Are You Pushing the Right Emotional Buttons?

Despite what you learned in your economics class, we’re really not all that rational when it comes to making a purchase decision. We don’t always buy the cheapest product, we don’t buy the product based on its features and benefits, we don’t buy products based on a cognitive decision that it’s the right product for our needs. In fact, my old professor, now at Harvard Business, presents evidence that only about 5% of consumer purchase behavior is based on rational thought processes. Instead, purchase decisions are overwhelmingly based on emotions, context, and time frames. Pushing the right emotional buttons nearly ensures a successful sale while making a cognitive appeal by filling your packaging and advertising with a bunch of words, images, and enticements to purchase actually reduces your sales, according to experts in consumer decision-making.

emotional buttonsI mean, look at this waifish image of a little girl. She could get you to buy anything, do anything to make her happy. Non-profits like ASPCA, with their images of abused dogs and crippled children in a Shriner’s ad, are hugely successful because their ads pull at your heartstrings. If you don’t believe me that emotions drive consumer behavior, maybe you’ll believe the science.

In his studies of folks whose emotional brain centers were damaged, but had fully functional rational brain centers, Damasio found emotional damage made it impossible to make decisions — not just buying decisions, but all kinds of decisions.

Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D. goes on to say this about why consumers prefer brand names (hint: it’s the emotional connection built between the brand and the consumer):

A nationally advertised brand has power in the marketplace because it creates an emotional connection to the consumer. A brand is nothing more than a mental representation of a product in the consumer’s mind. If the representation consists only of the product’s attributes, features, and other information, there are no emotional links to influence consumer preference and action. The richer the emotional content of a brand’s mental representation, the more likely the consumer will be a loyal user.

So, instead of being the rational utility maximizers envisioned by economists, consumers are a bundle of emotions about the products we buy, and pushing the right emotional buttons ensures a successful sale.

Pushing the right emotional buttons

According to Geoffrey James at INC, consumers respond to 6 emotional buttons:

  • Greed
  • Fear
  • Altruism
  • Pride
  • Shame
  • Envy
emotional buttons
Image courtesy of Explore Research

And, fear is the strongest of these emotions when it comes to motivating consumer behavior. The notion that sex sells only works when selling sex or sensual products like perfume, clothing, and jewelry. Of course, sometimes the right emotional buttons involve more than 1 of these six.

A more science-based attempt to understand the right emotional buttons breaks down emotions into 3 types —

  1. Reptilian emotions such as sexual arousal and aggression
  2. Individualistic emotions like curiosity, boredom, and surprise
  3. Social emotions, including love, guilt, shame

Whatever the emotions, we know pushing the right emotional buttons works.

Look at Apple. Why do millions stand in line to overpay for the newest iPhone or iPad when similar products sell for less? This despite the fact that, arguably, Apple technology isn’t always the best option. Part of the answer lies in Apple’s long-term strategy of being simple and intuitive, thus avoiding frustration.

Part of the answer lies in humanizing the brand. I mean, take a look at this ad comparing an Apple to a PC and you’ll see how effectively Apple evokes an emotion of trust in Apple products. Plus, the attractiveness of the “Apple” surrogate versus the buttoned-up look representing the “PC” visually reinforces positive emotions about Apple products. It’s this emotional connection forged between a person and an audience that underpins influencer marketing, as well as using a spokesperson in traditional advertising. Brands using social media to forge real personal connections with their community also energize them to make a purchase of the brand’s products.

 Using the right emotional buttons to motivate buying

Obviously, humans aren’t machines and they don’t respond automatically when you push the right button — not to mention that machines don’t have emotions. That’s why traditional advertising aimed at mass markets is challenging. Not everyone responds to the same emotional button.

Mindlessly pushing emotions and thinking you’ll send sales through the stratosphere isn’t gonna work. Instead, you need to understand your target market and its values. Then, combine emotion with those values to hit a home run.

Like Dove.

What could be less emotionally evocative than bath soap—and not some celebrity-endorsed expensive bath soap—just humdrum, boring bath soap?

In hitting on the campaign for real beauty, Dove pulled at emotional heartstrings and meshed with the values of their target audience — everyday women. Many women are concerned that the media presents an idealized image of what a woman should look like and that these images make real women feel unattractive and damage the self-image of millions of young girls and women. And driving these negative emotions leads to dangerous consequences, such as suicide. Instead of talking about soap — which is totally devoid of emotion and has a hard time even drumming up any rational reason to prefer one soap over another, they talk about how beautiful real women are — something their target audience feels. And soap flew off the shelves.

What are your markets’ emotional buttons

If you want the sell your brand, the first step is figuring out what makes your target market tick. What’s important to them?

Then, make your target market “feel” something about your brand. Don’t spend all your effort creating reports showing your brand superiority, make your target audience feel your brand is “for them”. History is littered with the corpses of superior products that didn’t survive while their less adept competitors thrived. Don’t fall for that trap.

You don’t have to hit your target market over the head in your emotion-driving efforts. Sometimes, images are much more powerful in pushing the right emotional buttons in your target audience. For instance, Coke used a campaign a couple of years ago featuring families gathered around the dinner table with a bottle of Coke positioned prominently. Later made into a series of TV commercials aired around the globe, the message embedded within the theme of family togetherness translated into every language. In an age when families often don’t have time to eat together or hide behind individual screens, the emotions locked into the family gathering still have tremendous meaning.

Social media and emotional buttons

Just as images evoke emotion, celebrities symbolize emotions. When the sexy star of Private Practice asks,” When you turn on your car, does it return the favor?” in Cadillac ads, she evokes primal emotions of sexual arousal. When the District Attorney from Law and Order suggests we consider TD Ameritrade, we trust him. In each case, the actor is imbued with the emotions of the characters they portray by consumers and this drives their purchase behavior.

In social media, we talk about micro-celebrities (influencers) — folks who show up in your social feeds so often they begin to become celebrities. Just like actors in traditional entertainment, micro-celebrities gain a public image and we form an emotional bond with them. Micro-celebrities turn their status into $$$$ for themselves and the businesses they represent. Finding influencers who believe in your brand and harnessing their influence to create positive emotions surrounding your brand does more than a thousand studies showing your brand’s superiority.

influencer marketing successAdd to this the power of social networks to work our emotions. I mean, take a look at your Facebook feed right now. I’ll wait. Are you back?

If your Facebook feed looks like mine, right now there are posts about the devastation caused by the earthquake in Taiwan, some really cute baby pictures, some kids and parents mugging for the camera, and, of course, a cat. Need I go on?

A veritable cornucopia of emotion!

We’re now primed for positive evaluations of whatever product we see promoted (since organic social media reach is now minimal based on the Facebook/ Instagram algorithm). But brands can go even further in priming the emotional pumps on social networks by engaging with folks online. A little validation of your complaint or recognition of your efforts to talk to the brand goes a long way in pushing the right emotional buttons.

Let’s focus on emotional intelligence as a means of segmenting your market and using a deep understanding of emotions to affect the buying process of these segments.

Emotional intelligence

If you accept the research that consumers use emotions in the buying process, the pressing question is how you detect emotions.

In the old general stores, you detected emotions because you were face-to-face with the customer and could judge her emotions. That’s still true in service situations—just think of the old bartender who listened as patrons poured out their problems. Of course, using the emotions detected within the service encounter requires a certain emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence?

According to the leading researchers in the area of emotional intelligence, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, emotional intelligence is:

the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.

These researchers theorized 4 steps involved in emotional intelligence:

  1. Perceiving emotions: The first step in understanding emotions is to accurately perceive them. In many cases, this might involve understanding nonverbal signals such as body language and facial expressions.
  2. Reasoning with emotions: The next step involves using emotions to promote thinking and cognitive activity. Emotions help us prioritize what we pay attention to and react to; we respond emotionally to things that garner our attention.
  3. Understanding emotions: The emotions that we perceive can carry a wide variety of meanings. If someone is expressing angry emotions, the observer must interpret the cause of their anger and what it might mean. For example, if your boss is acting angry, it might mean that he is dissatisfied with your work, or it could be because he got a speeding ticket on his way to work that morning or that he’s been fighting with his wife.
  4. Managing emotions: The ability to manage emotions effectively is a key part of emotional intelligence. Regulating emotions, responding appropriately, and responding to the emotions of others are all important aspects of emotional management.

Combining emotional intelligence and cognitive intelligence (IQ) yields personality, which is a topic for another day.

Emotional intelligence in the buying process

A recent scholarly study suggests marketers need to move beyond cognitive notions of consumer behavior — I think, therefore I do — to understanding how emotions impact the buying process. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with an end consumer or a business buyer. The authors support their contention by pointing to research showing a clear link between emotional intelligence and specific buyer behaviors, such as impulse buying, and emotions, such as self-esteem.

emotional buttons
Image courtesy of Forbes

Research suggests consumers with a higher emotional intelligence use a heightened understanding of their emotional state to make product choices. Hence, the notion of emotional marketing was born.

Emotions in the buying process

Here’s what Neil Kukemuller of Demand Metric has to say about emotions in the buying process:

Key in emotional marketing is understanding the underlying reason why a customer enters the market. A customer shopping for high-end baby clothes isn’t necessarily looking for an outfit to cover up her little one to meet societal standards of wearing clothes. Instead, she is probably trying to satisfy her emotional desire to dress her baby attractively to project an image of fashion and sophistication. Knowing this underlying motive, which often results from effective market research, helps in developing highly impacting ad messages.

When I began this post, I showed how brands manipulate (no negative connotation intended) consumers’ emotions through advertising and brand messaging. Certainly, recent Super Bowl ads hit the emotional nerve centers heavily, with positive results.

However, the marketing implications of emotions go beyond simple manipulation because, as discussed above, emotions and emotional intelligence affect buying decisions. Effective salespeople sense consumer emotions and modify their presentation to match the emotions of their prospects.

Can the same thing be done on a larger scale?

Can businesses detect emotions and match their messaging to these emotions?

Can this be done on a large scale?

Emotions in the buying process: Detect, Segment, Match

Detecting emotions in the buying process:

Up until a few years ago, you’d need an expensive market research study to detect emotions in the buying process. Today, big data offers detection solutions by monitoring the digital footprint left by consumers on social networks and mobile devices. Data provide insights into how consumers feel about brands, highlighting deeper emotions than simple liking to show the range of emotions consumers feel when they evaluate your product.

Savvy companies use this emotional understanding to benefit their brands in several ways:


Different consumers feel different emotions in the buying process. In the example above, where the mother buys baby clothing based on feelings of status, another might feel emotions of security that drive the purchase of clothing touting its flame retardance or its natural fibers.

Segmenting the market based on these emotions allows marketers to position their brands to match emotions in the buying process and to target specific market segments with appropriate messages that push the right emotional buttons.

Matching emotions

Deep emotional understanding also suggests fruitful avenues for new product development and managing improvements to existing brands by matching products with the emotions prevalent in the buying process of their target market.

For instance, detecting frustration associated with the product offers opportunities for creating new products or modifying existing products that reduce frustration.

Final thoughts on emotions in the buying process

  1. Emotions significantly impact buyer choice, likely bigger than cognitive evaluations of the brand’s features, including price.
  2. Emotions critical in the buying process go beyond simple liking to deeper emotions such as fear, hope, anger, frustration, etc.
  3. Detecting emotions is possible using the digital footprint left by consumers on social networks and mobile devices (such as instant messages).
  4. Market segmentation based on consumer emotions is not only possible but likely has a bigger impact on market performance than other types of segmentation variables, such as income and lifestyle.
  5. Matching products to consumer emotions offers huge opportunities to create successful new products and make improvements to existing products.

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