Emotions vs. Emotional Benefits in Marketing

By Glenn Livingston, PH.D., Executive Solutions, Inc. Syosset New York

In the past few years, difficulties in assessing emotional benefits in marketing have received a lot of attention and discussion. We have examined such obstacles as respondents' preference not to reveal certain emotional motives to interviewers, perhaps based on their beliefs that they make decisions completely objectively, or perhaps because emotional motivation is at a subconscious level that they can not identify or articulate.

Other barriers to uncovering emotional motivation include:

  • Rational Purchasing Consciousness - respondents prefer to believe that they make decisions based upon purely objective and observable criteria about the product or service at hand. Emotional motivation threatens this belief system. (Indeed, this is why so many people say that advertising doesn't affect them, despite the industry's willingness to spend billions each year)
  • Fear of "Hidden Persuaders" - many respondents fear that if we really knew what made them tick, we would take advantage of them and sell them things they don't really need.

These obstacles hold true even more so for respondents in medical marketing research and business-to-business, where there is a professional position held by the decision maker such as physicians, purchasing dept. executive, etc. A very effective way to overcome these obstacles is through the use of projective techniques. There has, however, been something vital missing from our discourse. That is, exactly how do emotional benefits wield their influence?

Emotions vs. Emotional Benefits

First, let's address one of the major reasons emotional benefits have remained shrouded in mystery: confusion over the definition of an emotional benefit itself. You see there is a sharp distinction between an "emotional benefit" and an "emotion."

An emotion is best defined as a state of physiological arousal to which a cognitive label is attached. There are four core emotions: mad, glad, scared and sad. At an even simpler level, we either feel "good" or "bad." Of course, there are various gradations, combinations, time-displacements, and shades of grey regarding all of the above. Thus we can say we feel disappointed, for example, meaning we were expecting to feel glad but found ourselves feeling one of the other three core emotions.

Knowing how our brand or brand activity such as concepts, advertising, names, taglines, etc., make someone feel is only minimally useful. Certainly we want to know whether our new commercial makes people feel glad or sad, but that is only a measure of valence; it does little or nothing to lend direction to our creative efforts. It tells us nothing about how to set the mood and tone for our advertising, or even necessarily how to fix any bad feelings that emerge. Rather, it is instead the emotional benefit statement and not the emotion which is most informative, motivating, and useful for brand development.

An emotional benefit is an often rather complex, positive, cognitive statement that our respondents are able to make about themselves due to their use, display, and attachment to our brand and its features. More succinctly, an emotional benefit is nothing more than "something nice I can say about myself because I use your product or service."

There are a number of critical differences between emotions and emotional benefits. The benefits are entirely cognitive, whereas emotions involve a physical response. Emotional benefits are specifically attached to brands, their particular features, and advertising. In contrast, emotions are more diffuse human physiological reactions with a limited set of simple labels. Emotional benefits relate directly and powerfully to enduring self-concept, while emotions are more closely associated with temporary and instinctual physiological reactions.

It is this last distinction that is most important, and most closely identifies the reason that emotional benefits are so vital to branding. What we're after in emotional marketing research is a manner in which we can link our brand to our target's enduring self-concept. We want a lifetime relationship with our target, and this is only possible if we understand the core values and principles which they use to define them.

A vital brand has a relationship with loyal users not unlike a healthy relationship between two people. People maintain ongoing affiliations as long as each person in a relationship feels as though the other contributes positively to his or her sense of self. Relationships fall apart when perceived negatives begin to outweigh the rewards of the association. For example, being coupled with a successful friend casts a positive halo onto someone who values success.

Of course, in branding we are a little more limited in providing emotional benefits than we are in our actual human relationships, because there are only certain elements of self-concept that we can viable support with a brand. Self-concept is admittedly comprised of much more than just the brands we buy or the brand features and advertising to which we are attracted.

Branding and Emotional Benefits

Notwithstanding this limitation, we contend that it is this very ability to support self-concept that is the most potent glue available for branding. Armed with this more precise definition of an emotional benefit, let me proceed to discuss exactly how emotional benefits influence purchase and branding. Emotional benefits are - usually unconsciously - attached to specific elements of a brand, and to the brand itself as a whole.

You can actually think of them entirely without reference to the word "emotion" and remain fully in the rational sphere if you prefer. Really, you can practically translate them to just the kind of person that a particular rational feature supports, for example:

  • I am an intelligent person because I found low-fee mutual funds at Vanguard.
  • I am an attractive person because I chose this particular color of rouge.
  • I am a productive person because I because I purchased a PDA with a fast microprocessor.
  • I am a sexy person because I drive an aerodynamic car.
  • I am a powerful person because I bought a rowing machine from an infomercial with that muscular guy.
  • I am an energetic person because I replenish electrolytes after exercise with Gatorade.

A brand then, becomes the profile of self-concept-supporting statements that people make about their attachments to its features and advertising or messaging.

Emotional Benefits and Customer Rationality

There is an extraordinarily common objection to emotional brand research. The objection is that certain categories are purely rationally driven and thus preclude emotional branding. This is nonsense, given our above understanding, because every rational feature is desired for the support of some aspect of self-concept.

Consider for a moment an extreme example of a market driven entirely by price sensitivity (we shutter to think!). In such a market, according to the "I don't need to do emotional branding" theory, competitors could only compete via their respective abilities to keep their cost structure low and progressively out-bid each other in a pricing war.

This is not the case, however, because there are emotional benefits attached to price, and these emotional benefits will differ depending upon the particular market and category one is assessing. For example, there are two primary emotional benefits we have found to be associated with saving money: freedom and security.

Conducting emotional branding research to understand what benefits are more important to your market, to what extent this is the case, and how these emotional benefits might attach to other aspects of the brand would lead to very different directions for the creative mood and tone of brand messaging. That is to say that you would want to talk differently to people who most desire freedom than you would to people most desire security. Herein would lie the competitive branding advantage in what the rest of the world viewed as a virtually un-brandable, price-driven commodity.

The same argument can be made for the use of emotional branding in pharmaceuticals. Suppose all drugs in a category have more or less equal efficacy . let's say, anti-histamine response. The marketer who knows what emotional benefits underlay anti-histamine response is in a competitively better position to set the mood and tone of advertising that will attract the physician's attention.

Emotional Benefits and Customer Awareness

Another common objection to emotional brand research questions how those benefits can amount to greater customer awareness. Emotional benefits are able to wield their influence precisely because they work beyond the awareness of the customer. It is the very fact that they are so elusive and hidden that makes them so very powerful and persuasive.

Let me explain. If you were to read the benefit statements above (e.g. "I am a sexy person because I drive an aerodynamic car") to a respondent directly and ask for levels of agreement, you would get a MUCH lower level of agreement than is in fact the case, and market behavior would differ greatly from what you assessed in your QNR. This is because of the four obstacles noted at the beginning of this essay - people don't want to believe that they are or can be emotionally influenced towards brands or purchase. Most consumers find the idea repugnant and aversive.

The fact that people don't want to admit to using brands as a method of partially supporting their self-esteem forces these associations out of consciousness, and prevents them from cognitively reasoning about them or articulating them out loud. And it is this fact - that consumers erect a strong barrier preventing them from becoming aware of or admitting the influence of emotional benefits - that makes them so incredibly powerful. You see, language is the food of the intellect. Without language (cognitive, symbolic representation), logical reasoning is much more difficult, if not impossible. When a thought is put into language and made conscious, a person's adult mind is able to make adult, rational decisions. In our analogy, when the consumer becomes conscious of the emotional benefit, it becomes somewhat nullified because they then say to themselves "Oh, I'm being ridiculous! Buying this product doesn't really make me a different person."

The point is, most customers don't allow themselves to raise emotional benefits to this level of consciousness, so the impact remains. In fact, many brands make the mistake of raising the benefits to a level of awareness that takes away their power. They try to force the emotional benefit by telling the consumer directly. This doesn't work nearly as well as indirectly communicating these benefits via an emphasis on the features of the brand that support them, and with the creative mood and tone of the brand's messaging.

The mind likes to have to work to solve the mystery (aiding recall and attention), and by not forcing the consumer to recognize that they are using your brand to support their self-esteem, you are permitting them the grace of ignorance (to maintain their rational purchasing consciousness, avoid admitting socially undesirable motives, etc). Emotional benefit motivation is knowledge for marketers, not consumers - yet another reason to utilize projective techniques for its discovery.

This article was originally published in QRCA Views (official publication of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association), Winter 2004.

Tags: Branding, Research