The Hanlon Creative Guide to Emotional Branding

Think about the last few purchasing decisions you made. Did you do extensive research, weigh the pros and cons, compare alternatives, and check with friends and family to make sure those decisions were sound?

Sometimes we have the time and inclination to give that much brainpower to a buying decision. Usually, we don’t. In either case, it typically comes down to a feeling. Option A ticks all the checkboxes you decided in advance were important — but Option B just feels right.

You’re not alone in that feeling: “Advertising research reveals that emotional response to an ad has far greater influence on a consumer’s reported intent to buy a product than does the ad’s content – by a factor of 3-to-1 for television commercials and 2-to-1 for print ads.”

In other words: When it’s a battle of hearts and minds, the heart often dominates. That’s why companies engage in emotional branding.


Gut Feelings

Even people who consider themselves coolly unemotional most of the time recognize the power of a gut feeling.

“We are more vulnerable when we are only vaguely aware that our emotions are being influenced, and most vulnerable when we have no idea at all that our emotions are being influenced.”

While our intellectual prowess is a mostly transparent process that actively analyzes the features, drawbacks, and consequences of our decisions, our emotions work in the background, analyzing our choices in light of how they appeal to our unspoken (and perhaps even unrecognized) wants and desires.

According to marketing scholar Robert Heath: “We are more vulnerable when we are only vaguely aware that our emotions are being influenced, and most vulnerable when we have no idea at all that our emotions are being influenced.”

Brands know this — and work hard to play up the emotional attachments we have to them.

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola want you to think of happy times and simple pleasures when you see their logos. Apple promotes an air of sophistication, effortless excellence, and wondrous possibilities. They want you to feel that having an iPhone in your pocket is like a VIP pass to the club everyone is dying to get into.


The Power of Emotions

Somewhat ironically, there’s a ton of perfectly rational, testable, and entirely unemotional backing for this strategy: “A study by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising found that ads with purely emotional content generated twice as much profit as ads based on rational content (31 percent vs. 16 percent).”

Humans feel four basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. The recent trend of “sadvertising” is proof that the positive emotions aren’t the only ones that can sell us on things: think tearjerker ASPCA commercials or Apple’s annual Christmas spots that invariably leave us weeping.

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Emotional marketing isn’t a magic bullet, however. Marketing consultant Graeme Newell argues: “One key component to successful emotional advertising is to find and capitalize on the core value of the brand, not just reach blindly for an emotional reaction.”

Nationwide Insurance made that mistake in 2015 when its Super Bowl spot, “Make Safe Happen,” featuring a shocking reveal that the young character in the ad had died in a preventable accident, was widely panned as in poor taste.


Human Needs

Vance Packard’s 1957 book, “The Hidden Persuaders,” is a seminal look at consumer motivations. “The cosmetic manufacturers are not selling Lanolin,” he wrote, “they are selling hope. We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just an auto, we buy prestige.”

Packard came up with eight fundamental needs that everyone, whether they know it or not, seeks to fulfill: Emotional SecurityReassurance of WorthEgo-gratificationCreative OutletsLove ObjectsSense of PowerSense of Roots, and Immortality. Brands that fill these needs or become intrinsically associated with them, he argued, tap into our unconscious emotional drives.

The most notable contemporary book on emotional consumer relations is Marc Gobé’s “Emotional Marketing: The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands to People” (2001). In it, Gobé proposes a series of rules that have since reshaped how marketers approach creative problems.

He instructs marketers to think of their audiences not as faceless consumers, but rather as real people, and likewise to not think of themselves as selling mere products, but as offering experiences.

He focuses on personal preferences, not qualities of the offering, and claims a good brand is known widely, but a great brand is aspirational. Getting your name out is just the start, he argues; the real magic happens when people start seeing it as a goal, an inspiration — something to work toward and emulate.

In Gobé’s marketing, intangibles like personality trump hard facts like identity, and feel is always more important than function. He promotes dialoguing with audiences rather than just one-way communication. Lastly, he stresses the importance of offering rich relationships, not detached services.

Human emotions come from deep within us — so it’s no surprise that tapping into those powerful impulses and inclinations can amplify your marketing efforts. Sometimes we get lost in facts and figures and metric analysis. Always remember: There are flesh-and-blood hearts underneath it all.