The Press, November 2005

Margarine was white when originally marketed in the 1940s. It was cheaper and healthier than butter, but initial sales were poor. Until the manufacturers did some customer research and decide to change the colour to yellow. This did nothing for the taste or nutritional benefit of the product, but it transformed people's attitude to margarine. What it did was make them 'feel' better about purchasing a tub.

This story from Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant book Blink illustrates a fundamental truth of marketing - emotion plays an important role in how people decided to buy something. Appealing to emotion is a key to marketing success, no matter what you're selling. As US sales guru Zig Ziglar says "People usually buy on emotion and then they justify it with logic."

What is emotion? The dictionary definition is that emotion is a strong feeling. One of the roots of the word is the Latin movere "to move". In terms of marketing, that is why emotion is all important - it's gets people to move, to take action. "The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action, while reason leads to conclusions," says neuroscientist Donald Calne.

All this emotion may be important for selling underwear or perfume, but for software or electronics? Most engineers would scoff at the thought that emotions are more important than logic in the decision making process. But there is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest it is.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who had received brain injuries with a particular effect, damage to the part of their brain where emotions are generated. One of the conclusions of the study was that the ability of these people to make decisions was seriously impaired. They could logically describe what they should be doing, but in practice they found it very difficult to make decisions about where to live, what to eat, etc. Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides which they could rationally assess, but they couldn't make a decision without that emotional motivator.

So what does this have to with marketing? It is much more difficult to connect with your target market, i.e. to get them to choose your product over the competitors, unless you appeal to the emotional benefits your product gives them. A small minority of the market will be able to translate your product features into a benefit for them, but the majority, the profitable part of the market, will just move on or ignore your message.

Here's a local example. Local technology standout WhisperTech have developed a heat and power generator called a WhisperGen, based on the internal combustion Stirling engine and a wobble yoke that drives an engine. One of the markets they are selling to is boat owners. These people are not looking for a Stirling engine generator with a wobble yoke, but a way to generate heat and power on their boats.

After conducting market research WhisperGen found that the reason boaties choose their product, against the many other marine generators on the market, was that the WhisperGen made their boat feel more like home. Ultimately that gave them more time to relax, which is why they brought their boat in the first place.

This is a strong emotional benefit that WhisperGen has been able to bind into the story they tell about their product. It is still important for them to outline the features (e.g. quiet, automated, low maintenance), but this supports a story that appeals to the emotions - you can relax, it's a WhisperGen.

Telling this emotional story is not simply about a few nice advertisements or brochures. Your brand, i.e. the collection of experiences a customer has with your company, must convey this emotional benefit. If the emotional benefit you deliver is making their life easier, everything about their experience with your company should be easy. Your customer service, billing, packaging, technical information etc should all contribute to that feeling.

How do you appeal to emotion in your marketing?

  • ACCEPT that buying decisions are emotional. You need to make an emotional connection to help them choose you over your competitors.
  • TALK to your customers to understand the primary emotional benefit your product gives them (fear, acceptance, confidence, happiness, courage, pride, discovery, control, relaxation, respect, love, hope, permission, safety etc).
  • TELL a story that makes conveys this emotional benefit strongly. People don't want to just see how it works, but what difference it will make to them.

Don't be frustrated the next time a customer makes what you see as an irrational decision not to purchase your product. Try instead to understand what need they were trying to fulfil and therefore the emotion that makes them decide. As Kiwi ad guru Kevin Roberts says, "Emotion is an unlimited resource with explosive power. In a world that is supposedly ruled by cool rationality, metrics, and game theories, humans are actually powered by emotion, not by reason."

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