David Penn dives into the role of emotion in building and sustaining brands in a world that believes itself all too rational.

About a decade ago, I published a blog questioning the “emotional intelligence” of the marketing and MR community. At the time, I sensed a reticence among many of its members to put forward arguments that might convince a sceptical marketing director to invest more in the emotional aspects of his brand. 

Have things changed or improved? Well, the rational persuasion models (such as AIDA, Attention > Interest > Desire > Action) might not be explicitly accepted nowadays, but I’m struck by the capacity of many marketers to ‘default’ to a rational explanation of how brands and communications work. 

Perhaps, as Gerry Zaltman suggested in 2003 (How Customers Think), it’s just easier to think that way, because such models fit with our inner (linear) narrative of how advertising works. Yet models like AIDA don’t explain much at all – at least not for most contemporary campaigns.

So, what arguments might convince a sceptical marketer to become more emotionally intelligent about his brand and advertising?

  1. Look at the (neuro) science. Some of you probably recall those early noughties conference presentations where someone (usually from a start-up neurometrics company) would declaim that “More has been learned about the brain in the last TEN years than in the previous HUNDRED. Nay, THOUSAND. Nay, MILLION…”. It’s a cliché, but like most clichés, it contains a lot of truth.

    The ability to look into the brain (particularly via fMRI) produced huge advances in our understanding of brain processes, and what emerged was a picture of a vast, hitherto unknown neural hinterland where many decisions are made unreflectively, unconsciously and, yes, emotionally. Our affective self acts independently of our conscious self, sending the latter messages which it turns into feelings. Whilst we're not at the mercy of our emotions, we can't turn them off – it's physiologically impossible – which means that every time we have an affective response to an ad, a brand or a product, we’ll most likely feel something about it, involuntarily and unconsciously.
  1. Look at BE. Do any of us behave rationally? We'd like to think so, but behavioural economists such as Daniel Kahneman know otherwise. It's not that we're irrational (in the normal sense of the word) it's just that we're almost incapable of consistently rational decision making - there are just too many heuristics, biases and emotions that get in the way. Years ago, when “Homo economicus” roamed the Earth, we used to think the best way to encourage rational decision making was to provide perfect knowledge – thereby allowing people to choose between alternatives based on the best available data. Yet even governments and regulatory bodies (for example, in financial services) now accept the folly of that premise, arguing that customers have to be protected from their own predilection for non-rational behaviour.

  2. Look at contemporary marketing and advertising. How many ads do you see nowadays that are made to a ‘rational persuasion model? We've become familiar with advertising that doesn't tell us much (or sometimes anything) about the product, yet many MR companies still evaluate it using a model developed in the 50s and 60s, when the world was emerging from an era of scarcity, and technology was bringing new and differentiated products to market at a rapid rate. Nowadays many markets are so mature that product differentiation in the classic sense is no longer a viable option. How do you differentiate a beer or a mobile phone network? The answer: build bonds and affinities through emotional engagement.

  3. Finally, look at the (business) evidence. In 2007, Binet and Field (in their book Marketing in the Era of Accountability) assessed 880 UK case studies from the IPA's rigorous effectiveness awards scheme, concluding that, “communications models that use emotional appeal are more likely to yield strong business results than rationally based models (information and persuasion)”. 

    They also went on to draw the startling conclusion that current conventional advertising pre-testing (which is often based on a rational persuasion model) may even reduce effectiveness. And in 2013, they published The Long & the Short of it, which showed that the optimal allocation of marketing spend is 40% sales activation (rational persuasion) and 60% (emotional) brand building. Note: they’re not saying abandon rational persuasion, but rather use it as part of an overall strategy that gives priority (at least in budgetary terms) to long-term brand building.

All of which seems to add up to a compelling argument, yet the fact remains that we need much more evidence of the Binet & Field variety if the sceptics of this world (and their shareholders) are to be finally won over.