Emotions matter in driving consumer choices.
This is fast becoming a truism—thanks in part to behavioral economics making its way to the mainstream press. For evidence from your own life, take a moment to think about your favorite brand. What do you like about it? What are the products or experiences it provides? Now think about how those things make you feel. Or think about the last time you swore off a brand. Like the last time I bought something from Ikea. They sold me an extra part they said I would need. They didn’t deliver the part, then they told me I didn’t really need it. But they charged me for it, and never credited me despite my investing 3 hours of time in calls with their customer service. I felt so frustrated, and so angry, that I swore I’d never buy from Ikea again. NEVER AGAIN! [shakes fist at sky] And, to date, I haven’t. But I digress… The point is that scientific research, marketing research, and conventional wisdom all suggest that, if you’re trying to attract and engage consumers, emotions are an important piece of the puzzle.
So what’s the best way to understand how your brand or product makes consumers feel, and what role those feelings play in shaping their choices? Many marketers and market researchers have been wringing their hands over this question. Which, in turn, has led research vendors to serve up an array of solutions—including some positioned as ways to get at “unconscious” emotions, or to tap into how people feel without having to ask them. I call these “Superman Methods.”
If Superman wants to know what color your underwear is, he doesn’t need to ask. He can see it without your saying a word. He can see it even if you forgot which pair of underwear you chose this morning. And if you don’t want Superman looking at your underwear, too bad! HE CAN SEE IT ANYWAY.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had Superman-like methods that tapped consumers’ emotions directly, without ever having to ask them how they felt?
I was witness to many a sales pitch for “Superman Methods” while I was on the client side. It's hard not to be drawn in by their promise. But ultimately I was bothered by a few key things:
Biometric measures (e.g., skin conductance, facial EMG, brain waves) are often positioned as Superman-style tools. But even when they do a great job of measuring how good or bad someone feels (as with facial EMG), they don’t provide good measures of discrete emotions. For example, they can’t tell you if negative feelings are driven by Anger vs. Anxiety, or if positive feelings reflect Amusement vs. Pride.
Facial coding does measure some specific emotions. But it only gets at the “basic” emotions, which are: Happiness, Surprise, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Contempt.
Notice anything about that list? There is only one positive emotion. The rest are all negative—except Surprise, which could swing either way. So unless you’re trying to help Dan Aykroyd sell the Super Bass-o-Matic (for which disgust, anger and contempt could top the list of consumer reactions), understanding how your product makes people feel would ideally capture more granularity in terms of their positive emotions.
For example, what about feeling relaxed? Proud? Entertained? Secure? Indulged? And even among negative emotions, there is more nuance. What about feeling frustrated? Bored? Disappointed? Or embarrassed?
Consumers’ emotional lives are more complex than what the “basic emotion” faces can reveal—and understanding that complexity can help you find a more direct (and competitively differentiated) route to capturing their hearts.
While it’s true that people don’t always know why they do what they do, it doesn’t follow that they don’t know how they feel. I might not know all the reasons why I choose Seventh Generation for my kids, but I know how its brand promise makes me feel. And while we can’t always trust the reasons consumers give, isn’t that why we derive importance through experimental designs and predictive models?
Furthermore, how much “Superman Methods” really tap the unconscious—or add value to self-report measures in consumer domains—is debatable. For example, many scientists question whether the oft-cited Implicit Association Test (IAT) actually measures unconscious associations. And meta-analyses (including one led by a creator of the IAT) have found that it doesn’t work as well as self-reports to predict consumer preferences.
What measures like facial coding, EMG, and the IAT do do well is subvert socially sensitive situations—where people know how they feel, but don’t want to tell you. (The IAT was first developed to study prejudice—a great use case, since people with racist attitudes usually try keep them on the DL). But if you want to know how your brand, ad, or product makes people feel, in most cases you can trust what they tell you. Especially in a context where they feel comfortable being honest, like an online/mobile survey. In the hands of a skilled moderator, in-person discussions can also be a great way to uncover emotional reactions, but that method isn’t scalable to large samples.
At CMB, we do a lot of research that calls for large samples, so we wanted to develop and validate a way to measure how brands/touchpoints make consumers feel that is: practical (e.g., scalable, fast, cost-effective, easy to combine with other measures such as brand perceptions); comprehensive (in terms of the range of emotions measured); robust (leveraging insights from the scientific study of emotion); and systematic (to enable brand comparisons, or track over time). Oh yeah—and we also wanted results that are clear and compelling. Because, if you can’t effectively communicate them to people who need to use them, what’s the point?
Erica Carranza is a CMB Account Director with supplier- and client-side (American Express) experience. She is also our resident social psychologist; she earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University.