I’m getting increasingly emotional about all the loose talk about emotions going around the market research fraternity these days. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about some of the new methods for measuring emotional response that are coming out of the areas of cognitive psychology and neuro-science. These offer exciting possibilities. My concern though, is about the over-use and indeed misuse of the term “emotion” in the research context.

Smiling Bee outside hamburger outlet.

Sometimes it takes more than a smile and a positive attitude to get them in the door! (c) A.Gordon 2007.

We risk confusing marketers, and encouraging faddish and poorly thought out research practices. I have three gripes about this. Gripe #1: “Emotional response” is a term so vague that it actually indicates very little of marketing significance on its own. Emotions come in many flavours, strengths and durations of effect. We need to develop considerably more nuanced ways of measuring and understanding these effects.  Gripe #2: Emotion we are told regularly is at the heart of “90%” of  human behaviour”. Yet, if emotion is in effect “everything”, then what is it explaining? Again, emotion as a concept is only useful if we can identify how various types of emotions interact, contradict each other, and interface with rational thought to produce specific kinds of behaviour. Gripe #3: The Freudian fallacy still casts a long shadow over discussions of emotion. Emotional response is too often represented as somehow being necessarily “deeper”, “more important”, or “harder to uncover” than anything from the frontal cortex. This is simply untrue, and unfortunately leads to marketers often taking a simplistic approach to targeting consumers. It’s this third gripe that I want to focus on in this post.

In fact, while some “emotional responses” undoubtedly derive from deeply buried, fundamental preferences, the vast majority of that “90% of behaviour” that cognitive psychologists are discussing is about the role of emotion as our personal information processing mechanism. Despite what many would have you believe, in most of our daily life our emotional responses to brands seldom focus around big, deeply held beliefs that make you irrationally and subconsciously crave a certain hair care brand, or spend hours searching the blogs for the latest on Apple’s iPad.  Mostly they function to provide little prods to help you navigate your way through complex networks of consumer choices without having to think too much about shampoo or technology at all. Emotional response is often about enabling auto-pilot choice, allowing you to make quick, efficient choices without thinking too deeply about stuff you simply do not have time or interest in engaging with. Back in 2004, I presented a paper on this issue to the ESOMAR Congress in Lisbon where I looked at why people don’t necessarily have to be deeply emotionally bonded to choose a brand and indeed often buy “second preference brands”. I concluded:

  1. “Don’t Know” may be the real answer after all. Many people choose brands automatically, as a matter of habit and with little thought. Reasons for attachment can get buried and forgotten. Autopilot purchase behaviour prevails in lots of categories (not just CPG/FMCG ones).
  2. Being known is often more important than what is known.Top-level differentiation between brands is commonly based on simple familiarity and broad, pretty basic assessments of quality or appearance (often ‘prejudices’ would be a better term than assessment). Yes, these can be “emotionally” based drivers, but they are also more ill-defined and lightly held preferences than many marketers imagine.
  3. It’s not all about Me. As researchers we still put too much emphasis on personal attitudes and downplay the key role of social influences in mitigating individual choice patterns. We are social animals. If my wife or kids care more about a category than I do, then I may well put aside my own emotional preferences and buy what they like. Sometimes this is simple compromise, sometimes it is part of the subtle process of trade-offs that goes on in all relationships (if I let her win on the car, then my chances of choosing the next holiday destination goes up!).
  4. Tipping Points Are Often Trivial. At the stage of final choice between similar alternatives, consumers frequently utilise what are really quite “minor” and seemingly trivial decision criteria. I’ve seen this in categories from paper towels to credit cards and cars. It’s common to see people choosing brands using quite idiosyncratic little tests that may not be altogether “rational”, but neither are they just a blind sub-conscious urges (tipping up the coffee jar  to examine the size of the coffee granules is one such test I’ve seen in several countries.)

I recall a wonderful example of this occurring in a brand health study we were running on instant noodles some years ago.  One woman with two kids confessed she mainly bought the category for her kids, and really did not sample them much herself. She almost always bought brand X. Looking at a set of brands, she quickly rejected 3-4 of them as “ones I don’t know” and so not worth bothering with, and another two as having “smelt artificial” when she’d last prepared them. Left with two choices she had difficulty explaining why she chose X over Y, until – after a fair bit of probing – she recalled that she’s started choosing  X a few years ago when her then husband (now “ex”) said he preferred the taste. On recalling that she quickly added “My God, I’d forgotten that was the reason – I’m going to swap to Y next time!“.

All of these patterns, in different ways, offer explanations of why positive general brand imagery or “emotional attachment” to brands , does not always translate into purchase.  In my paper, I suggested we (researchers) needed to move our perspective on what underlies consumer decision-making. In the past, consumers have tended to be seen either as actively seeking a “best solution” in terms of choice or as almost being “victims” of deep-seated needs, manipulated by underlying psychological drivers into making certain choices. In fact consumers are not entirely the victims of needs they can’t control, nor do they expend unnecessary e nergy deciding between countless alternatives.  In many situations, it probably makes more sense to see consumers as  “navigators”, primarily concerned with making reasonably safe decisions as fast as possible. More and more cognitive research suggests that making the journey to brand choice painless and efficient is almost as important for brand development as getting all the product’s benefits and positioning lined up correctly. As they say, it’s about the journey, not just the desination!

None of this undermines the importance of “emotion”, but it does imply a need for a more nuanced understanding of that concept. The role of emotion in consumer marketing goes way beyond simply achieving impactful communications or refining brand positioning. Consumers are complex creatures and most choices are actually based on number of factors, not one simple “ah ha” moment or a single kind of emotional driver.  We need to help marketers look far more holistically at the total process of consumer choice in their category. Emotion in its myriad forms interacts constantly with consumer behaviour, but its influence is subtle and varied – our job is to go beyond merely noting its importance and instead to help build up a more complete picture of how personal emotions interact with all the other drivers of choice.



  1. Colin Ingram says:

    Hi Alistair.
    I agree with your first two gripes – too often we hear people talking about emotion as though it is a single dimension. However your third gripe shows that you too are victim to a fallacy about emotion. Specifically that the opposite to ‘rational’ is simply lack of rationality – as in the ‘habitual’ behaviour. Autopilot doesn’t mean the behaviour isn’t driven by a need – we just don’t know what it is. ‘Habit’ doesn’t explain anything, it just says we do things ‘because we always do things’, it doesn’t mean there are no reasons. We’ve seen the trap of assuming certain categories are low involvement – mere commodities, yet how much of this is because brands have failed to tap into real needs and created a meaningful point of difference. Look at bottled water, Smiggles paper clips. Did the woman really buy the noodles brand because ‘ex hubbie liked the taste’? If so this is of little value to the marketer. But other brands have clearly failed to tap into her needs, whatever these are. And is checking the size of the coffee grain really ‘irrational’, or does the large size of the grains perhaps signal, symbolically perhaps unconsciously, that the coffee will deliver to their need for a full and robust flavour, one that will make them feel stimulated and empowered, compared to finer grains that suggest a mild and more comforting delivery. Its called tyre kicking.

    • Alastair Gordon says:

      Hi Colin, Thanks for your thoughtful response. As always this is an area rich with debate, and even in a long post like mine (!) you can only scratch the surface. Your point about “habit” is important, and like “emotion” it is as you imply a misused term. There seems to be (at least) two forms of’habitual behaviour’ – that which is driven by strong pyschological/personal commitment (I love it and simply ignore all alternatives) and that which is more about making decisions easy (I buy it because it basically works and nothing much is driving me to waste mental energy on the category, so I keep repeating purchase patterns). I think the later kind of choice driven by convenience and mental navigation requirements (as opposed to positive preference or strong emotions) is a lot more common then we (or our collegaues in advertising) often acknowledge. You will doubtless argue that there are needs and emotions even behind this “low content” type of habit, and I wouldn’t disagree but I think from a marketing point of view the first thing is often to actually acknowledge that our brand’s sales are very often not driven by anything very deep, because only then can we tackle the issue of how to build more real depth into the brand commitment. On the coffee, sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that tipping up the jar was necessarily “irrational”, and indeed we did find that the granules were used as a “test” to assess a deeper rule (granule size indicating core quality and/or taste of the brand). But my point is in thinking about a brand of coffee we are all driven, simultaneously, by a series of triggers: what we see and feel (tipping the jar up), what attributes we think that implies (quality/taste) and what needs underpin our desire for extra quaiity (empowerment etc.). My view is that knowing about each of these is important in telling the consumer story, that all these drivers are mixes of emotional and rational factors and that while the deeper emotional drivers of choice are important, so to are the simple tactical triggers. Too often researchers report on how people feel about a set of brands, or what needs drive a category, without properly exploring how they translate those needs or emotions into action (or why they don’t!).

      • Barry Ooi @ Klang, M'sia) says:

        Hi Alastair – Great caution on being overly hyped on EMO as a focal point on branding, marketing and consumer research. Your explaination on consumer’s habitual choice is certainly valid and well founded based on well publicised studies from neuro science and cognitive psychology.

        I would add that consumers’ Habits are not static either. It is subject to being reshaped all the time. Understanding behavioural pattern is more useful for marketing action and winning consumer choice.
        Emotions are one of the many variables that will lead to greater understanding of what triggers purchase.

  2. Nigel Hollis says:

    Great summary Alastair and one that everyone in the marketing industry should read. I think the real challenge these days is to find adequate ways of uncovering the trivial and implicit reasons for purchase and then turning that knowledge into a meaningful insight. Like the woman’s intent to by Brand Y because her husband liked it many of the “reasons” for purchase will be so individual as to be interesting but useless.

    • Alastair Gordon says:

      Thanks Nigel. I agree that distinguishing between “trivial and idiosyncratic” and “trivial but potentially, tipping point” behaviours is a tricky one. I do think it is an issue we have to work hard on though, both because marketing is in many categories becoming increasingly granular and tactical in it’s approach (meaning minor reasons for choice become more important). I also think we often under-rate how common some of these “weird” little behaviours are (because they are hard to quantify, and you need good research designs to even get people to remember them): I’m surprised how often seemingly minor changes in a pack design or shape, for instance, can have big consequences on sales. I wrote a post last year on “measuring the boring stuff” (http://wp.me/pBmtI-1) and I remain convinced we don’t do it very well, and even when we do it well we don’t synthesise into a decent framework to show how these little influences interplay with others (TV advertising, promotions etc.). BTW, Both you and Coln noted that the “women who bought X because of her husband” might not be a useful finding in marketing terms: actually I’d disagree: if you found that happening often enough surely it could change the whole way you promoted or advertised the category?

  3. Tim Guen says:

    Alistair, thanks for a provocative post. I agree with you that any attempt to simplify the explanation of the role of emotions in consumer decision-making is at risk of being superficial and inadequate. People who are new to the topic tend to make binary arguments (what it is/what it isn’t) in a multi-dimensional discussion; you have done a great job presenting many insights into the texture of emotional behavior.

    I’d like to amplify one aspect of the emotions arena that you touched on briefly: the importance of emotional strength in decision-making. By this I mean the intensity of a basic emotion, which can run from mild to passionate, and varies from person to person and topic to topic. Regardless of the basis of the emotion, there is a critical level of passion required to produce a thoughtful decision, and this is especially important when the decision involves any level of conflicting emotions (which is virtually always true in important decisions). For the neurological basis behind this point, refer to the case of Phineas Gage in Antonio Damasio’s “Descarte’s Error”.

    Market reseachers and marketers are often confounded by the large gap between consumers’ stated intentions and actual behavior… the “high say/low do” problem. What’s missing is the presence of motivation, which is simply a level of positive, passionate emotion that is the tipping point factor between action and non-action. When it comes to trying new products, or breaking ingrained habits, consumers do not act on mild emotions. Thus the marketer’s challenge is not just to introduce emotional benefits into the decision process, it is to create passion and thus motivation.

    Once the role of passion in decision-making is understood, then the meaning of the terms “low-involvement category” and “habitual behavior” becomes more clear. To your point of emotional response being a filter for less-important, less-interesting tasks, I believe there is a deeper reason for why habits exist. Habits provide familiarity, comfort, safety, and predictability in daily life, which are in fact are strong motivators that allow people to get through their day. Said another way, people may not express much passion in the attributes of their category (such as purchasing noodles), but subconsciously they are quite passionate about preserving habits. When marketers attempt to get consumers to change behavior (e.g. try a new product), even in a so-called low-involvement category, they often underestimate the strength of existing habit and certainly do not tailor their message to speak to the underlying emotional reasons behind the habit.

    Your advice to marketers to recognize that there is not deep emotional significance to every consumer purchase decision is spot on. Those marketers lucky enough to be industries that deliver self-image and self-esteem in their product/service benefits get to paint with a richer palette of colors than those who categories involve less passionate issues. But I would add that the role of emotions and how they integrate with rational considerations should be exhaustively understood by every product and brand manager, and that those who gain this insight are likely to win in the clinches in their competitive market.

    • Alastair Gordon says:

      Thanks for this Tim. I agree, strength of reaction is often not treated with enough respect in Marketing AND Market Research. At a very basic level in MR this is obvious if you see how many reports still seem to focus almost entirely on “mean scores”, “top 2 box percentages” or even (most surprisignly given the nature of the data) by simple counting of “themes” in Qualitative analysis. As you suggest this can result in some very poor marketing decsions being made. One workshop/lecture I sometimes give is entitled “Marketing Is Not A Democractic Activity” in which I try to show how you can incorporate issues of “strength of response” into overall analytics and not simply focus on summary measures etc.. My feeling is that more thought on such issues is vital, as markets contuinue to get fragmented and saturated and market reponse has to become consequently ever more granular and precise.

  4. Hi Alastair

    Thanks for a great article.
    I first picked up on this via a discussion on the Linkedin Neuromarketing forum and have posted a comment there, but thought it might be worthwhile to reiterate my take here also, so here goes…

    There are, in my view a number of things we need to be clear about when discussing emotions, emotional measurement and its value to MR.
    The first is our definition of what constitutes “emotions”. If we take the conventional view then the term emotions encapsulates concepts such as love, embarrassment, guilt etc.. which indeed are reliant on consciousness, internal self talk, thinking etc.. and can as such be identified through self report assuming an individual is capable of being honest about this. Using this definition, “emotions” probably are symptomatic of and follow behaviour rather than being causes of it, although may well then modulate subsequent behaviour in consequence.
    However, there is an alternative definition of emotion as described by Antonio Damasio which posits that emotions are the subconscious signals from the brain to the rest of the body which modulate body state in a “reflex” response to stimuli represented by the brain through specific patterns of neuron firing. Using this definition, emotions have the ability to beneficially modify body state and therefore influence behaviour before consciousness. It is only when changes in body state as brought about by emotion are then communicated back to the brain that the brain has all the necessary inputs to allow effective conscious and rational self thinking to occur, and it is this complete picture of the simultaneous representation of stimulus and resultant change in body state (the affecter and the affect) which enables the former definition of emotions to be manifest, the former phenomena (love, guilt etc..)being renamed as “feelings” in Damasio’s view.
    Measures of Parasympathetic body states such as GSR (I prefer Electrodermal activity – EDA) pupil dilation, heart rate measures etc.. are therefore direct measures of the resultant effect of emotion before consciousness and this is why they can be good predictors of behaviour. For example Damasio demonstrated that EDA guided respondent behaviour in his Iowa Gambling Task card game, and enabled respondents to develop a beneficial behavioural strategy for winning the game before they were able to consciously and rationally articulate their strategy.
    The next thing we need to consider in my view is the definition of behaviour. Again convention makes us think of physical action such as walking in a certain direction or picking up a product from a retail fixture. However a broader definition may also be beneficial here and we could actually include brain activity itself within a definition of behaviour.
    Sometimes behaviour, be it physical or otherwise can be subconscious, for example if I am pacing backwards and forwards I am often not actively thinking about this and engaging my prefrontal cortex in the activity (although I can bring this into consciousness and engage my prefrontal cortex in the behaviour), likewise if I am going about the process of selecting a product from a supermarket shelf, my decision making process, the visual fixations I make on products and subsequent picking of a product may also occur beneath consciousness, with little or no involvement of my prefrontal cortex.
    What EEG can do is to provide an understanding of things like the levels of activity occurring within the prefrontal cortex in certain situations such as when a product is being chosen. This tells us the degree to which the behaviour is conscious and therefore likely to be subject to more complex problem solving behaviour as opposed to being more subconscious (instinctive). Some of my own work in the area of EEG measurement whilst subjects select products from a supermarket shelf suggests that activity in the prefrontal cortex is greater when the subject is visually engaging with products they ultimately do not select compared with those that end up in the trolley. This would in turn suggest that there is a process of active and to a degree conscious rejection occurring during the selection process.
    There is also some evidence that hemispheric asymmetry in EEG can identify the base nature of the stimuli specific somatic markers utilized in the decision making process i.e. whether body state brought about by emotion prompts subconscious “go” or “stop” signals which guide a selection process. This may be due to the hemispheric asymmetry of both visceral somatosensory cortices and reward regulating dopamine distribution within the brain.
    There is evidence that visceral somatosensory cortices are primarily located in the right hemisphere while dopamine exhibits a left hemispheric distributional asymmetry. Any stimulus, positive or negative, which evokes an emotional response will therefore result in activity in the visceral somatosensory cortices, but only those with positive (reward related) associations will result in dopamine activated reward systems in the left hemisphere. As such right hemisphere biased EEG indicates response to a stimulus in the absence of a reward response. This is not to say that such a stimulus will receive an automatic withdrawal response such as rejection, but it may indicate a “proceed with caution” signal which may then necessitate activation of the prefrontal cortex and more complex problem solving activity in order to resolve the appropriate response to the stimulus.
    So in my view both physiological measures of Parasympathetic activity and EEG measurement have the ability to contribute to our understanding of how subjects respond to stimuli and complement more conventional verbal question and answer techniques and observational studies.

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