Rethinking emotion in marketing to deepen engagement

As a marketing professional, you often think about creating an emotional connection with your audience. And for good reason. Emotion can direct attention, deepen engagement and drive behavior. But can you articulate how your marketing assets trigger emotional responses?

Emotion is strikingly complex, involving intricate biological processes that engage a variety of different regions in the brain. This complexity creates difficulty in aligning creative work to behavioral outcomes, often giving rise to misconceptions and false promises. The goal of this article, therefore, is to encourage you to think differently about the role emotion plays in marketing – and that starts with an understanding of emotions and feelings.

Understanding emotions and feelings 

How do you define emotion? How do your peers define emotion? Depending on whom you ask, you’re likely to get different answers. But don’t feel bad. Psychologists and neuroscientists often disagree, engaging in spirited debates and offering uncommon perspectives about a common word.

Since your peers might view emotion differently than you – and top researchers disagree on basic definitions – how should you approach emotion in marketing? In your line of work, think of emotion as a physiological response to external stimuli or internal processes, which occurs below the level of consciousness. It’s a response that starts in the brain – and has the potential to influence your audience’s thoughts, feelings and actions.

Does this mean that emotions and feelings are the same? No. Emotions and feelings are intricately linked, but fundamentally different. Emotions precede awareness; feelings, on the other hand, represent your conscious understanding of an emotional state. As Antonio Damasio, neurologist and professor at the University of Southern California put it, “an organism can possess feelings only when it can create a representation of the body’s functions and the related changes that occur in the brain.”

Emotion and reason: The key to effective decision-making 

The relationship between emotion and reason is another area that’s often misunderstood in marketing, thereby making it difficult to use emotional content to influence your audience’s rational choices. What comes to mind when you think about emotion and reason? If you think about diametrically opposed concepts, you’re not alone. But you’re also dead wrong. Consider one of Damasio’s patients, a man who had a tumor in his prefrontal cortex. After removing the tumor, the patient retained his mental acuity, demonstrating intelligence, humor and charm. But his life began to spiral downward quickly.

The removal of the tumor inadvertently impaired emotional processing – and it paralyzed his ability to make decisions. Regardless of the simplicity of the decision, time ticked away – and so did his life. When to schedule an appointment? That decision might take 30-minutes. What about deciding what to eat for lunch? Hours. Confronted with different decisions, the patient would drown in uncertainty, floundering upstream as he weighed the pros and cons of each decision, seemingly ad infinitum.

Emotional processing and rational decision-making are deeply intertwined, bringing a false dichotomy to the surface, the one between emotion and reason. Emotion helps the brain determine the relative value of competing inputs. According to Damasio, emotionless “reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options.” As a result, the patient’s “decision-making landscape (was) hopelessly flat,” thus illustrating the extent to which emotion plays a role in evaluating choices.

Creating an emotional response to drive behavior

Depending on your goals, you might want your audience to choose a particular product or service. In other cases, you might be focused on eliciting a behavioral response that leads your audience to click on a button, open an e-mail, or break out a credit card. In any of these cases, you want to approach emotional marketing as a process by which to trigger biological reactions to your creative assets. Do you want the heart rate to increase? Do you want the pupils to dilate? Do you want to trigger a hormone?

In 2013, researchers demonstrated that an increase in oxytocin – a hormone (and neurotransmitter) associated with empathy, trust, generosity and attachment – can increase donation in response to public service announcements. During the study, researchers found that participants with elevated oxytocin levels “donated to 57% more causes, donated 56% more money, and reported 17% greater concern for those in the ads.” In the second experiment of the study, researchers measured ACTH, a hormone that regulates cortisol. Correlating ATCH to attention, researchers predicted that an increase in both oxytocin and ACTH would lead to a greater increase in donations – and they were correct. Donations increased by 261%.

In 2014, a different study examined audience heart rates in response to TV commercials, discovering an increase in “cardiac activity during the observation of TV commercials that have been judged pleasant.” As a marketer, you’re in a unique position to use creativity to elicit an emotional response that’s beneficial to your business. The key is to get your audience’s brain to respond favorably to your work. As part of this approach, you might need to think about emotional marketing differently. After all, thinking about how to use emotion to drive outcomes is not only good thinking, it’s also good marketing.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Jade Bunke is a leading authority in marketing science, brand strategy, and demand generation. As a marketing scientist with expertise in buyer behavior, Mr. Bunke blends creative marketing with aspects of cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics to yield optimal results.

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