with customers in a positive way are key. you can create an emotional connection with stimuli but delivering consistently is much harder. Committed brands do both and are focused on buyers, not just selling products.

  3. This is a very thoughtful and well-written post. At LRW’s Pragmatic Brain Science Institute®, these are the things that we think about. While this article is, particularly, focused on emotions, we believe that it is even more important to understand the conscious and non-conscious associations of what we call Brand Stereotypes™. It is only when you understand how these Brand Stereotypes™ are formed can you understand either how to strengthen them or change them. Then you can understand the role of the rational and the emotions. You’ve picked some good books to recommend, though Kahneman’s is probably best if one were to read just one of your recommendations.

  4. Although interesting and sensible as suggested by other responses……………please forget about brands in that it “MIGHT” play a part in consumer 911/411 brain activity? When someone installs a wood fence they do not know the Brand or even care! Brands are recognized far down the line. I do not have a choice in the air I breathe e.g. San Francisco or Los Angeles. Will submit to “influence” as to the contribution of brain selectivity (411).

    joe underwood
    Area Code Shopper

  5. Major conceptual confusion here I would say.
    I agree that talking about emotion is problematic (not only in marketing but even in fundamental research domains). However, most of these problems usually stem from sloppy conceptual reasoning. At its most basic level, emotions may be defined as body states related to the preparation of approach/withdrawal motor programs, and, hence, its nuclear core is constituted by a response to the aversive/rewarding properties of environmental stimuli (these properties may be explicitly appraised or not). So how is it the operation of the reward/avoidance systems (either at an implicit or explicit level) different from talking about emotion? How can all the talk about value leave out the concept of emotion? Or are you referring to conscious appraisal of the affective properties elicited by a give brand (I would argue against calling this an emotion)?

  6. I totally agree with Pedro. Our emotions are of major importance for regulating consumer behaviour. Emotions and cognition are both part of the same psychological mechanism in our computational brain that determines why and how we are motivated for specific goal directed behaviour. Our old brain (and I am not talking about reptilian brain or system 1 concepts as some people do) has its own evolutionary logic to help us navigate in a modern environment. Understanding this logic is key to understanding consumer behaviour. Maybe it is about time for a real paradigm shift based on recent scientific findings about human motivation, emotion and cognition?

  7. Thanks to all for their comments. As the book’s author I’d like to answer Pedro and Marie-Anne.

    ‘Decoded’ has a chapter devoted to goals and goal-directed behaviour. Based on this, emotions (defined as feelings i.e. the conscious correlates of affective processes) are the outcomes of behaviour, not the drivers. As you’re not doubt aware, the brain learns which behaviours are rewarding and ‘tags’ these which, together with dopamine release, enables the learning process – so we feel good when we’re winning (if our goal is success/performance/superiority) and we feel angry/sad when we’re losing. A creative brief based on emotion as feeling is unhelpful. Why? Because it’s ambiguous. I cite the case of Cadbury’s Trucks as a successor to Gorilla. Both had the same brief (‘rediscover the joy’) but joy can be interpreted in many ways; the joy of winning looks and feels very different to the joy of discovery, or the joy of motherhood or of relaxing with a good book. They are all ‘joy’ but which is right for the brand? Only by knowing which ‘goals’ drive purchase will you derive the correct conceptual meaning.
    The other issue is that briefs tend to focus on the positive feelings (happiness, joy and positive surprise) so you end up with everyone’s ads full of happy-looking people which is hardly differentiating. Of course, associating a positive valence with one’s brand is not a bad thing BUT the key is to know what drove/created that outcome (the goal achievement) rather than the valence itself being the objective.

    Clearly, reading the book will give you the full perspective of this but I hope this short response has helped.

  8. This is an excellent debate and I am keen to read this book. I agree that ’emotion’ is a somewhat simplistic conceptual bucket for the non-rational component of brand relationships. A Facebook ‘Like” might be one of the most superficial expressions of this concept. But there is something to the emotional/non-rational attachment to a brand. Bruce Starcher, a Business Model Strategist, describes it as addressing a ‘value gap.’ A value gap is different than a pain point. For example, Harley and Honda are two motorcycles that are functionally similar, but fill different value gaps for people who buy them. Buying Harley connects you with a different sub-culture than a buying a Honda. It goes beyond positive emotion, there’s a value being provided to the customer that may trigger the emotion, but the emotion itself is a product of the value.

  9. Great, many thanks Phil! I see your point! I think the main problem with the term ‘emotion’ (and motivation) is that there are different definitions depending on the scientific discipline. From an evolutionary psychology perspective (I am an evolutionary psychologist specialised in consumer behaviour, and working on a thesis about EP based insight in emotions and motivational underpinnings of individual consumer brand choice) there is a difference between ‘emotions’ and ‘felt emotions’ (Tooby & Cosmides, 2013). Emotions coordinate motivational mechanisms in the computational brain that regulate behaviour and decision-making. Some internal variables the brain uses for valuation are being transformed into felt experiences (what we call ‘emotions’) such as feeling good, disgust etc. Felt emotions have been designed by evolution for social or somatic (i.e. hunger) communication and regulating behaviour.

    Yes, I agree that a creative brief based on expressed or felt emotions and empirical research without an understanding of the real reasons and goals behind it is not very helpful. Felt emotions like joy seem ambiguous and can be interpreted in many ways. So yes only by knowing (understanding) the motivational underpinning or fundamental goals of consumer behaviour and choice will lead us to the correct conceptual meaning. I also agree that one should not focus on positive feelings alone but also on even more important felt emotions as disgust.

    So yes, I guess so far we are thinking very much along the same lines. Maybe it is just the behavioural economics approach of the irrational fast and frugal system 1 and slow rational system 2 is more of a problem for me as an evolutionary psychologist. From an evolutionary psychology perspective there is no such thing as a irrational or illogic brain. From an evolutionary perspective and based on evolutionary relevant goals (with the ultimate goal of promoting inclusive fitness based reproduction of our genes) the mind processes information in a very logic way. Understanding these goals is key to the correct insight in emotions consumers express and feel for specific brands (in our PhD thesis we focus on the moral disgust emotion for and reputation value of brands).
    I am eager to read your book to get the full perspective of what you envision and hope to come back to you on this later. That is if you are interested of course.

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