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All You Need Is Emotion. Really?

By Phil Barden
blog

Emotions are a marketing hot topic, with increasing and exciting evidence that emotionally engaging communication correlates with positive impact on sales. This correlation has rapidly given rise to a whole range of new tools designed to help marketers measure the emotional impact of their communication through, for example, facial expression, biometrics or EEG. As much as we may be excited by the correlation, we also know many confusing cases where “they love the ad, but it is just not selling...”. 

Rigorous scientific analysis provides a more precise understanding of emotions and of exactly how they relate to purchase decisions. In this article we take a deeper look at the science of emotions, why emotional communication can increase sales and how emotions really relate to purchase decisions. This level of precision is important because, if marketing is ultimately about shaping behavior in favor of our brands, the winners will be those who best understand the true dynamics of behavior and how to use this to brief for effective communications.

Do we really know what emotions are? Let’s take a look from a scientific perspective.

Emotions are a physiological response to something we experience or anticipate. Our brain continuously tries
to make predictions about the world around us in order to survive. This helps prepare our bodies to cope with the upcoming situation by releasing neurotransmitters, adapting heartbeat, regulating blood pressure and muscle tension accordingly. Hence, the way emotions are measured in science is to measure these physiological responses. These affective physiological responses are automatic, fast and very basic to prepare us for fight or flight. There are two physical dimensions to emotion:
i) arousal – intensity of the body’s physiological response
ii) valence – evaluation of whether something is positive or negative

We like to try and make sense of these physiological sensations, so we construct ‘’feelings” based on the emotional response. We attribute different feelings to the same emotional response based on the specific situation we are in, our experience, personality and our cultural background. The feelings are labels we attribute to the emotion experienced (Barrett, 2017). We may frame and describe these feelings as “love”, “hate”, “jealousy”, etc., but the underlying emotion is only driven by the two dimensions of arousal and valence.


Basal affects occur along the dimensions of valence (good, bad) and arousal (active, passive).

So how does emotion drive communication effectiveness? If we are in a state of high arousal, our attention span increases and our senses are sharpened to be able to deeply process the object that triggers that arousal. However, sometimes an ad evokes high arousal, but no one remembers the brand - why? To leverage the potential of the arousal the brand/product needs to be the agent that triggers the response. If emotional response is not linked to the brand, the ad might be remembered but not the brand because it is not instrumental in activating the emotional response.

Secondly, due to its deeper processing, emotionally engaging communication is more likely to be remembered. To understand this positive impact on recall we need to look at the brain’s geography. The hippocampus is a brain structure that manages what we store and where, and it is positioned right beside the amygdala – our emotional center.

This shows the relationship between emotional response and memory formation: to survive, and to optimize future decisions and actions, it was especially important to store and remember those objects and situations that evoked a strong emotional response. Hence, we are more likely to store episodes (e.g. TVCs) and objects (e.g. brands) if they are delivered with high arousal. So, if an ad is emotionally engaging we are more likely to store it, contributing to the recall of the ad and also increasing the mental availability of the brand.

Thirdly, arousal is a key predictor of sharing creative communication. The higher the arousal, the more likely people are to share. (Falk, E. et al. 2013). What about valence? The valence of our experiences with the
brand becomes part of the brand’s associative network. Therefore, a communication that evokes a positive emotional response is helpful in building a positive attitude towards the brand. Communication creating positive valence is more likely to be shared than negative. However, the notion that "emotion is all that matters" has significant limitations. Arousal and positive valence are fundamental but also very basic dimensions. They do not help differentiate our brands and products. Valence only provides a basal evaluation (good vs. bad) and therefore only provides basal differentiation between brands. Some emotional ads sell, others do not. To explain this, we need to take a closer look at decision-making.

Whilst there may be exceptional occasions when we react in a heightened state of emotion, such as hooting a car horn in annoyance, the vast majority of the decisions we make on a daily basis are conducted at a routine level with very low associated arousal. In fact, emotions generally do not cause behavior! There is a link between emotion and behavior, but any correlation must not be mixed up with causality. Renowned psychologist Professor Roy Baumeister and his team at Florida State University have evaluated more than 3,000 scientific papers dealing with the question of “do emotions determine behavior?” The result was astonishing and certainly challenges the prevailing view: there is almost no indication in this vast body of scientific literature of a causal relationship between emotion and behavior, except in extreme cases! Emotions are a result of our actions – not the other way around! They provide feedback on whether we are on the right track or not.

But how does that fit with the insight that most decisions are determined by System 1? Doesn’t the work of Kahneman prove that everything is about emotion? No! The notion that “System 1 = Emotion” is an inappropriate oversimplification and misses the point. Take one example: driving a car. In our first driving lesson, we had to think about everything we did. It took a lot of effort and we were slow. We were using our System 2, because we had not yet developed intuition. Nowadays, we do most of our driving without thinking. But do we drive based on emotion?! Hopefully not. Our decisions today are based on intuition. This is what System 1 is about: intuitive, automatic, effortless and fast decision-making based on associativeprocesses.

You might also have heard about “Elliott”, the famous patient of Professor Antonio Damasio. This patient suffered from a trauma in the frontal lobe, damaging an area called the OFC (orbito-frontal cortex), and this damage made it impossible for him to make decisions. However, Elliott could still experience emotions. “The machinery for his decision making was so flawed that he could no longer be an effective social being.” (Damasio, 1994).

Damasio’s main concept is “somatic markers”. He used skin conductance during a gambling task as a measurement
of somatic markers – he measured arousal. These somatic markers are hypothesized as positive or negative input signals to decision-making. Damasio’s hypothesis has been interpreted by many as meaning that emotion is the basis of all decision-making. However, he later conceded, that “We caution against the idea that emotion-based signals ‘decide’ for us, other than in extreme situations” (Nature Neuroscience 2002). So, to conclude, emotions help make communication more effective as a vehicle to ensure processing of the content of an ad, but the emotional response when watching the ad as such does not drive the purchase decision, because emotions generally do not cause decisions and choice.

Which visual triggered more sales? If we think emotions, we might choose the one showing the couple. In fact, visual B triggered the highest in-store sales. Why? Brain scans showed that the brain region that explained sales is the same one that was damaged in Damasio’s patient. Further research into this area and its function shows us what actually drives brand choice. In a nutshell, this system assigns value to choices based on our current goals and needs, which is why its activation determines choice, sales and willingness to pay. So how does that work?

Behavior is driven by the expected value of a choice. In very general terms, this value is a function of the experienced or expected discrepancy between our actual (current) state and our desired (target) state. This discrepancy is what makes us do things, what motivates us. It is the discrepancy from our desired state (goals) that determines the value of choices. You might love doughnuts, but you may have gained weight. This state increases the discrepancy with your desired goal state of self-esteem and feeling attractive. So you are motivated to go on a diet and hence the reward system will assign a lower value to the doughnut. Once you have lost weight, your goal of feeling attractive is achieved, therefore your goal of losing weight is deactivated because there is no discrepancy anymore. At this point the doughnut gets a higher value again.

Let’s take a deeper look at what drives choice and at the role that emotions play in decision-making. A recent study (St. Gallen Review 2018) provides concrete findings on how consumers make purchase decisions. The researchers wanted to understand which brain systems correspond with actual sales. The following visuals were used in-store and sales were measured:


Which visual triggered more sales? If we think emotions, we might choose the one showing the couple. In fact, visual B triggered the highest in-store sales. Why? Brain scans showed that the brain region that explained sales is the same one that was damaged in Damasio’s patient. Further research into this area and its function shows us what actually drives brand choice. In a nutshell, this system assigns value to choices based on our current goals and needs, which is why its activation determines choice, sales and willingness to pay. So how does that work?

Behavior is driven by the expected value of a choice. In very general terms, this value is a function of the experienced or expected discrepancy between our actual (current) state and our desired (target) state. This discrepancy is what makes us do things, what motivates us. It is the discrepancy from our desired state (goals) that determines the value of choices. You might love doughnuts, but you may have gained weight. This state increases the discrepancy with your desired goal state of self-esteem and feeling attractive. So you are motivated to go on a diet and hence the reward system will assign a lower value to the doughnut. Once you have lost weight, your goal of feeling attractive is achieved, therefore your goal of losing weight is deactivated because there is no discrepancy anymore. At this point the doughnut gets a higher value again.

Motivation – unlike emotion – always has a target component, an outcome that we want to achieve. Behavior in general, and consumer behavior in particular, is “goal directed behavior” – we purchase brands and products to achieve the desired state, goals, needs or jobs to be done. It is motivation that actually determines what we purchase. Because it assigns value based on how rewarding the brain expects a particular choice to be, this system is referred to as the reward system and it is the core of motivation. This value expectation is based on the associations that we build with the choice over time. This explains why visual B sold more. The distinctive reward of the brand is “sharing” which is communicated more strongly in visual B. So, motivation is what makes us do things – not emotions. We choose the option with the highest goal value. The value is high if our products and brands are perceived to be an effective means to close the experienced or expected discrepancy between what we desire and our actual state. But where does emotion fit in decision- making?

Our current desires, needs, goals and tasks to be achieved drive our behavior and this is managed by the reward system in the brain. But, in order to learn and to guide future choices, we also need a feedback system that tells us if the choices we made were appropriate. This is where emotions fit in. Emotions are the feedback mechanism by which we gauge (via conscious “feeling”) the extent to which we are meeting our goals. So first we decide (or buy), then we experience an emotion that tells us if this was a good decision or not. As stated earlier, our brains are in a constant state of prediction and these prediction errors (whether positive or negative) will result either in positive or negative affect. When we achieve our desired goal we experience happiness, joy, or calm whereas non- achievement causes us to experience anger, sadness and anxiety. In each case, the emotion is a result of, and not a trigger for, behavior. Put simply, in the words of Professor Roy Baumeister, “Emotion serves as an inner mechanism to reward and punish behaviors”. If a behavior leads to negative emotion we can retrain ourselves and avoid this behavior in the future.

Emotional communication is an effective vehicle, but it is not the message. To impact behavior, we need a message that increases the perceived goal value of our brand, a message that shows that the brand is instrumental in helping us achieve our goals. To increase the impact of communication, the power of emotional response should be leveraged in order to optimize attention, recall and increase the likelihood of sharing. Let’s look at some key points on how to achieve this, using the John Lewis “Moz the Monster” Xmas TVC (2017). The table below summarizes the motivational (the WHAT) and the emotional (the HOW) dimensions of the ad.


This was originally published in Insights, all NMSBA members have access to the full archive of this quarterly magazine on neuromarketing. Interested in joining? Check the options