Emotional appeal: how unconscious factors shape consumer behaviour

Calling upon consumers’ sense of reason will only get brands so far. Understanding what’s going on beneath the surface is the best way to form lasting, engaged relationships

Emotional appeal: how unconscious factors shape consumer behaviour

Creating a brand that holds a special place in consumers’ hearts isn’t necessarily straightforward but understanding how to get inside their heads is a good place to start. Utilising the unconscious associations attached to a brand can be one of the best tools a marketer has at their disposal to ensure theirs is the product that ends up in customers’ shopping baskets.

We haven’t always understood the power unconscious factors have held over our purchasing decisions. “For the last 40 or 50 years, market and consumer research into decision-making was based on a false premise,” says Dr Nigel Marlow, founder of Innovationbubble, the research agency and consultancy. “That premise was that human beings are rational.” He feels this is a hangover from classical Greek thinking, which assumed a rationality that separated us from the animal kingdom. Gradually, as psychological theory has advanced, we have come to understand the role the unconscious plays in guiding seemingly conscious decisions. “Human decision-making is split between deliberate, conscious decision-making and automatic, non-conscious decision-making,” he explains.

It’s possible to discern this in the shift in the way certain products are marketed; Marlow points to the way print advertising used to market cars in the 1920s and 1930s. “It maybe had a picture of a car and a family but it had a lot of writing in it,” he says. “It’s all performance things and it’s all rational stuff.” Gradually the timbre of motoring marketing changed; the focus shifted more towards the experience driving certain cars would give you, until the point where many modern cars are advertised using rather abstract imagery. “It’s certainly not conscious stuff,” he says. “It’s all based on feeling and emotion.”


Listening to your gut

But whilst it’s easy to assume information-based and emotion-based purchasing decisions are diametrically opposed, this may not actually be the case. “When you talk about emotion, it sometimes implies being irrational,” says Simon Glynn, director of Lippincott, the brand strategy agency. “Actually this can be a very rational way to think.” Often, when choosing between two products or services comes down to gut instinct, one might assume that the decision process is entirely irrational. But this ignores the many concrete, unconscious factors at play. “What you’re trying to do with brand, even when it’s emotional, is create something that’s intrinsically valuable,” he says.

Implicit value can certainly prove far more powerful in swaying our decisions than stats or product specs. “There’s a really obvious correlation in a lot of industries that emotions are effective,” says Matthew Celuszak, founder of CrowdEmotion, the emotion-capture technology provider. Emotion can motivate us in ways that rational appeal can’t; he points to the recent Red Nose Day as an example of how sentiment can act as a more significant behavioural driver than dry information. These unconscious drivers can help us make decisions far quicker than attempting to weigh up all of the facts. “You’ve already made up your decision by the time your brain reaches the rational part of its process,” he says. “That’s the whole gut feel.”

These unconscious factors can help create real and long-lasting consumer loyalty but really capitalising on them requires an understanding of how people relate to each other. “It’s adapting the human relationship framework; a brand needs desire, empathy and dependency,” says Glynn. Desire is fairly easy to understand; you only have to look at people hankering after an Apple Watch to see this play out. But empathy and dependency are far less common: they are the degree to which we feel a brand represents us and the degree to which we rely upon it. “People often talk about brand desire,” he says. “But the real questions are does that brand actually understand me and would I really miss it if it disappeared?”


Accessing your emotions

Marketers aren’t lacking in an appreciation of these factors; seeing how much value brands like Apple or Coca-Cola place in their implicit associations shows they certainly recognise the power they can hold. But, in an age when spend is more closely monitored than ever, how can brands quantify and track the potential return investment that these areas can offer?

CrowdEmotion believes it has struck upon a solution. Its emotion-capture technology enables brands to assess consumers’ emotional responses to content through webcams, providing real-time breakdowns of factors like happiness, anger, surprise or sadness. But Celuszak believes its real power is providing quantifiable and actionable insights based on this data. “If I say, ‘they were happy during that film’, they’ll say, ‘so what?’,” he says. “When I say, ‘if you drive more happiness in your campaign, you’re going to see a 10% uptake in clickthroughs,’ then they have something tangible to work from.”

And Celuszak believes that as more of our lives are mediated through technology, this will only become more vital. “The big question will be, ‘how do you make technology feel?’,” he says. Not only will an ability to conduct our emotional relationships through smart devices become ever more important but it is hard to underestimate the huge benefit to brands if they will be able to better understand what makes consumers tick. “The big thing is being able to understand not what they’re clicking but why they’re clicking it,” he says.

Whilst some assume that our reliance on technology is leading us into an increasingly depersonalised world, its easy to see how a better understanding of consumers’ unconscious processes will enable brands to offer them much more personal, meaningful experiences. 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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