OPINION20 May 2010

Let’s Not Get Irrational About Emotions

Loose definition and use of the concept of “emotion” in market research risks confusing marketers, and encouraging faddish and poorly thought out research practices. Emotional response is too often represented as somehow being necessarily “deeper”, “more important”, or “harder to uncover” than anything from the frontal cortex. This is simply untrue, and unfortunately leads to marketers often taking a simplistic approach to targeting consumers.

I’m getting increasingly emotional about all the loose talk about emotions going around the market research fraternity these days. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about some of the new methods for measuring emotional response that are coming out of the areas of cognitive psychology and neuro-science. These offer exciting possibilities. My concern though, is about the over-use and indeed misuse of the term “emotion” in the research context.

Smiling Bee outside hamburger outlet.

Sometimes it takes more than a smile and a positive attitude to get them in the door! (c) A.Gordon 2007.

We risk confusing marketers, and encouraging faddish and poorly thought out research practices. I have three gripes about this. Gripe #1: “Emotional response” is a term so vague that it actually indicates very little of marketing significance on its own. Emotions come in many flavours, strengths and durations of effect. We need to develop considerably more nuanced ways of measuring and understanding these effects.  Gripe #2: Emotion we are told regularly is at the heart of “90%” of  human behaviour”. Yet, if emotion is in effect “everything”, then what is it explaining? Again, emotion as a concept is only useful if we can identify how various types of emotions interact, contradict each other, and interface with rational thought to produce specific kinds of behaviour. Gripe #3: The Freudian fallacy still casts a long shadow over discussions of emotion. Emotional response is too often represented as somehow being necessarily “deeper”, “more important”, or “harder to uncover” than anything from the frontal cortex. This is simply untrue, and unfortunately leads to marketers often taking a simplistic approach to targeting consumers. It’s this third gripe that I want to focus on in this post.

In fact, while some “emotional responses” undoubtedly derive from deeply buried, fundamental preferences, the vast majority of that “90% of behaviour” that cognitive psychologists are discussing is about the role of emotion as our personal information processing mechanism. Despite what many would have you believe, in most of our daily life our emotional responses to brands seldom focus around big, deeply held beliefs that make you irrationally and subconsciously crave a certain hair care brand, or spend hours searching the blogs for the latest on Apple’s iPad.  Mostly they function to provide little prods to help you navigate your way through complex networks of consumer choices without having to think too much about shampoo or technology at all. Emotional response is often about enabling auto-pilot choice, allowing you to make quick, efficient choices without thinking too deeply about stuff you simply do not have time or interest in engaging with. Back in 2004, I presented a paper on this issue to the ESOMAR Congress in Lisbon where I looked at why people don’t necessarily have to be deeply emotionally bonded to choose a brand and indeed often buy “second preference brands”. I concluded:

  1. “Don’t Know” may be the real answer after all. Many people choose brands automatically, as a matter of habit and with little thought. Reasons for attachment can get buried and forgotten. Autopilot purchase behaviour prevails in lots of categories (not just CPG/FMCG ones).
  2. Being known is often more important than what is known.Top-level differentiation between brands is commonly based on simple familiarity and broad, pretty basic assessments of quality or appearance (often ‘prejudices’ would be a better term than assessment). Yes, these can be “emotionally” based drivers, but they are also more ill-defined and lightly held preferences than many marketers imagine.
  3. It’s not all about Me. As researchers we still put too much emphasis on personal attitudes and downplay the key role of social influences in mitigating individual choice patterns. We are social animals. If my wife or kids care more about a category than I do, then I may well put aside my own emotional preferences and buy what they like. Sometimes this is simple compromise, sometimes it is part of the subtle process of trade-offs that goes on in all relationships (if I let her win on the car, then my chances of choosing the next holiday destination goes up!).
  4. Tipping Points Are Often Trivial. At the stage of final choice between similar alternatives, consumers frequently utilise what are really quite “minor” and seemingly trivial decision criteria. I’ve seen this in categories from paper towels to credit cards and cars. It’s common to see people choosing brands using quite idiosyncratic little tests that may not be altogether “rational”, but neither are they just a blind sub-conscious urges (tipping up the coffee jar  to examine the size of the coffee granules is one such test I’ve seen in several countries.)

I recall a wonderful example of this occurring in a brand health study we were running on instant noodles some years ago.  One woman with two kids confessed she mainly bought the category for her kids, and really did not sample them much herself. She almost always bought brand X. Looking at a set of brands, she quickly rejected 3-4 of them as “ones I don’t know” and so not worth bothering with, and another two as having “smelt artificial” when she’d last prepared them. Left with two choices she had difficulty explaining why she chose X over Y, until – after a fair bit of probing – she recalled that she’s started choosing  X a few years ago when her then husband (now “ex”) said he preferred the taste. On recalling that she quickly added “My God, I’d forgotten that was the reason – I’m going to swap to Y next time!“.

All of these patterns, in different ways, offer explanations of why positive general brand imagery or “emotional attachment” to brands , does not always translate into purchase.  In my paper, I suggested we (researchers) needed tomove our perspective on what underlies consumer decision-making. In the past, consumers have tended to be seen either as actively seeking a “best solution” in terms of choice or as almost being “victims” of deep-seated needs, manipulated by underlying psychological drivers into making certain choices. In fact consumers are not entirely the victims of needs they can’t control, nor do they expend unnecessary energy deciding between countless alternatives.  In many situations, it probably makes more sense to see consumers as  “navigators”, primarily concerned with making reasonably safe decisions as fast as possible. More and more cognitive research suggests that making the journey to brand choice painless and efficient is almost as important for brand development as getting all the product’s benefits and positioning lined up correctly. As they say, it’s about the journey, not just the desination!

None of this undermines the importance of “emotion”, but it does imply a need for a more nuanced understanding of that concept. The role of emotion in consumer marketing goes way beyond simply achieving impactful communications or refining brand positioning. Consumers are complex creatures and most choices are actually based on number of factors, not one simple “ah ha” moment or a single kind of emotional driver.  We need to help marketers look far more holistically at the total process of consumer choice in their category. Emotion in its myriad forms interacts constantly with consumer behaviour, but its influence is subtle and varied – our job is to go beyond merely noting its importance and instead to help build up a more complete picture of how personal emotions interact with all the other drivers of choice.


14 years ago

I like this piece a lot. Jonah lehrer (How we decide) points out the intertwined nature of emotions with decision-making via dopamine mechanisms. Emotions offer accumulated knowledge that leads to easier decision-making that doesn't make your head hurt!! Therefore, emotions already have cognition and feeling built into them. As Dr. Bob Deutsch said at an ARF conference last year, "think-feel; it's one word!"

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14 years ago

I think at least part of the issue exists in the reference to the term "emotion". For me the crux of the issue for research and marketers is the unconscious mind. If the challenge was 'simply' understanding emotion the world would be a much simpler place market researchers. But as in the example you gave, under the artificial spotlight of research a consumer is capable of post-rationalising a justification and projecting an action because our brains are equipped with a mechanism to do so. Unfortunately, neither claim is necessarily true. In the day-to-day grind of supermarket shopping the established (unconscious) habit of selecting brand X and the (unconscious) fear that brand Y might be rejected by the children are, arguably, more likely to drive purchase behaviour than post-rationalised claims emanating from a different part of the brain. As Alastair points out, habit can frequently drive purchase behaviour and that could almost be defined as the absence of emotion: rather it is the unconscious mind in full flight.

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