The psychology behind why emotional marketing works every time

Image of left and right brain to reveal how marketers use consumer emotions

Although appealing to customers’ feel-factor to market products is not something new, this type of emotional marketing is perpetually evolving. Marketers are incessantly trying to arrive at those elusive insights. The insights, however, are rarely about product innovation or a new channel through which brands can deliver a message. They are discovered by tapping into the emotional quotient (EQ),  which brands can use to create the “big idea” that will seep straight into the consumer’s consciousness.

Currently, digital is changing the way these messages are delivered, but is it changing this fundamental piece of the marketing puzzle? As the consuming generation shifts, will newcomers ever tire of the constant noise and demand that brands deliver straight facts? Or is strategy with heart be the way to stand out?

Universal appeal

Psychology has revealed that humans are driven by their emotions, which is what widely differentiates our species from the others. Ogilvy Dubai’s regional planning director, Evan Kearney, points out, “It’s been long understood that humans are not rational beings with emotions; we are emotional beings with the ability to rationalise. We even use facts to justify a point of view as opposed to forming a point of view based on facts.” Kearney uses the current American presidential race as proof of this: “Emotions are more of a driver than logic can ever be; the fact is, no matter how much nonsense people like Donald Trump talk and how many facts they get wrong, the more people point this out, the more his supporters start screaming.”

He continues, “If we were to assume one decision would be based on fact, it should be something like a presidential race, but it isn’t. It’s supported by emotion.”

Brands certainly need to apply more facts and sanity to their marketing than Trump, but this extreme example is revealing. Kearney believes that everything in marketing should be looked at through an EQ lens.

The current marketing landscape has many options for targeting the consumer and there is much research in favour of emotional marketing. Geometry Global’s senior strategist, Elias Bassil, says, “Advertising and communication [have] become much more of a science [than] an art.” He indicates that, while he does believe marketers should always consider EQ, there is never a one-size-fits-all strategy and not all brands should be marketed with emotions.

Then and now

Most marketers cannot recall a time when emotional strategies weren’t applied in some way to help consumers connect with products; however, a shift has now taken place from the old way to the new. Unilever’s VP of marketing for personal care, Sanjay Sachdeva, says that, many years ago, household products targeted women by empathising with their household responsibilities. He says, “In the past, cleaning was tough because the product quality was not as good and machines were not available.” The insight was different because having the cleanest clothes was in some – arguably superficial – way a testament to good motherhood. Sachdeva continues, “Now, all detergents and machines are good, so brands need to change the messaging.”

Sachdeva uses the example of OMO and the brand promise associated with the detergent. It’s not just about cleaning, he says: it’s about helping children meet their full potential. He also highlights that the role of a mother is shifting: “The modern woman is working and her product needs have changed. So, now, it’s about developing products and marketing them in a way that can release time for her. Brands need to keep track of how people’s lifestyles are changing,” he explains.

Speak their language

It seems that, although the marketing has surely evolved, some brands still appeal to people’s more traditional roles. Some marketers believe in these marketing methods, especially to women consumers in the Middle East. They’re not necessarily wrong, as many studies reveal that women in the region still spend more time caring for their families than for anything else. However, it seems that marketers and the target audience are growing tired of being stereotyped.

Ogilvy’s Kearney explains that he’s been invited to so many conferences that claim to lift the veil of the Arab woman, just to be told that “they love their children and they want to please their husbands.” He adds, “I’d be more interested if you told me that there are women out there who don’t love their children – that’s something I could work with.” Aside from simply wanting to do something different from a creative perspective, he indicates that there could be a shift in what women want to see as well: “We know from talking to women in the region that they’re getting bored. When it comes to concept testing, a scenario of a mother cooking a meal that her family likes tests well for relevance but poorly for distinctiveness and motivation.” So, if a marketing strategy is checking boxes on paper but no one remembers it, is it really doing its job?

What marketers do admit is that emotional resonance, whether stereotypical or not, does not necessarily need to be tailored to a specific audience, because many of these big insights are universal. Samsung’s Barakat says, “Emotional resonance is transcendent, irrespective of geographical boundaries – it is about human purpose and relationships. There might have been a time when campaigns were localised to resonate with audiences in certain geographies, due to cultural or traditional nuances. Given a globalised marketplace, such campaigns are becoming few and far between.”

However, this does not mean that marketers can’t tap into human emotions with insights that are both resonant and fresh. As Kearney says, “The region is desperate for targeting that pushes the boundaries of stereotypes.”

Kids these days

Another challenge of today’s marketers is appealing to a new set of emotions. Millennials are the majority consumers and are wholly different from their predecessors. Unilever’s Sachdeva explains that people born in the 1970s as well as those born in the 1980s are both targets for some FMCG brands. In the past, he says, the ideology shift from one generation to the next was more gradual, whereas millennials are starkly different from their parents. Marketers are eagerly trying to understand and appeal to this new audience.

However, Geometry Global’s Bassil notes that there is a bright side and that this consumer split doesn’t have to be as ominous as it may seem. He says, “Millennials have become the movers and shakers of the world. So, naturally, just by being who they are and doing what they do, they stand out.” In reality, whether the customer is a millennial or not, they actually want to be a millennial. He compares it to Harley Davidson saying the brand is marketed to ‘bad boys’, but the target audience is actually “the loser who works in accounting and wants a bike to feel cool.”

Walk the line

Most marketers agree that having a high EQ is a good way for brands to talk to their audience, but how much is too much? Unilever’s Sachdeva says, “Marketers make the mistake of getting carried away with emotions, because they assume the target knows the product.” He explains that any emotional message built without brand promise or tie-in won’t last.

Considering campaigns such as Always’ “Like A Girl” and Dove’s “Real Beauty”,  arguably, not everyone remembers the brand behind the concept. However, Sachdeva admits that the balance between product and emotion must be equal, “unless marketers are selling a product that is widely known. Then, they place more weight on emotion.” He explains that the aforementioned campaigns work because “the products are amazing. Once you have amazing products you, can create amazing, emotionally resonant strategies”.

Products existing in the background of a marketing strategy seem to be occasional phenomena with brands that have been building their consumer sentiment for decades; however, Sachdeva notes that, in the end, the product must be the hero.

What’s your point?

The next stage of brand building could be about not only conveying a brand promise to customers through emotional product messaging, but also about creating a purpose. Sachdeva explains that Dove’s greater purpose is about boosting self-esteem. This leads to an emotional promise of being comfortable and feeling beautiful in one’s own skin. Then comes the functional message: what the product does for one’s skin.

Ogilvy’s Kearney agrees that purpose-based marketing is currently happening in the industry, but, he notes, the Middle East lags behind when it comes to the quality of communications. He says, “The rest of the world has been embracing purpose-based marketing for some time and, while we’re starting to, we still have a long way to go before everyone gets on board with that sort of approach.”

Purpose is not always the way forward and it depends on the marketing landscape of a particular place. President of the sports division at GMG, Miquel Pancorbo, says purpose is more of a marketing reality in developed markets. “In other parts of the world, this will take some time, because the level of consciousness of the customer is different due to problems that the society faces. Most of the rest of the world is still trying to feed themselves and have access to clean water,” he explains.

Alternatively, other marketers argue that there may be no place at all for this type of marketing, especially in some brand segments. Geometry Global’s Bassil says, “I see brands trying to convince themselves that, if they give themselves a purpose, people will want to buy into them more.” But he doubts that the demand for purpose stems from the consumer. Using FMCG as an example for a category for which purpose may not be necessary, he asks, “How many times have you walked into the supermarket and picked up something from the shelf automatically? Do you first ask if this brand has given back to society? You don’t.”

Local eyes

Are GCC marketers getting into the emotional marketing mix? Kearney says, “When you talk to clients about emotional and purpose-based advertising, they all agree that it has a place and is the way forward.” However, he admits that one problem in the region is that expats lead the way in many agencies and brands. “They want to do the safe kinds of jobs and not take risks doing bigger and bolder things.” He explains that the onus is on the agencies to “keep pushing the client and not let them set the agenda for the kind of advertising that needs to be done.”

Pancorbo says, “Marketing is always about being edgy. Because of the traditional context of the Middle East, marketers have been cautious.” But, he admits that, to push the industry forward, regional brands should take it one step at a time.”

Activations are becoming a regional trend for emotional marketing. “Activation in particular is very important, because it is disruptive; it a way for a brand to stand out at a specific moment in time when the consumer isn’t expecting it to be there. Therefore, it will stay in their minds,” says Bassil.

The digital age is also forcing the industry to evolve rapidly: as consumers adopt new platforms, marketers must follow suit. Kearney says, “For a long time, brands looked at other brands as competition, but now, the real competition is entertainment. Marketers are competing more for eyeballs, because there’s so much content out there. Marketing needs to become entertainment in itself.”

Another way to the consumer’s mind-space is via personalisation. Marketers are testing the boundaries of this type of marketing across all platforms. However, best practices are needed for individualised targeting, because people commonly feel there is a ‘creepy’ factor to it. It’s also easy to get it wrong.  “Consumers do not tolerate a brand being fake, thinking it knows them [when it] really doesn’t. So, one-on-one marketing can lead to mistakes,” says Pancorbo. Meanwhile, Bassil believes the future of personalisation is not about being invasive but about keeping it simple and being relevant.

Universal gain

Of course, every brand should attempt to strike its own balance, depending on where it sits in the industry. “The future of emotional marketing is promising, because communication has shifted from brand- or product-centricity to customer-centricity,” says Samsung’s Barakat. “The success of emotional marketing has been entirely based on the integrity of customers’ insight. Hence, if we attempt to commoditise this aspect, the believability quotient will be lost.”

Standing out to the contemporary consumer will depend on a brand’s ability to connect with genuine messaging. Digital evolution is making this trust more and more important. Millennials have a different set of emotions, which require a new marketing strategy to reach. No one knows the future of emotional marketing, but, whether it’s executed through personalisation, a greater purpose or disruptive activations, most agree that EQ will be a part of the formula.

Kearney says, “One of the age-old questions in advertising is, ‘Do we reflect society or do we shape it?’ From my perspective, we reflect society. I don’t think we should be imposing our own ideals on how people should be behaving. So, if there is a trend that is emerging and starting to crest, we get on board.”


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