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Simply Speaking: Emotion as a marketing lever—you can't wish it to happen

Whether the Barcelona football club, Elvis Presley or Laphroaig single malt, brands can provoke emotions up to the levels of frenzy, devotion or ecstasy

Published: Aug 30, 2022 05:59:25 PM IST
Updated: Aug 30, 2022 06:35:31 PM IST

Simply Speaking: Emotion as a marketing lever—you can't wish it to happenThe marketing world has been hooked on emotions for decades. Image: Shutterstock 

“We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” - Antonio Damasio

The marketing world has been hooked on emotions for decades. We want to elicit, uncover, understand and tap into emotions. Goosebumps, sadvertising, euphoric and funny are all parts of our standard evaluation kit. The reliance on emotional response as a primary mover has steadily grown.

This was not always the case. Marketers used to focus on persuading consumers by emphasising their product's rational and functional benefits. Look at advertising from the early to mid-twentieth century and you will see product features being highlighted. The argument of ‘emotional vs rational’ is as valid as marketing being ‘art or science’. It remains inconclusive.

Advances in science and innovation have made differentiation based solely on innate product superiority more and more difficult. Between any two brands of refrigerators, air-conditioners, hairdryers, photocopiers or soup there are seldom huge and irrecoverable gaps. You cannot become five times superior to your nearest competitor on product proposition. Therefore, the only place that a 5X value jump is possible to create is in the head. That is the power and beauty of emotion in the value equation that it does not follow any laws of physics or economics. The more illogical the emotion the more it moves.

The problem with emotion as a marketing lever is that you can’t wish it to happen! The emotional magic has always some serendipity in how it arrives and gets associated with a brand.

The word emotion and motivation are of the same origin. The Latin word ‘movere’ which means ‘to move’. Hence an emotion, in the marketing sense, is a viable emotion only when it moves you. The proof of the emotional pudding lies in the ensuing action.

Truly, emotions have interrupt conveyor powers that can jump over our logical faculties.

When there is lack of information or excess information; when we have conflicting, equally viable logical courses of action, when we cannot tell between the real and the false: and all such times emotion trumps everything else.

In fact, there are many confident observers who claim that most decisions we make are emotional decisions which we rationalise post-facto. In other words we apply logic to justify what was essentially an emotional reaction. Our memory actively conspires in making this happen. Logic does not have a connection with our bodily being. But emotion has a direct and intertwined existence with our physical and sensory being. The great psychologist William James, in 1884, wrote an article “what is an emotion?” in which he theorised that emotions start as physical bodily experiences which are interpreted in the brain and then perceived as emotions. Incidentally, this is exactly the profound realisation that the Buddha had and substantively makes up the present practice of Vipasanna meditation.


Antonio Damasio, in his book, ‘Self Comes to Mind’, posits the idea that consciousness and even our sense of selves is nothing but an interaction of the brain and body. He believes emotions that come from the body form the very foundation upon which our consciousness is built. Therefore, you cannot have consciousness without feelings. To think, we must feel.

Damasio also distinguishes between "emotions" and "feelings," stating that emotions are the unconscious, physiological responses in your body, and feelings are the mental perceptions of those physiological changes.

Dr. Robert Heath writes in his book ‘Seducing the Subconscious’ how "subconscious associative conditioning" is the method by which these associations get connected to brands.

Every small encounter with a brand and things associated with it influences how we feel about it. The aggregate of these influences subtly but powerfully influence - in conjunction with our conscious minds - our purchasing decisions. Emotions also play tricks with memory. You may vividly recall the bottle of Scotch you opened to celebrate your first promotion but may forget what breakfast you ate yesterday. Deeply felt emotions cement memory spaces.

An experience is a takeaway impression formed as a result of an encounter with a brand.

Experiences thus defined are memorable events that affect customers in an extremely personal way.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ has a slightly different vision.

According to Kahneman, humans have an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self is fast, intuitive, unconscious and operational in the present moment. The remembering self is conscious, rational and slow, responsible for remembering and reflecting on experiences. The experiencing self lives the experience and fades quickly whereas the remembering self creates and maintains the story of that experience. The key insight of Kahneman's proposals is that when we make decisions we do so on the basis of the remembering self, not the experiencing self. And the memories of the remembering self are linked fundamentally to the beginning and the end of the experience, and also to its peak intensity, which can be either positive or negative. Therefore, if brands want to engage their customers and generate positive recommendations, they should pay special attention to the beginning and end moments of an experience, and to that memorable peak.

Positive experience builds memory. Gratification leads to repeat desire. Imagine living your dream day – being where you want to be, living the life you dreamed of, having whatever you wish for - but with no memory of it after the end of the day. Would such an experience count as experience? Are we living experiences or creating memories? In that way, brand desire is also an emotional, powerful , motivating force that pulls harder than mere needs and wants. Brand momentum that results in brand equity, pricing power and future cash flows always is about preserving the emotional aura. It is in the rarest of cases that brands get destroyed from the outside when consumers reject them. It is almost always the case that consumers move on because the brand stops being relevant. And emotional appeal has a large part to do with it. Of course, business managers logically rationalise such developments and name technical gaps, cost disadvantages, macroeconomic factors etc as reasons. However, the reality is that emotional relevance ceases before functional relevance.

Emotional apathy or intensity exists for any brand. But up the scale: whether the Barcelona football club, Elvis Presley or Laphroaig single malt scotch, brands can provoke emotions up to the levels of frenzy, devotion or ecstasy.

Emotional immersion can be rarely defined but occasionally felt. If you want to see a physical representation, think of Bernini’s sculpture of the ecstasy of Saint Theresa. It’s that kind of ‘beyond mind’ flow and connection that is the most powerful thing in our relation with a brand. But such brand relationships are rare. Therefore, it is fundamentally important that we aim at emotional responses geared to build habit rather than love.

Descartes said ‘Cogito, ergo sum ‘ - I think therefore I am.

Good that he was a philosopher, not a marketer.

Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.

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