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Emotion as a marketing tool: why syncing into social values is important

Technology & Data

Emotion as a marketing tool: why syncing into social values is important


By Kathy Benson, national strategy director, Colmar Brunton.


Ad agencies have been banging on about it for years. Marketing 101 lecturers are catching up and market researchers shy away from it. But the truth cannot be ignored: we just don’t think as much as we think we think.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2002, explains it in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman argues that the human mind has two ‘systems’ of thinking:

  • System 1 is fast and automatic, based on intuition and emotive or gut-feel responses, and
  • System 2 is a rational, logical but inherently lazy system.

The argument is that in System 1, our intuitive and emotional processing system is dominant, and overwhelms our decision-making. In fact, our decisions are almost always made by System 1 and then post-rationalised by System 2.

This explains why emotionally based TV ads often cut through and generate higher levels of awareness and engagement than rationally based ads regardless of how logical or well executed they are.

Look at this year’s Super Bowl ads. Pretty much none of them talk product benefits, none mention price, or how you can buy the product and they certainly don’t contain anything as mundane as a call to action. They are pure emotion. Illogical, a bit crazy, even disturbing (admit it… the NSA ad, below, is just a little bit creepy), but they are beautiful and inspiring, full of feeling, colour, and the basic emotional appeals that really get us going – love, hate, loneliness, togetherness and even the fear factor.


Emotional ads like these don’t always seem sensible, but when you look at our values, what is important to us, the undercurrents of society which push and pull us in subconscious ways to act, and make decisions that we can’t even explain… then these ads start to make sense and we can understand how they work. The important thing about communicating with emotions is syncing into the sentiment of society, that is making sure we are playing with the right emotions at the right times.

There is a widely held presumption that market researchers suck at measuring emotion. This is not true. Many research agencies have great methods of measuring emotion ranging from using emoticon (emotional symbols and icons) scales through to the use of projective techniques to uncover the subconscious. Some agencies specialise in ethnographic techniques (such as observation) to understand the non-understandable. These are all good micro tools, useful for projects and to gather specific data about specific topics of interest. However, at a macro level it is useful, if not vital, to know what is going on broadly in consumer land.

Consumers are humans and humans are creatures of habit. We follow routines, we follow trends and we follow patterns of behaviour. Our social values are predictable once we have an understanding of the basic cycle of society. We know that life works in cycles. Cycles are everywhere around us – at the very heart of nature and life on Earth. Economies follow a typical cycle of periods of expansion or recession. Political cycles are rooted in the ‘national mood’ following a continual shift between liberalism and conservatism where the focus moves between public purpose (liberalism) or private interest (conservatism) typically with a transition phase in between. And just like the economy and the political environment, our social values are constantly on the move, usually in alignment with, but slightly behind these other cycles of a nation.

When we understand social values we can use that understanding to make marketing and communications more powerful, more in sync, and more resonating.

There is a cycle of ‘social eras’ that we can trace back to the early 1900s.

Fig 1

By understanding the current ‘era’ we can understand the prevalent values and emotional cues and triggers underpinning our society. This understanding is vital to getting the look, feel and tone of our messaging right and can help us pull the emotional levers that will have the most impact.

Likewise, by understanding the cyclical pattern we can start to predict the future. By understanding why and how things occurred in the past, we can predict what could happen when that era cycles around again in the future. However, we also know that the future era will be a different iteration from the past era. Looking to our next future, beyond 2014, we can predict a landscape of change as we transition to the ‘rebellion’ era and our core values evolve.

What does this all mean for marketers? Thanks to the work of Kahneman and others, we know that resonating emotionally is critical. But dealing with emotions is tricky and there are few guidelines available to marketers. Syncing into social values enables us to increase our chance of getting it right at a macro level by using an emotional framework for our communications. This type of thinking will help us to generate communications that will resonate with the general majority and which will sync in with our political and economic environment.

There are thousands of examples of brands communicating through emotion well, but matching the emotional appeals with the current social context can be tricky. Syncing into sentiment through social values research is one way that marketers can increase their chances of getting in right in a world that is constantly changing.


Kathy Benson is the national strategy director for Colmar Brunton, one of Australia’s largest market research agencies. Kathy has 22 years of experience working in market research and holds the professional accreditation of Qualified Practicing Market Researcher. Kathy leads a team of researchers and co-authors the Colmar Brunton Millennium Monitor, a social commentary on the current consumer psyche and sentiment in Australia.


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