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What Emotion are you Marketing to?

Should I be keeping emotions in mind with my marketing strategy?

There is a large body of scientific evidence which supports a focus on emotion in marketing and communication strategies (Kranzbühler et al, 2020). Emotion guides our decision making and plays an integral role in our purchase behaviours. If you don’t think emotion is important and you don’t have a strategy that can help you understand and better utilize strategies which take the emotional life of your customer into consideration then you are certainly on a back foot and at a disadvantage.

What are emotions?

Have you ever wondered what emotions are and why we have them? Psychologists, neuroscientists and ‘affect’ (emotion) researchers provide a number of different perspectives and theories about what emotions are and why we have them. Broadly emotions can be defined as a complex state of feeling which has an influence on a person’s cognitions (thinking) or behaviour. Emotions are usually accompanied by bodily sensations and they may be triggered by an event which is either external (situational) or internal (within an individual’s experience and mental states). Emotions are also subjective, meaning they are experienced by the individual and comprise part of an individual’s private internal mental life.

In his book the emotional brain, Josef LeDoux (1998) illustrates how emotions are integral to our survival and drive a powerful and important learning system within the brain. This system is implicit (and mostly unconscious) and enables us to determine quickly situations (and experiences) which would be dangerous and threatening to us as well as which situations (and experiences) are good, pleasurable or will help us. In addition, emotions help us to navigate social situations and add to our capacities for social bonding, reciprocation and empathy. To understand emotions a little more, we can dive a little deeper into emotion theory.

A brief overview of emotion theory

There are a number of theories of emotions in psychology and the neurosciences, these include, broadly, physiological, neuroscience, cognitive and evolutionary theories of emotion. Some of these theories overlap in their explanation and some theories are in opposition. Some theories may postulate that emotions and cognitions (thinking) are integral and inseparable. However, there are firmly established positions on emotions, (physiological and evolutionary) which have observed the evidence of emotion in all animals and treats much of emotional life as separable and rather interdependent with cognition. Theories which have focused on the physiological origin of emotion, observe that emotions originate for the most part within the body and are not completely the domain of higher cognitive processes (such as language, executive functioning or reasoning) (David & Montag, 2019).

Emotions apart from cognitions

If we adopt some of the well-established and supported theories of emotion, then we can apply a more discriminating position between mental states which are cognitive or originating from reasoned and planned action and those mental states which belong to deeper embodied processes and functions.

An example of this position can be found in a common linguistic or semantic category error most people make, which includes calling cognitions and verbal behaviour emotions. For example: “I feel like Apple is a more reliable product than Samsung”. This however is not an emotion but a thought. The emotion would be the non-cognitive or semantic mental event accompanying this thought/belief. This may be an emotion we can describe as desire, joy or even contempt. If you are interested in what your customer believes about your brand and/or product, the real meaning of their thoughts would be more accurately ascertained when we understand the accompanying emotion.

We can observe the content of a thought or belief and make some judgement calls about it. However, the content of thought is given much greater context and meaning when we are able to examine the associated emotion. If you miss the emotion that accompanies a thought/belief you may miss the actual meaning and intent of the message. Neuromarketing research observes this fairly often. Client messaging has a clear intent and purpose, yet the delivery is problematic, because they are unable to observe the implicit emotional impact their messaging has with their customers.

What kinds of emotions are there?

Affect researchers (including psychologists and affective neuroscientists) have attempted to categorise emotional experiences into various domains. These domains are mostly functional in nature. This means that the attempt to categorise emotional experience is done so as to provide scientists, researchers and psychologists with a means to identify, determine, predict and modify emotional experiences. Emotion researchers have to some extent also attempted to map the neurobiology or structure of emotion within the brain, however there are still debates as to where in the brain emotion resides. There is acceptance across most emotion theories that the limbic system plays a central role in emotion (Celeghin, et al, 2017). However, it must also be noted that there are numerous brain systems (and bodily feedback processes) involved in how we experience emotion.

The physiological and evolutionary theory provides a series of emotional categories. Without taking a specific position amongst these emotional theories, a broad outline of these categories is provided:

  1. Type of emotion (affect): There are seven primary emotions which may be mapped across all humans, these include: Anger, Fear, Disgust, Happiness/Joy, Sadness, Contempt and Surprise. This can be observed on all people’s facial expressions and many have accompanying neurobiological correlates, which are distinct patterns of brain activity which relate to a specific set of emotional experiences.

  2. Valence: Is a means of categorizing emotional experience through the dimension of goodness or badness or pleasantness and unpleasantness. Some describe this dimension of emotion in terms of the attractiveness and aversiveness of the experience.

  3. Arousal: This categorization is also dimensional and relates to the extent of the emotional experience in terms of its intensity. The intensity of emotion relates to the degree to which there is physiological activity which relates to the emotional experience. An example may include an increased heart rate and breathing in relation to a heightened level of excitement, fear or joy. This would be described as increased or high arousal.

Some tips for marketers

  1. It’s not all about the brand attributes, you’ve got to dig a little deeper. If you are interested in how your product and brand affects the emotional lives of your customers, it is worth going deeper than what they think about your product/brand experience. For example, marketing researchers or strategists think that the brand attributes alone will define the brand or product. On the surface the attribute may intuitively tell the ‘right story’, however deeper down it may be delivering an entirely different emotional message.

  2. Use the right tools for the job. Be aware you will be limited in your attempts to fully investigate and be objective on the emotional life of the experiences your customers have with your brand or products if you use self-report measures (these include most traditional marketing research tools). Emotions are not easily accessed verbally. Our conscious verbal reasoning tends to displace or provide an inaccurate account. If you want to describe accurately how your customers really feel, then going deep with neuroscience is what you need to do.

  3. Check your preconceptions, your intuitions may not be right. Don’t believe what you think about emotion. We often think we know what our customers should feel or what emotional effects our products or brands should have. The growing body of consumer neuroscience literature often delivers surprising and counterintuitive results when it comes to what we think we should expect from an ad campaign, product design or rebranding exercises, as examples. If you are interested in objectively understanding how your customers feel, try to put aside your own expectations and assumptions. Let the science of emotion research provide you with the insights you seek.

  4. Understanding the emotional engagement of your key marketing objectives is key. If you are going to conduct research or experiments to help you identify the emotional impact of your product, messaging brand etc. keep in mind that you will want to know what specific features, messaging, distinct characteristics or elements are delivering effectively in producing a desired emotional state. If it is important for you that customers feel positively connected with your message, then it is only effective if the emotional experience is connected to the ‘right’ key elements within your communication or strategy. You can produce moments of emotional engagement to enhance memorability or relatability, but unless these land at the right time or place (with your key objectives), they will not work well. For example, producing a positive emotional experience, such as joy or excitement during an ad experience at points where key brand communication is occurring is more effective than the whole ad experience being positive.


  1. Kranzbühler, AM, Kleijnen, MHP and Verlegh PWJ. (2020). Beyond valence: a meta-analysis of discrete emotions in firm-customer encounters. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. 48, 478-498.

  2. David KL and Montag, C. (2019). Selected Principles of Pankseppian Affective Neuroscience. Frontiers Neuroscience.

  3. Celeghin, A, Diano, M, Bagnis, A, Viola, M and Tamietto, M. (2017). Basic Emotions in Human Neuroscience: Neuroimaging and Beyond. Frontiers Psychology, 8. 1432.

  4. leDoux (1998). The Emotional Brain. Simon & Schuster.


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