This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.
Buy now, rationalize later.
Advertisers are growing ever more sophisticated at understanding how emotions lead to sales. Some politicians have picked up on the lessons.
Toronto marketing expert Jeff Swystun gets philosophical when he talks about the advertising game.
“Plato wrote (that) ‘human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge’,” he says.
“Marketing works when it makes us feel something. From a psychological perspective, when we feel strongly about something, we are pushed to action,” explains the president of Swystun Communications, who has worked more than 20 years in branding and advertising at several agencies.
Of course emotion has been used in advertising for decades, from Heinz ketchup’s classic “Anticipation” commercial and Mikey liking Life Cereal to Coca-Cola teaching the world to sing with hippies on a hill.
And today companies are even more sophisticated in their approaches to emotional advertising, informed by a deeper understanding of decision making and techniques to ingrain brands into our psyches.
Perhaps the biggest brand these days — Donald Trump — has shown the importance of appealing to customers’ emotions and self-image.
In his business career, Trump was a master of marketing, and these lessons served him well in his campaign to become U.S. president. Even amid the Russia scandals, White House staff turmoil and a stream of official lies and obfuscations, he’s maintained his fervent base of support.
Recent events have baffled many observers. So in the current political climate, who better to explain how appeals to the heart work than the ad industry?
Swystun points out that emotions help drive buying decisions, and then our logic works to justify them.
“In 2016, Coca-Cola announced that for the first time all of the company’s beverage brands would unite in one global creative campaign called Taste the Feeling,” he recalls.
“Coca-Cola avoided calling this a campaign or set of ads (but) referred to them as ‘emotional product communications.’ The company uses emotional storytelling and showcases moments people share while sharing Coke. Coca-Cola is going right for the emotional jugular by telling stories of first dates, first kisses and first loves.”
Today it’s all about brand engagement through an emotional connection with the consumer, Swystun says, and some of the biggest companies in the world have mastered it.
“Nike’s entire business is built on making the average person feel like an athlete,” he says. “Every investment Disney makes is to make anyone of any age feel like a child. In a heavy, mortgaged, adult stressful world, these feelings are priceless.”
Arthur Fleischmann, president and CEO of John St. advertising, notes emotional advertising (known in the industry as transformational advertising) works so well because “triggering emotion triggers action.”
The agency’s memorable “Hard Work” commercial for Tangerine Bank features the tough stuff people do to earn a paycheque, with the militaristic “Left Right Left” tune as a backdrop and the tagline: “You work hard for your money. Does your bank?”
“An emotional approach is much harder to argue with, and much more memorable than a list of product features and advantages,” says Fleischmann.
“Social and neuroscience have taught us that people make most decisions based on emotion, and then we use logic to back up those decisions,” he says.
“Just like falling in love, brand affiliation starts with a feeling, and only afterward do we rationalize our choice.”
Powerful advertising hits a nerve and causes us to feel emotionally invested in products, says Shelley Brown, chief strategy officer at the FCB agency.
“We humans think with our hearts and with our guts at least as much as with our brains,” she says.
“Remember the classic Heinz ketchup campaign ‘Anticipation’ from the 1970s? They could have lectured us about freshly picked, sun-ripened tomatoes, or their recipe, or some other more rational message.”
Instead as the song “Anticipation” by Carly Simon played, “they made us fall in love with the brand by making us feel the agonizing anticipation of waiting for our favourite ketchup to finally slide out of that glass bottle,” says Brown, also chairperson for the new Toronto campus of the Miami Ad School.
Michael Mulvey, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, says emotional advertising is also “stealthy in its delivery and its impact is persistent.”
“The effectiveness of most of these ads is grounded in the idea of repetition and conditioning. These feel-good messages accrue over time and are not so easily forgotten.”
Mulvey thinks Tim Hortons has been quite successful over the years tugging at heartstrings to amplify social meanings.
“Consider the patriotic Canadian themes — especially during the Olympics — and their commitment to helping children in local communities. Personally, I think some of their strategically better ads portray emotionally laden consumption occasions, such as a father-and-son moment, enjoying a hot chocolate after the hockey game.”
Of course, such advertising doesn’t always work. And thanks to social media, the backlash is now immediate and often harsh. It can incite ridicule, as did Starbucks’ 2015 campaign that encouraged baristas in the U.S. to break a taboo by talking to customers about race relations amid many high-profile cases of gun violence.
Twitter responded to the coffee giant’s Race Together initiative with both anger and a lot of snarkiness such as this tweet from one Wisconsin coffee drinker: “I go to @Starbucks to support my corporate coffee overlords, not be lectured by a white middle class teen from Madison.” The company backed off within days and the initiative was seen as a PR disaster.
Chelsea Thompson O’Brien, strategic planner at digital agency Mirum Canada and program manager at the Miami Ad School, agrees consumers get turned off when a company comes off as preachy.
“You can tell when a person is faking it. They come off as inauthentic. It’s the same for a brand.”
Jennifer Lomax, vice-president, strategic planning at Harbinger Communications Inc., says Arm & Hammer’s 2015 commercial “Generations” was aimed at telling their story as a longtime, high-quality brand, depicting all women and their daughters using its products.
“However, it is ripe for criticism in the very narrow view of home and family — which was almost all white, and all female. The sentiment is strong but the execution is a lost opportunity to recognize how gender roles and diversity have evolved over the generations,” says Lomax.
A much more light-hearted example from the last Super Bowl is the Mr. Clean “Cleaner of your dreams” commercial, featuring an animated and muscular version of the longtime face of the company mopping floors. The ad drew widespread attention.
“There’s a ton of hard data that substantiates the relationship between men doing chores and a happy home,” says Lomax.
Overall, Thompson O’Brien notes that in its worst form, emotional advertising poses risks to a brand.
“But at its best, brands can reap rewards — and sales. Customers want value and purpose from the brands they engage with. Brands who understand their audience — representing what they care about deeply — are winning.”