emotion fingers

It's Time for Consumer Romance

Charlotte Blank
Chief Behavioral Officer, Maritz

Editor’s Note: I have teenage nephews and nieces now. I don’t know everything about their social lives – and I kinda hope they’re not reading this – but I know it’s summer, and I know that teenage summers (maybe older ones, too – you do you) are for short, dreamy, emotional flings. Vacation relationships. Summer love. Romance.

So that’s how we got to this article.

Yes, I left out some steps, but romance is supposed to be mysterious, too, right? Like, “Hey, how did you get my number?” “Ooooh, it’s a mystery.”


“The human mind can be pragmatic because deep down it is romantic.” This sentiment by New York Times writer and fellow behavioral science enthusiast David Brooks refers to a foundational construct of behavioral science — that at our core, we’re fundamentally emotional beings.

Various metaphors have emerged to demonstrate the power our emotions have in influencing our judgments and decision-making. In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman establishes two parallel processes by which our brains make sense of the world and our experience within it. System One is fast, automatic and emotional. System Two is slow, deliberate and rational.

Though we’re generally unaware of it, our emotional System One does a lot of our decision-making for us through a series of automatic cognitive shortcuts. This frees up cognitive energy for our wise-but-lazy System Two to spend on life’s more calculated decisions.

From a customer engagement point of view, it’s useful to understand how these heuristics play into judgment and decision-making. Beneath the layer of conscious awareness, our System One is constantly forming brand impressions, drawing mainly from our emotions. If marketers were all playing a fantasy nerd version of rock-paper-scissors, then “heart” would almost always beat “head.”


From a customer engagement point of view, it’s useful to understand how these heuristics play into judgment and decision-making.

Emotion Versus Reason

One of the most powerful cognitive shortcuts for judgment and decision-making is the affect heuristic. This is the automatic way we consult our feelings to inform an ostensibly rational decision. We substitute an easy answer (“That campaign makes me feel uplifted and inspired!”) for a more difficult question (“What are the attributes and costs of this product?”).

We rely on our emotions to make most of our decisions for us because our System Two has a lot of tough decisions competing for attention. Marketers, please don’t make your consumers waste cognitive energy on your rational product messaging. It’s costly for you, because it’s mentally costly for them.


Please don’t make consumers waste cognitive energy on your rational product messaging.

Speaking to customers on an emotional level will be less effortful – and so much more meaningful – if you consider these best practices from applied behavioral science:

Create an Emotional Content Platform

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research on somatic markers demonstrates that emotions drive not only our decision-making but also our memories of events and experiences. Find an emotional hook for your brand purpose – around which to craft emotional stories.

My favorite brand example of emotional storytelling is Dove, whose “Real Beauty” campaign raised the bar for content marketers by changing the cultural dialog on women’s body image. Its transition from a rational message (“Dove soap contains 30 percent more lotion than the competition …”) to a higher-order emotional platform of self-esteem made the brand globally relevant and enabled it to enter new product categories. The content is thoughtfully crafted and deeply emotional; please go ahead and try to watch this mother-daughter spot without crying. I’ll wait …

Emotional content isn’t all soft stuff, though; it can also drastically impact the bottom line. Dove’s emotional brand platform enabled it to grow into a $6 billion icon. Indeed, in a profitability study of 1,400 campaigns, The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising found that spots that relied primarily on emotional appeal performed twice as well as those that relied only on rational content.

Incorporate Emotion into Solution Design

It’s not just marketing that benefits from appealing to the heart over the head; your products can evoke emotion as well. After some experimentation, many brands have discovered that approaching product design and development with an emotional eye can make products more appealing and memorable to consumers.


It’s not just marketing that benefits from appealing to the heart over the head; your products can evoke emotion as well.


In the automobile industry, for example, designers have learned that car designs that mimic human facial structure are more appealing to buyers. Being able to recognize faces helped our ancestors survive because it helped them find safety. Anthropomorphizing by describing the “personality” of their vehicles is one way consumers maintain an emotional connection with their purchases.


Experiential services are even better suited to designing with emotion in mind. Where in your solution can you build in opportunities for social sharing with others or emotional “peak” experiential moments? These are both powerful emotional triggers for brand engagement.


Drive Your Message Home with Familiarity

Emotional branding shouldn’t be a one-night stand – emotional associations grow over time. This is partly due to the mere exposure effect, a cognitive bias giving us preference for things we've seen more than once. (Editor’s note: See also Know Your Nuggets: Frequency Illusion.)


One landmark study placed mysterious ads in a college newspaper, featuring made-up words, with varying frequency. When readers were later polled to intuit whether each foreign word “meant something good” or “meant something bad,” they were much more likely to attribute positive meaning to the words they’d randomly seen more frequently.


Coca-Cola is the penultimate example of a brand that has built this familiarity over time. By “time,” I’m talking about more than a century of disciplined, consistent commitment to its emotional brand platform of happiness. Though the brand adjusts for the times and local cultural preferences, its core global essence is tied to a fundamental positive human emotion. Can you hum “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” without smiling? Can your grandmother?


The positive affect we feel for the Coca-Cola brand is apparent, even at the neural level. Sam McClure’s famous neuromarketing study demonstrated this phenomenon by reversing the blind taste preference for small sips of Pepsi, simply by exposing participants in an fMRI to the Coca-Cola logo.


Once you’ve created an emotional message and broadcast it to your target audience, repeat it on a consistent basis so your customers learn to associate your brand with that message. This takes time and patience, but the results are worth the wait.


Great Brands Heart Their Customers

We are all, at our core, emotional beings. We react to the world around us subconsciously and automatically. It’s this emotional core that fuels our buying decisions, and it’s the brands that speak to our hearts that make immediate and lasting connections with their customers.



Charlotte Blank
Chief Behavioral Officer, Maritz


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