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Building Emotional Connections

Rethinking Emotions In Marketing


Although the importance of emotions in consumer behavior is certainly not a new topic, there is still a feeling that marketers have minimized them in their market approach in the past. Of course, it is easier to change the packaging of your product or add a different ingredient than to make your brand ‘less sad’ or more ‘passionate’. However, recent neuro-research illustrates that we have been underestimating the impact of emotions on decision making for a long time.

There are three different levels in our brain:

The first layer is called the ‘visceral brain’ or ‘automatic brain’. These are the type of brain cells we have in common with the most primitive animals. For simple animals like lizards, life is a continuing set of threats and opportunities and an animal has to learn how to react appropriately to all of them. The visceral level is fast. It compares information from the senses with pre-wired patterns of information. Based on this judgement, it swiftly gives instructions for routine deeds: running away, freezing, fighting or relaxing. This part of the brain is therefore responsible for instinctive behavior.

The second part is the limbic system. This brain adds emotions to the sensory information from the visceral brain. It is the base of the amygdale, a brain structure that is responsible for experiencing positive and negative emotions. Based on the emotional evaluation of a stimulus, the limbic system decides to continue or stop certain performances. We have this brain in common with other mammals. This limbic level is not conscious. It is responsible for so called automatic acts. Think of the way you drive your car or how a skilled piano player seems to do cerebral activities without much effort.

The limbic system interacts closely with the neocortex, the brain part that developed in the last stage of human evolution, called the ‘rational brain’ or the ‘reflective brain’. It reflects back on our acts and links sensory information to existing memory structures. Based on these reflections, it tries to alter behavior. This leads to informed decisions and is therefore often called ‘the ratio’.

The actions we undertake are the results of co-processing done by all three layers in our brain. However, research by Joseph LeDoux has shown that the impact of our limbic system is the biggest. Contrary to long-held beliefs, it is not our rational brain that is in the driver’s seat. Consumer behavior is largely controlled by emotions and only sporadically overruled by our ratio.

Implications For Branding And Marketing

What do these neuropsychology findings teach us as marketers? It is crucial to re-evaluate the role of emotions in our marketing approach for a couple of reasons. First, they have a direct impact on consumer decision-making. Emotional thinking works much faster than rational thinking. Our gut feeling directs very quick reactions. The emotional brain processes sensory information in one fifth of the time our cognitive brain takes to assimilate the same input.

Second, emotions have always had an important evolutionary meaning. Our capabilities for detecting anger, fear or disgust have served as powerful indicators for dangerous situations. Similarly, positive emotions have re­ assured us that we could safely engage in certain activities. Emotions are therefore important attention grabbers. We are wired to pay attention to emotions. Using emotions in communication will therefore draw your customer’s attention.

In the middle of our limbic system we find the hippocampus, a brain structure responsible for memory. Together with the emotion center, the amygdale, it helps us capture new memories. Whenever a new stimulus contains emotions it will trigger the amygdale, which will then create a new memory connection in the hippocampus. Every time we recall the stored information, the accompanying emotion will be revealed again. The limbic system is therefore the seat of emotional branding.

Whenever we are confronted with a brand, we will experience these emotions. We do not only consume a product, we are also emotion consumers. We eat chocolates or drink warm drinks such as coffee when we feel sad. We drink tea to relax and take away our agitation. Because of our typical memory structures, our perceptions are constantly colored by our emotions.

What the heart thinks, the mind speaks. People who experience an emotion tend to start a communication process to share this emotion with others. Research found that only 10 per cent of the emotional experiences are kept secret and never socially shared with anyone. The more disruptive the event, the sooner and more frequently it will be shared. Social sharing of emotions is also positively related to the intensity of emotions. Emotions do not only appear to be an important element in stimulating word-of-mouth but also in creating online buzz. Successful viral movies trigger an emotional response in the recipients’ brains.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Joeri Van den Bergh and Mattias Behrer, excerpted from their book, How Cool Brands Stay Hot, with permission from KoganPage Publishing.

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1 Comment

Fred on May 21st, 2013 said

Fascinating and useful stuff. I’m especially interested in the idea that emotional thinking works faster than rational thinking. That would seem especially important in our distracted media consumption environment. It also makes me consider the importance of music in advertising because music instantly gives us emotional cues. For some reason, there’s a lot of reassuring and comforting ukulele music accompanying advertising these days.

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