You’re doing it wrong: Emotion doesn’t mean emotional

Zac Martin

  • Senior planner, Ogilvy Melbourne
  • Website
Zac is a senior planner at Ogilvy Melbourne. For more than a decade he’s worked with brands big and small to help them find what they fight for, and turn business problems into advertising and communications strategy. He writes at Pigs Don’t Fly.

If you’ve been around advertising long enough, you’ve probably seen (or written) a slide which says: “They won’t remember what you say, they’ll remember how you made them feel.”  

But it’s wrong. Our understanding of how emotion is used in advertising has been ill informed and poorly applied.  

Let’s rewind. It begins, like most strategy presentations, with The Long and Short Of It. In their seminal book, authors, Peter Field and Les Binet, suggest there’s only two types of advertising: sales now or sales in the future. Direct response, or brand building. Short, or long.  

With this came the 60:40 rule of thumb (60 per cent of your advertising investment in long, 40 per cent in short) and direction on how best to execute in both. Short tends to be most effective when it targets tightly with rational persuasion. Long works best when it reaches broadly with emotional priming.  

Those last two words are where the trouble begins. As with most business books, readers jumped on the headlines and pretty charts, but overlooked the detail.  

The word 'emotion' is not well understood. “Our brand ad must be emotional” is a generic statement that leaves too much to interpretation. Let’s bust some myths of what 'emotion' in advertising isn’t.  

3 incorrect uses of emotion in advertising  

1: Ads do not need to make people feel something for your brand

It sounds nice in the boardroom, but real people don’t ‘love’ brands. Most people don’t even ‘like’ brands. Lovemarks by Kevin Roberts has long been debunked, we know loyalty is a symptom of penetration. An emotional connection with a brand is rare, and certainly should not be an objective. Aim to get the people who don’t buy you at all, to buy you occasionally.  

2: Ads do not need to communicate an emotional benefit.

For this I think we can blame the Benefit Ladder. Many of us were taught to climb as high as possible when writing briefs, beyond the product’s features to the rational and emotional benefits. While a helpful tool in unpacking the consumer problem, there’s little evidence to suggest the benefit being communicated must be emotional. The best ad of all time is a product demonstration, the message is rational. “Our trucks are really stable.”  

3: Ads do not need to show emotion.

Having someone cry on camera can elicit emotion (more on this below) but it’s not the only way. Having a killer soundtrack works too. So does telling a good story. Or a joke. Even a rational message or fact can cause an emotional response. Your ads don’t need to show emotion to trigger emotion.  

Emotion is a tool to make memories stronger.

The intention of long advertising is to build and refresh memory structures. The goal is mental availability, allowing people to easily recall your brand in future buying situations.  

But consumers don’t really think through most purchases. They run on autopilot.  

Author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, would call this System 1 Thinking - instantaneous and driven by instinct. Here is where we process and recall memory automatically. And here is where we absorb messages not through deliberate and conscious processing, but rather, emotional response.  

Emotion is a tool which helps encode memories.  

An emotional response is not the goal of long advertising, but a means to an end. Getting people to feel something helps them build memories. Ideally you do this to attach your brand with a Category Entry Point (a fancy way to say 'need state').  

Emotion builds muscle memory. Or as Claire Strickett, whose tweets largely inspired this article, explains more articulately: “Emotion is the ink memories are written in.”  

Consumers won’t remember the ink, but they will remember the words. Likely without realising it, on autopilot. So no, consumers won’t remember how ads made them feel. But moving them is how you build strong brands that are recalled easily and often.  

We need a better word than 'emotion'.

The word 'emotion' figuratively comes with baggage. It’s a big concept, not easily defined and therefore easily misused and abused. I propose instead we use the word 'reaction'.  

If the objective of short advertising is action, then the goal of long advertising is reaction. An emotional response to build memory, associating your brand with a need.  

Next time someone says we need to use emotion in our ads, ask them for a definition first.  

Tags: advertising, brand strategy, marketing campaigns

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