The undeniable power of human emotions in marketing

If there is one thing that has all the power in the world, it's human emotion. How can you utilize this force in your marketing strategy?

happy sad faces emoticons placards

Far too many brands unintentionally devalue digital marketing. They see it as something that needs to get done — an obligatory box to check in order to feel good about the direction the business is headed. As a result, they miss out on the opportunity to use marketing as an avenue for pushing past the surface level nonsense and engaging customers on an emotional level.

Making marketing human

For decades, people believed there were six core human emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry and sad. In 2014, the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology published research showing that the distinction between some of these emotions is based on various social interactions and constructs.

The scientists behind the research study looked at people’s facial expressions and the different emotions they showed when exposed to computer-generated facial animations. When asking observers to characterize the faces based on the six core emotions, the researchers discovered that anger and disgust look very similar — as did fear and surprise.

As time went on, observers showed a distinction between the two, but the emotions were very similar at first. This suggested that the difference between anger/disgust and surprise/fear is socially based — not biologically based.

“Our data reflect that the six basic facial expressions of emotion, like languages, are likely to represent a more complex set of modern signals and categories evolved from a simpler system of communication in early man developed to subserve developing social interaction needs,” the researchers wrote.

What does all of this mean, and why is it relevant to this conversation? Well, before you can develop marketing campaigns that grab people from the core, you must understand what makes them tick. This research shows there are ultimately four emotions that serve as the building blocks for people when they respond to stimuli — including marketing and advertising messages. They are happy, sad, afraid/surprised and angry/disgusted.

Once you understand the truth here, you can develop messages that use emotions to accomplish particular objectives and drive specific results. Suddenly, you’re no longer delivering empty or vague messages that are considered “safe.” Instead, you’re taking bold chances because you know that you have the ability to stir up emotions and drive real results.

How you can leverage human emotions

You may get the impression that, because people only have four core emotions, it should be pretty simple to engage customers on an emotional level. Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification. Crammed into these four emotions are thousands of degrees and factors and it’s up to you to understand who your customers are and what makes them experience these sentiments. 

While it’s not easy, it is possible. Part of the reason brands have success is rooted in the fact that they’re able to consistently engage their customers on an emotional level.

Let’s take a look at some examples and examine ways in which you can do the same.

1. Move beyond the product itself

One of the best ways to appeal to the emotions of your customers is by moving beyond the product itself. Instead of selling a widget, your marketing message should explain how the widget makes the world a better place.

Kitchen Cabinet Kings is one example of a brand that has made this a priority. Through the Plant a Tree campaign, Kitchen Cabinet Kings and Plant Memorial Tree have teamed up to plant trees in U.S. National Forests for every full kitchen that’s purchased. Suddenly, the decision to remodel or design a kitchen isn’t just an isolated choice — it directly contributes to a greater cause.

How can you develop marketing campaigns that move beyond the product itself? It could look like partnering with a cause you believe in, helping those in the community, or cleaning up your supply chain. The options are endless.

2. Make people feel good

Anger may be one of the most powerful emotions in terms of moving people to action, but there’s something to be said for making people feel good. It directly improves the associations a customer has with your brand and has a nearly universal appeal.

This 2016 Amazon Prime commercial is the perfect example. It features a priest and an imam who are friends and realize that they have much more in common than they ever realized. As the kids say these days, it gives you “the feels.” It may not make people immediately head over to to sign up for a Prime membership, but it does establish a positive touch point with the brand — which could ultimately lead to a conversion.

3. Change your audience’s perspective

Sometimes the best thing you can do — especially if you’re meeting resistance in the marketplace — is to gently change your audience’s perspective through emotional marketing.

This video from Save the Children has a powerful marketing message. Regardless of where you stand politically, it’s hard not to be touched by the 90-second short film that reimagines — through the eyes of a young girl — how Britain would be affected by war. By changing the “lens” through which the viewer sees the situation, the video is able to reach people on a very personal level.

Is there friction among your audience? If so, you may be able to better appeal to their emotions by switching up how they view the issue at hand. The key is to do it gently, without overtly pushing an agenda that conflicts with their core beliefs.

4. Shatter expectations

People are exposed to thousands of marketing messages every single day. From radio spots and television commercials to paid online content and social media PPC ads, marketing messages are everywhere. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these messages are safe and predictable. This causes people to put up blinders and tune everything else out.

Dollar Shave Club, with their outlandish videos and advertisements, uses the element of surprise and humor to shatter expectations and penetrate a market that’s been inundated with safe, boring marketing messages. It grabs attention because it’s unexpected. It keeps that attention because it’s clever and humorous.

You don’t have to be outlandish or humorous to shatter expectations. You do, however, have to be different. Are there ways you can buck conventional wisdom and do something differently?

How will you reach your customers?

Your customers are too valuable to be treated like cheap assets. If you truly want to move your audience to action, then you must recognize the power in engaging them at an emotional level. This doesn’t mean directly mirroring the examples highlighted in this article. It does, however, mean looking at what successful brands do and understanding how they approach emotional marketing in order to enjoy resounding success.

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