Emotional marketing has long since gained a distinct place within companies’ marketing strategies, and it’s now considered essential to building valuable brand-consumer relationships: to boost sales, to grow brand awareness, to increase customer loyalty.

What is emotional marketing and how can it help companies build a more authentic relationship with their target audience over time? We’ll try to provide some answers.


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Emotional marketing: a definition

Emotional marketing is a set of tactics aimed at activating particular emotional responses. These responses, properly enhanced, can then be harnessed to help target audiences identify with the brand and to help guide them along the path to purchase a product or service. 

Emotions in marketing give meaning and depth to the experience of a brand, product, or service; create a connection between customer and company; and if cultivated consistently, this bond can lead to long-term engagement.

Through emotional marketing, brands aspire to become entrenched in people’s lives. They aim both to settle over time by working on the collective imagination and to connect with current issues by acting on the most popular trends at a given time. Relevant topics such as inclusivity or environmental protection, for example, offer plenty of emotional hooks to companies’ initiatives: an increase in product prices that can be attributed to efforts to convert production equipment to something more sustainable, for example, are just some of the possible actions where you can connect with customers who are sensitive to the issue.

Successful marketing shows that the level of connection established, which is more intense than in other forms of marketing, helps to create a feeling of customer loyalty in the long run, and over the short term, can create a greater and more convinced purchase response.


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The origins of emotional marketing: emotional motivators

“The New Science of Customer Emotions,” published by Harvard Business Review and now a classic, is one of the sources to cite if you want to talk about emotional marketing. In the article, the authors Magids, Zorfas and Leemon argue that if an organization can connect with customers’ emotions, it has the potential for enormous competitive advantage. 

Unfortunately, building that kind of connection is often a matter of conjecture and supposition rather than a scientifically based rational attitude. The nearly 300 “emotional motivators” that the article’s authors propose represent an attempt to remedy this extremely vague situation. Using big data analysis, the motivators can be linked to specific behaviors, each distinguished by an expected degree of profitability. Through the analysis of these indicators, companies would be able to identify and exploit the particular motivators that drive customers to buy a certain product or service. 

It’s a process that can be divided into three distinct stages. 

  1. Companies conduct both market research and in-depth analysis on the data they already have. The goal is to discover what motivates their customers: desire for adventure, desire for security, striving for success, and so on (further investigation increases knowledge and understanding of the target audience). At this point, the results are interpreted to identify emotional motivators. 
  2. Companies focus on their best customers to find out which of the newly identified motivators are specific or relevant in terms of the value produced. In particular, key motivators are identified, usually two or three, that show a strong association with the brand more than others. In this way, a sort of “emotion guide” can be developed to select those that need to be invested in to grow awareness and engagement in the segment of customers considered most valuable. 
  3. Companies make structural efforts to make emotional connection one of the main levers of growth, not only in marketing but in every business function.


How emotional marketing works: emotions 

Before delving into emotional marketing tactics, we will highlight those emotions that seem to fit best into companies’ strategies. In most cases, these are not primary, innate and universal emotions (sadness, fear, joy, anger, disgust) but rather secondary emotions (culturally connoted), linked to the specific experience of the individual and defined by his or her social interactions. 

1. Nostalgia storytelling

Nostalgia storytelling focuses on a happy moment in the past, but which can, to some extent, be recreated through brand intervention. Although that of throwback (“plunge into the past”) is an effect that we can think of as relating primarily to older generations, the emotion of reminiscence or nostalgia, if triggered correctly, can be very successful with younger consumers as well.

2. Channeling emotion 

A brand may choose to openly stand in favor of a certain movement or to make a clear position on a sensitive issue. Its strategy in this case should try to channel emotions like anger and a sense of revenge (the two emotions we most often associate with the desire for change, even collective change) and perhaps push its target audience—but also different audiences—to greater awareness. Being associated with a strong awareness can be risky, both because the brand stands within a possible polarization of public opinion and because the risk of an epic fail (e.g., denouncing some form of “washing”) is always around the corner.

3. Amplify FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).  

The Fear Of Missing Out is a very human emotion, stemming from the fact that we are basically socialized beings from millions of years of tribal life. Emotional marketing harnesses this very ancient emotion—now amplified out of proportion in the instant communication of social networks—to push its audience to make timely purchasing decisions. It creates a sense of urgency in the consumers it targets, who begin to think (and feel) that they absolutely cannot afford to lose what “others” have already purchased or experienced, on pain of social exclusion.

4. Creating aspirations

Joy is an emotion characterized by a state of well-being and a sense of possibility, and it often results from the achievement of a goal—all the more so in today’s performance society. Emotional marketing stages potential in which others (again, what we feel is socially defined) show that they feel a sense of fulfillment (happiness, perhaps) through the use of a product. These others resemble us but not quite; they are aspirational “others.”


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How emotional marketing works: tactics 

Through what actions can we channel the potential of emotions? What techniques make it possible to enhance emotions by incorporating them into marketing processes? 

In general, a good emotional marketing strategy cannot show itself to be disrespectful or aggressive—the days of infomercials are thankfully long gone—but must put itself on the same level as customers, showing them understanding and empathy. 

The tactics available to emotional marketing are numerous. Here we will report some of the most effective ones.

1. Use powerful images

Using images, even in audiovisual content, is the simplest, most effective and immediate (but not trivializing) way to translate something invisible into a perceived and recognizable reality.

By using images—especially the most exact, layered, evocative, powerful ones—emotional marketing can, for example, channel the anxiety of the audience (which is looking for a solution to a problem) into a desired action, such as participating in a conversation with the brand, a conversion, a purchase. It can also nurture hopes and aspirations by providing parallel realities in which a product or service enables something long desired.

Companies have been exploiting our physiological predisposition to be captivated by visual stories for many years now. Marketers and communication professionals in particular are systematically using video, integrating it into their visual storytelling strategies, to hit a number of strategically crucial targets: from communicating the quality of a product or service more effectively, to building and promoting brand identity, to initiating and consolidating conversation with leads or customers. 

Through visual storytelling, companies improve the relationship with their audiences by channeling the viewer’s emotional engagement and motivating them to take action.

2. Build social proof through user-generated content

Emotional marketing aims first and foremost to build trust and can only do so by increasing the engagement of its target audience. One of the most effective ways to achieve this goal is through shared testimony, social proof spontaneously shown by those who have already purchased a particular product or service and gained a positive experience from it.

User-generated content (posts on social channels, reviews, improvised video tutorials, and so on) has great persuasive power and is perceived as trustworthy because it is sincere, authentic, and real. 

People prefer to trust the advice of a real consumer rather than advice provided directly by the brand. This is why online reviews and “word of mouth” have such an influence on purchase decisions.

3.Personalize communication

Customers want to feel heard and understood. They want content that answers their questions and addresses their pain points. They want marketing that shows it understands them and is able to help them. Above all, they want to be recognized. And the only way to establish a relationship with the public that is marked by mutual understanding is through increasingly personalized communication. If the consumer experience has improved over the past decade, it’s because of the possibilities for personalization that digitization offers. 

Without the opportunity to develop accurate surveys of the emotional landscape of consumers (a landscape that obviously varies from individual to individual), emotional marketing would not exist. In this sense, technology supports emotional marketing through increasingly advanced analyses. Computer systems make it possible to more accurately track the entire human emotional spectrum and to analyze the sentiment of content, both brand-created and user-generated. They empower marketers to identify the various emotional manifestations that can occur in brand-user interactions (e.g., reactions and comments to a post that has gone viral) and to make data-supported hypotheses about engagement, mood, attitudes, and personality. 

What is behind (and within) the emotions?

In the recent past, two different and hugely successful entertainment products, one aimed at younger audiences—but designed, as is often the case, for more adult audiences as well—and the other directed at a mainstream nonfiction readership, have helped popularize a theory of emotions that we might call deterministic. According to this theory, our behavior would be the result of a complicated interaction of biochemical processes and there would be little room for the exercise of free will. 

We’re talking about the Pixar-produced animated film “Inside Out” and Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling book “Sapiens” (specifically the chapter “And They Lived Happily Ever After”). In both cases, the hypothesis is that our mental and emotional states are governed by biochemical mechanisms that have taken shape over millions of years of evolution. In this sense, our well-being would not depend on external agents but rather on a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses, and substances such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.

“Inside Out” and Yuval Noah Harari’s reflections on “chemical happiness” contained in “Sapiens” provide a vision that is at once interesting and disturbing, returning us to a reality where we would be essentially uncontrolled, unable to govern our emotions and the behavior that flows from them. 

However, the reality may be much more complex and nuanced. In “How Emotions are Made,” Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are constructed through the interplay of different physiological and cultural elements between our brain’s internal processes, memory, and experience

The debate is open and compelling and while it certainly deserves to be explored further, it’s beyond the scope of this post. What we would like to highlight here is one particular aspect regarding the connection between emotions and marketing: we’re talking about the unbreakable link between emotions and stories.


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The most powerful weapon of emotional marketing is stories

Stories are immediately familiar to us because they are part of deep-rooted processes and are so effective—they are used in any area of human creativity—because they make contact with our belief and value systems. The emotional connection they produce would not simply be the result of external elements but would have a biological basis. In fact, we would all be programmed—each in his or her own way—to have the same physiological responses to the stories we hear, read, and watch.

In “Story or Die. Either Tell or You’re Out,” Lisa Cron writes that telling a story would trigger a mechanism at the biological level: a sequence of three closely connected elements that through specific neurotransmitters would achieve the amazing result of propelling us into the fictional universe.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak adds further meaning to a story understood as a structural element of reality: “Narratives that compel us to pay attention and engage us emotionally,” he explains, “are stories that drive us to action. Narrative content produces concrete consequences, which is why marketing, not just emotional marketing, has always used them.

So all nice and easy, right? Not quite.

Jonathan Gottschall, an expert on the science of stories sheds light on the proverbial other side of the coin, on the dark side of storytelling, which by tapping into a particular segment of the spectrum of human emotions—emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, sadness, disgust, disappointment—would do more harm than good to humanity (The story paradox – How our love of storytelling builds societies and tears them down). 

A “mind-disordering story” is a story that does not distinguish true from false, possible from existing, and uses the emotional tensions it creates to “manipulate” the audience. 

It’s not the manipulation that is the real problem—all stories are contrived to move the listener in a certain direction—rather, it’s the gradual dissolution of the structures (narrative, conceptual, symbolic) that enables us to distinguish reality from fiction and to navigate our way through the many alternative truths of which our world is composed. New technologies are amplifying the scope of a mechanism—which has always existed and is at the root, according to Gottschall, of the greatest evils that afflict human beings—that undermines the edifice of historical and factual knowledge on which civilized living is based from the ground up.

If misinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, and fake news are by no means foreign to the world of consumption, emotional marketing must take on an additional burden of responsibility, committing itself to choosing and validating the stories it wants to tell.