Emotion in Marketing: Five Thoughts

  • Categories:

    Industry Trends, Marketing Insights

  • Date:

    April 11, 2019

Emotion in Marketing: Five Thoughts

Industry Trends Marketing Insights

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the South by Southwest® (SXSW®) Conference & Festivals in Austin, Texas. 

It’s a lot to take in and so massive no single person could ever get to it all. But after a blur of conference tracks ranging from “Brands & Marketing” to “Experiential Storytelling” and “Intelligent Future,” live music, brand experiences, exhibitions, Texas tacos and a general lack of sleep, I landed on one key takeaway: 


Seemingly every SXSW event, presentation and brand experience focused on the manipulation of human emotion. Consider technology such as Sony’s Aibo robo-puppies that get excited when you interact with them. LG’s CLOi robots, friendly little machines that show emotion with their eyes. Augmented reality (AR) audio designed to help you daydream and reset your mood.

The power of emotion is a strong thread in marketing, and the concept kept my mind running long after I stepped off the plane back home on the East Coast. Emotion is absolutely crucial for our clients in the home and building category — I can’t think of anything more emotional than family and where your family lives. 

Here are some of the things still on my mind following a frenzied five days at SXSW.  

1. Emotional marketing helps brands rise above the noise.

When it comes to striking a chord, emotional connections almost always fare better than logical connections. If you’re able to drive some level of emotional response for your product, you’ll be more likely to sell that product. Honestly, when was the last time you heard someone say, “Hey, did you see those sweet technical specs?” versus “Hey, did you see that ad where the kid used the Force to turn the car on and off?” 

From a marketing or storytelling standpoint, emotion gives people a sense of community. And in a one-to-one marketing world, where every campaign comes with fine-tuned targeting parameters and careful measurement, emotion builds something greater than itself.

In turn, thanks to word-of-mouth and pass-along value, single ad assets become bigger and more valuable than the single connection you paid for. When great creative taps into human emotion, people remember.

2. Smart brands are exploring experiential data as a way to quantify emotion.

If you’ve been around marketing for five minutes, you’re familiar with basic operational data such as reach. How many households did a commercial air in? How many internet surfers saw your banner ad?

But even if you know how many households your marketing reached, you don’t know the percentage of people who had a positive reaction, or even how many actually saw it. Did Mom and Dad both catch your 30-second spot or was Dad in the kitchen getting a snack? Were Mom and Dad hosting a roomful of friends, some of whom saw the spot while others used the break to catch up on weekend plans?

Experiential data, on the other hand, is a relatively new data set. In short, how do we analyze the viewer’s experience with that branded content? Did it make an impact on the viewer? How so?

Experiential data is still difficult to quantify, so much so that no marketers have totally figured it out (though the smart ones are trying). One company at SXSW shared that they’re monitoring audience engagement during shows including ads, but how they capture that data wasn’t clear.

Though much harder to get, experiential data is also more valuable than traditional operational data. At SXSW, a speaker from Fox said the network uses audience data collected on shows, characters, storylines and other elements to develop additional show plotlines and story ideas. This is a great example of the evolution of the media landscape. Though this kind of thing is difficult to pull off now, I think it’s also only a matter of time before brands do it regularly.

3. Emotion plays a powerful role no matter the price point.

In the home and building category, we have a common challenge: a lot of products are engineering-based, making it tough for these brands to justify emotionally driven marketing. Still, emotion figures into most consumer purchase decisions, whether we’re buying a $40,000 countertop or a $400 television or a $40 smart speaker. 

So, how can a brand marketer selling even the most technical products prove to their boss or CEO that an emotionally engaged audience will drive more business for them? As marketers, we need to validate everything we do, whether we’re dealing in emotion or logic. And today, we’re being pushed to come up with new, creative ways to measure audience engagement on an emotional or experiential level. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.   

Think about how you’re measuring your efforts but remember numbers will only take you so far. To take measurement a step further, can your results help you build a story around how you’re moving the needle? Can you connect classic operational data — reach, frequency, engagement, etc. — to experiential data? Can you prove which of the two really drives your success (or explains why you fell short of the goal)? 

4. Cultural norms influence the way we consume social media and technology.

In case inspiring an emotional response from your audience isn’t enough of a challenge, remember cultural differences will also dictate how people experience and react to your message. For example, Latinx consumers are super-users of social media and technology, because communication and community are deeply rooted in their life experiences.

That’s why you have to be aware of any communication’s cultural significance for your audience before you put it out in the world. Who are you talking to? What are their passions and interests? What’s going to move the needle for them? Will your message resonate, or will it fall flat? Worse — will it offend? 

5. You can take a good thing too far. 

Marketing is becoming more and more targeted. On the one hand, this helps ensure consumers get relevant messages, in turn giving brands a better shot at closing the sale.

On the other hand, increasingly media-savvy consumers are becoming more aware of how targeting works and noticing when ads seem to follow them. Suddenly, what felt convenient at first (Hey, I wanted to know about the best pillows for side sleepers, and there they are!) now can feel, at times, like an annoyance or even a violation of privacy. 

But it goes even further than ad targeting. Digital anthropologist and futurist Brian Solis says app developers are manipulating our emotions to keep us on our devices, disconnected from reality, distracted and, ultimately, from doing our best creative work and living our best lives.


The same science and anthropological constructs that make apps and other technology really relevant and useful are feeding a worldwide addiction. And device addiction isn’t good for human relationships, personal productivity or general well-being. In fact, there are all sorts of stats on plastic and cosmetic surgery, unhealthy behaviors and even elevated suicide rates, driven by a desire for social media likes.

That’s why, in his newest book, Solis encourages people to “escape from the dark side of distractions.” To realize that our daily rituals, devices and apps are capturing too much of our time, to the point that we’re obsessed.

So, where should we go from here?

In marketing, we have to strive to deliver information that educates and inspires and products that make people’s lives easier. If we want to make the sale, we have to not only appeal to our audience’s emotions, but also put their needs first.  Meanwhile, in Solis’ words, maybe it’s time for all of us to get back into balance and master our own destinies in this hyper-connected, data-driven world. 

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