Emotion in Advertising: Head for the Heart, Not the Head. Well…most of the time.

Why emotional advertising primes our expectations and how higher education marketers can better use its effects

Photo by Peter Aroner on Unsplash

“Emotion is a primary source of human motivation and exerts substantial influence on attention memory and behaviour” — Byron Sharp, ‘How Brands Grow’

The role of emotion is often discussed in relation to rationale. Yet, saying our messaging needs to be emotional isn’t helpful. Some of the most compelling brands balance emotion across a spectrum of marketing efforts. Apple evokes emotion each time you unbox an iPad or Macbook as well as with each “creator” ad that dramatizes the iPhone’s functional benefits. Oatly managed to evoke a spectrum of emotions with one marketing effort using their CEO-playing-the-keyboard Super Bowl commercial. In this case, negative emotions drove profitable salience.

Higher ed brands are no different. Emotion can be a powerful priming agent. In fact, emotional advertising is more efficient in high-research categories. Emotion is also the vehicle for lasting memory. When customer journeys can last more than 500 days, both results are invaluable.

In this article, we unpack exactly what we mean when we say marketing or advertising must be emotional. Why is emotion important and is there still a place for rational benefits?

What do we mean when we say “emotion?”

By definition, emotion is a biological state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationship with others. Simply put, it’s an automatic process — often at the subconscious level — in response to the world around us. It’s also important to remember that everything we encounter produces an emotional response — sometimes even our marketing.

Emotion has valence

Similarly, there are a spectrum of emotional states. From “tears” to “fears,” there are different levels of emotions we can experience and marketing doesn’t always need to reach the highest level of an emotion to be effective. The role of marketing should be to identify a variety of emotional triggers that create a response rooted in a memory or experience of the brand.

Emotion impacts memory

To understand how emotion impacts memory, we need to outline how memories are created and retrieved. When we think of memories, we often think of memory as a system of files to pull as needed. However, memories are better described as links or connections throughout the brain established over time. How those connections are established determines how memories are rooted and recalled. For example, explicit memory describes events that we can easily recall. Implicit memory describes what we aren’t consciously aware of or can’t recall but may ultimately affect our behavior.

Our emotional response determines the amount of attention we give the stimuli, what our conscious response will be, and most importantly, how it will be stored in our memory. For marketers, we stand a better chance of getting noticed and remembered if we can link our message to a meaningful emotion, related to our brand.

Memory structures cue the brand

If emotion is a powerful brand building tool, how do we turn it into a strategy? Cue the concept of memory structures. Think of memory structures as nodes of associations triggered by various experiences- best thought of as all of the feelings, images, experiences and memories of a brand.

Just as marketers can create “branded” shortcuts from communications to a brand, we can also elicit an emotional response that creates, shapes or reinforces lasting memory. These responses, or memory structures, are what tie together emotion and feelings to a brand and are more likely to help our messaging move to memory.

Coke-a-cola is notorious for linking their brand to moments of happiness. From “Share a Coke” to the “Happiness Machine,” when we think of moments that spark happiness, the goal is to have Coke come to mind. More recently, the brand has moved into moments around food. Pairing grilling with family moments, the hope is that as you plan family gatherings you’re drawn to Coke because it has evoked happiness around similar experiences.

Marketers should develop a communications strategy that focuses on strengthening memory structures so as people have experiences tied to these associations, the brand is easily recalled.

Emotion as a creative brief

The next time you or your higher education marketing team is in the planning process, develop a list of brand associations. How can your communications strengthen those connections? What device can you use to evoke a related emotion and trigger the brand? Below you’ll find a checklist to guide your next creative brief.

  • Does the communication evoke an emotional response?
  • Does the brand/product play an important role in the ad?
  • Does the brand play an instrumental role in a credible way?
  • Does it leverage the brand’s iconic assets to ensure correct brand assignment?

Emotion as a balancing act

“Humans are not so much rational as rationalizers. We want to believe that our choices are justified by reason, not just feelings. Though the ‘right’ choice feels good, we need to help buyers tell themselves a story of rational choice.” Nigel Hollis, Emotion in Advertising: Pervasive Yet Misunderstood.

What’s most often misinterpreted when discussing the use of emotion in marketing is that it is in conflict with rationality. The truth is that they are intertwined. In fact, rationality does not exist without emotion, and from a marketing perspective rational persuasion and emotion can work in tandem.

Humans often post-rationalize our consumption behavior. Facts and functional benefits help reinforce a consumer’s emotional response or act as a motivator for consumption-related goals. It’s important that higher education marketers understand that appealing to both the head and the heart can evolve across channels or throughout the campaign. Not only are prospective students engaging with content differently across channels, but their motivations differ, as well.

Mapping out the most impactful touchpoints throughout a prospective student journey should help identify moments when emotion is needed for attention and where rationale can be most effective when students are in moments of considered information seeking.

The more crowded the category, the more important the priming effects of emotional advertising. Emotion primes our expectations of future experiences and increases the likelihood of being recalled. Yet, it’s still important to remember there are other appeals higher education marketers must appeal to. Like most things, it’s all a balancing act.