In The Stampede Towards Emotional Advertising, Are We Forgetting The Thing That Consumers Bought Into In The First Place?

Let’s try a little experiment.

Picture yourself down the pub, or café or strip joint (okay, I don’t know your lifestyle, just pick a place where you meet your friends and generally chat about normal stuff like what normal people do).

Now, imagine for a moment that as part of normal chit-chat, you find yourself recommending a product that you use to a friend. It can be anything; a car, cereal, your bank, toothpaste, soft drink, jeans, shoes, shampoo, anything.

Have you picked one?

Your friend is looking for a new car/cereal/bank/toothpaste/soft drink/jeans/shoes/shampoo or whatever it is, and you think yours is pretty good, so you tell them.

Now, what would you say to them?

[This is marketing utopia-land isn’t? Because word-of-mouth, everyone agrees, is the most powerful advertising medium there is (term copyright everyone who has ever done a presentation about advertising).]

So, what did you decide to tell them? Would it be something about how the product or service makes you feel when you use it? Would it be something to elicit an emotional response? Or would it be something else?

Chances are, if you’re a reasonably normal human being (outside of business hours), you probably told them why the product or service was good, why it meets your needs, maybe even a little detail about how it does that, a little key fact here, or a bit of performance there, why it worked for you personally, maybe.

It’s less likely that you said to your friend “You know what, George, the car just makes me feel so bloody joyful” or “It might just be a sugary, carbonated beverage, Sandra, but it makes me feel uplifted about the world” You’d probably feel like a bit of a berk, and you friend would probably suggest you talk to a professional (and not a marketing professional, one of the medical kind). And they would likely remain unconvinced about your recommendation.

Yet for some reason, advertising agencies are increasingly convincing brands that the best way to grow is to talk to your friend like that. And they don’t even know him.

Emotional advertising is the current fashionable talk-of-the-advertising-village. That is, the move away from communicating why a product might be good/useful/of benefit, and instead trying to make the consumer feel a specific emotion about the brand, in an attempt to ‘own’ an emotional territory. We’ve seen this approach used to sell chocolate, cars, and most recently biscuits, amongst others. It is the hot topic of fashionable planners and advertising thought leaders. Why is this?

It appears that the theories have been drawn out of the seductive appeal of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and human behavioural studies. The works of Albert Mehrabian, Daniel Kahneman and Stephen Pinker are often cited by intellectual agency planners (sorry, strategists).

But unfortunately it seems like the science has often passed through the pop culture filter and emerged as over-simplified sound-bites that just happen to suit their agenda.

This maybe shouldn’t be a surprise, as these theories are used to support a highbrow view of brand advertising that the planner and agency people preferred to believe anyway.

In this era of middle-class, university educated dominance of the ad industry, you often hear agency people talk about selling as if it’s beneath them, unsavoury or lowbrow.

How much more palatable at dinner parties (and pitch presentations) to treat advertising like some kind of clever behavioural science.

Because of this, it sometimes seems like the agency people are more convinced by the theories than the scientists themselves (who tend to retain a scientific objectivity).

But I worry that their thinking over-emphasises the role that emotional brand messaging plays in the overall buying process, and this over-emphasis in turn leads to advertising that isn’t as effective or compelling as it could or should be. I worry that this approach wastes precious budgets when it comes to using advertising to help build a brand.

People who push emotional brand advertising tend to be of the belief that through advertising you can you can influence consumers’ attitudes to the brand enough to change their buying behaviour.

The trouble with that line of thinking is that they are drawing an over-simplistic picture, and actually misinterpreting cause and correlation between attitude and behaviour.

Interestingly, if you delve into the research of Professor Byron Sharpe, you’ll find that he has largely disproved the notion of emotional brand loyalty driving buying behaviour. He suggests that evidence shows the reality is more likely the other way around – that buying behaviour influences attitudes. (ie. peoples’ behaviour is more like “I buy this product, therefore I like this brand” not “I buy this product because I like the brand”).

This would suggest that a much more effective use of advertising would be to move people closer to buying the product. That hardly sounds like rocket science I know, but it’s the equivalent of shouting “Jehovah” in advertising agencies today. And all too often, clients find themselves being the ones who have to shout it.

Maybe you’ve been in one of those meetings between client and agency where the client is keen to emphasise the benefits of their product – on the understanding that if people knew more about why or how people could use their product they’d sell more.

While the tight-trouser wearing planners and creatives moan that they were about to create something really amazing and beautiful until ‘they’ (the bloody client!) insisted we shoehorn the product into the ad. “Bloody idiots! We’d have won awards if it wasn’t for them – they just don’t get it do they!” “Stone them!”

We have a lot of sympathy for these clients actually. In fact one of the reasons we set up Sell! Sell! was that we were embarrassed to be sat in meetings with agency colleagues who seemed intent on making clients feel silly for simply wanting their product to appear in the advertising.

We think that advertising should treat consumers as intelligent, reasoning people, and not as passive zombies. Advertising’s role should be to introduce people to a product based on where it may fit into their lives and how it might benefit them, in a charming, compelling or entertaining way. And when they become customers of the brand, their attitudes will change in favour of it as a matter of course.

So when we set out to make advertising to help drive a brands growth, let’s not forget the simple thing that the customer is most interested in – and most likely drove the growth of the brand up to now anyway – the actual product or service that they buy from the brand.

First published in Marketing Magazine 18.03.14


  1. Sell Sell - they talk the talk and walk the walk.

  2. Interesting discussion. The only thing is, I reckon when you ask someone why they bought a particular product, they lie. Yes, they give you a rational reason or two. But they're just justifiers. That's why BMW ads have body copy. People actually buy BMW's because of what they feel about the brand. Or perhaps, what they feel other people feel about the brand...

  3. Keep in mind Scamp that those justifiers would've bought a BMW, no matter what.

  4. Thanks Scamp. I'm glad you brought that line of thinking up. I know a lot of people in the business are using the 'system one and two thinking' theory to justify this approach: "We make rational justifications for decisions we take instinctively". But I'm not sure it's as simple as that. Yes, of course people have an understanding of what BMW stands for, but that "What they stand for" has been built in your mind over years of communication, experience and other people's experience, reviews and other stuff. At a base level, I reckon most people buy a BMW because they think they are buying a good car. And yes, that is 'what they feel about the brand' in a way of speaking. But that way they feel isn't just feelings, it's a collection of things that together is an understanding of BMW. The problem that advertising people have is jumping to the conclusion that making people 'feel something about the brand' is the direct job of advertising. They should really be saying things about BMWs that contribute positively to people's understanding of them.

  5. So to sum that up:
    Only if you can prove to them that they're buying a good car they'll also FEEL that they're buying a good car subconsciously.

    That about right?

  6. True to your brand that's a good provocative straight-talking post. The issue as I see it is how to nudge people closer to buying your product when there is nothing truly distinctive about it. Think various beers, bank accounts, denim jeans, not amazing cars like BMW.

    You have to create a bridge between the customer's world and your product - it could be an attitude, a certain kind of activity, or dare I say it, an emotion attached to an area of life (eg. your family). That's where this stuff comes from, with the additional complication that this is all very well-ploughed territory for advertising - it's been doing this kind of thing from year dot.

    One answer is to ramp up the emotional content. Which takes us all further away from product features and benefits - these are increasingly outsourced to web content and tactical ads.

  7. Cecil B. DeMille27 March 2014 at 12:36

    I don't think it's really a question of rational versus emotional. I think it's a question of what will get a person to buy a product or service. Maybe that is an emotion ploy. Maybe it's not. Those are tools, not exclusive approaches.

    Brand advertising is a myth. It's an egotistical, masturbatory, and expensive way to make executives happy. Product advertising builds brands. I'll bet we can all name quite a few examples. You don't even need a logo. Just a product and a reason to believe it's a good one.

    I swear, this is so goddamn simple and so many agencies refuse to accept a spade as a spade. It must be complicated, or they can't feel self-important or trendy. Every meeting I go to makes me mad enough to taze kittens.

  8. Mercedes = I'm successful
    Alfa Romeo = I'm sexy
    Ford = I'm a man of the people
    Land Rover = I'm outdoorsy

    That's it. That's all it's ever been!

    I honestly don't think I can remember a single fact, about any product. Except maybe that Dyson vacuum cleaners are bagless. Even then, I'm guessing they all are now. So I guess if I buy a Dyson today, I'm buying 'Dyson-ness'.

    The purpose of facts? To give you something to write an ad about. The purpose of ads? To portray a brand image. The purpose of brand image? To communicate to other people what kind of person you are.

  9. How do you feed back to the new product development team or the engineers at BMW, that people simply post rationalise their decision making?

    Marketer - We need people to be more emotionally involved with our brand, we need them to feel happier about it.

    Engineer - How do we do that? What are people saying about or cars? Are they unhappy about them?

    Marketer - God no. It's just we asked a few and they said amazing things the problem is we think they are just post rationalising their decisions?

    Engineer - What did they say?

    Marketer - Well, they said they liked the fuel economy, various aspects of the performance and it's safety record, the new metallic colours and it's extended warranty.

    Engineer - But you don't believe them? This is what we worked for 3 years to do. Have you any idea of the level of science and engineering that went into that? Do you want us to inject some joy into it?

    Marketer - You just dont get it do you? People buy emotionally, they just post rationalise their emotional decisions with spurious reasons.

    Engineer - Oh, so what you going do about that?

    Marketer - Make people more emotionally engaged with our brand.

    Engineer - It's just my brief is to make better cars than our competitors. We lost some ground and are close to catching up. We made a mistake of putting our badge on any old crap. We are currently woking on a new hybrid engine, a device that stores kinetic energy, a bit boring to you I'm sure and we even have a secret lab where we are making driver-less cars. Should we stop?

    Marketer - Why would you stop?

    Engineer - Because if people told you they bought our cars for these very reasons you'd think they were lying wouldn't you?

    Marketer - You just don't get it do you?

  10. Scamp, I do worry that advertising people are way more interesting in brands and what a brand "says about them" than most normal people.


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