It’s all in the mind: why emotion trumps reason in marketing

In the corporate world, it’s all too easy to forget that people aren’t always motivated by reason and rational thought, which is why understanding the way the mind works is crucial for anyone serious about marketing. 

In Dan and Chip Heath’s fantastic book Switch, they talk about the rider and the elephant. The rider sits on top of the elephant and directs it this way and that. It’s your rational thought and it is brilliant at analysis. The elephant is your emotional side and is clearly more powerful. It gets scared easily but also charges off down the road with scant regard for its rational rider if it sees something it likes. And this is the part of your brain that makes you fall off the wagon or make that impulsive purchase. Get the two working together in the right direction and you have an unstoppable force for your business. 

However, the message is clearly that without the elephant’s co-operation the rider just sits there coming to conclusions and spinning his wheels (ask any insurance or superannuation provider about that one). As marketers we want people to do something, so we must motivate the elephant. 

Research scientists Hsee & Rottenstreich argue that an emotionally charged issue changes people’s decision-making abilities and affects the way they are influenced by others—regardless of the nature of the feelings (positive or negative). Specifically, people become less sensitive to the magnitude of numbers and instead will pay more attention to the presence or absence of an event.

A social example is the SARS virus. You had statistically very little chance of catching it, but traveller numbers to Asia plummeted while this event was happening. What this means for business is that consumers are more likely to pay attention to the presence of an emotionally charged event than the numbers involved. The researchers got one group of participants thinking about emotionally charged issues and one group quite rational ones. Then each group was asked to value a bundle of CDs, with 50 percent of each group told there were five CDs and the other half told there were ten. The rational group valued the two bundles differently, as one might expect, but the emotional group had higher values and didn’t differentiate the bundles to anywhere near the same degree.

The results of their research show that getting people to think about an issue emotionally affects their logical decision making skills, overriding the rational side and getting them to do things they might not otherwise do.

It is also very important to understand the implications of other people’s behaviour on our own. Although we all like to think of ourselves as individuals, with most of us saying that other people’s behaviour doesn’t influence our own, psychologists know better. A 2007 psych study researched the behaviour of hotel guests in the USA, who were encouraged to re-use their towels.

The researchers created two versions of in-room signs. One was the traditional sign that said something along the lines of “help save the environment” while the other utilised social proof information by saying that the majority of hotel guests reused their towels. And the sign using social proof was 26 percent more effective than the traditional “be a good citizen” message. 

For a relevant local example, last year a big insurance company ran a billboard campaign with a very rational message. These ads featured a big pie chart saying that most businesses don’t have enough insurance, the inference being that was a bad thing so you should go and buy some. 

Of course, this would have sounded brilliant in the boardroom. And it even had a graph to back it up. Problem is, apart from getting you to feel anything, it most probably had the absolute opposite psychological effect for the same reason as our hotel towels. Effectively they were really saying: “It’s okay. No-one else has business insurance either”. 

Influencing people is a science that is incredibly powerful. The study of behavioural psychology isn’t a staple on the marketing education agenda—but it should be. It spans everything from internal marketing, big brand advertising to personal selling, so while digital and social marketing are huge right now and take a lot of the focus, it really is for nothing if we haven’t understood how we can motivate people to spend more money with the brand in question.

  • Ben Cochrane is the managing director and planning director of The Business.
  • This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing. 

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