Does Emotion Sell?

Regardless of data, analytics, and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, emotional advertising does pay.

Does Emotion Sell?

I must admit, I am a sucker for the emotionalization of brands.

Brands that deliver emotional benefits make people feel differently. For example, BMW makes you feel the thrill of driving, while Burberry helps you celebrate a bit of British culture. I love emotional advertising, too. The best ads are highly memorable and make brands likable. I still remember the Mean Joe Green advertising from Coca-Cola. The tagline was: “Have a Coke and a smile.” Even in 1979, when the ad was released, this provided proof that emotional ads could be timeless and have a lasting effect.

Top of mind, during the run-up to the holiday season that just past, a lot of emotional ads were running. Every country claimed its advertisements were the most emotional. It reminded me of Frank Zappa who said, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer or an airline. It helps to have some kind of football team or some nuclear weapons, but at least you need a beer.”

Today, most countries have an airline and a beer, so we compete on something else—perhaps emotions in advertising.

Some of the standouts among ads:

• In Germany, one of the best emotional ads was released by retailer brand Edeka. It tells a slight macabre holiday story where a grandpa waits year after year for a visit from his children and relatives without success. He decides to release his own obituary in order to bring everyone together for the holidays. All of his family shows up to his “funeral” and then they celebrate together once they find out that grandpa is still alive.

• In Holland, you can see Albert Heijn’s store employees singing a version of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” while showing off shelfs and in-store decorations.

• One of the best holiday ads come from U.K retailer John Lewis. Every year, in a sort of competition among retailers in the U.K., John Lewis tops the list. See for yourself.

• In Thailand, emotional ads don’t have a season at all. According to the Wall Street Journal, telco companies and insurance brands hire directors like Thanonchai Sornsriwichai to produce a three-minute commercial for TVC Thai Life Insurance. The ad focuses on a teenage girl who is bullied at school. This is so emotional that watching it can feel like a contest, with the winner being the viewer who can get through it without crying.

• And of course in the U.S., we have our share of emotional advertisements. Actually, we have at least two seasons here. We have the holiday run-up of commercials that tug at our heartstrings, and Macy’s was one of the best with its “The Wish Writer” ad. The other season, of course, is during the Super Bowl. Who does not remember the Puppy Love ad from Budweiser?

But the question still remains. Does emotion sell?

The scientific, empirical answer is no. The latest book by Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp, “How Brands Grow Part 2,” tells us why.

Romaniuk and Sharp are leading one of the world’s most prolific research institutes, the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia. The book is a sequel to the first book, “How Brands Grow,” which covered similar ground.

What makes the work of Romaniuk and Sharp so remarkable is that they don’t just rely on judgments, opinions, anecdotes, or case studies. They are university researchers who rely on data and analytics. Here is what they say about the power of emotions:

Over many decades, the idea of emotional attachments has been dressed with different names. More recently it is called “brand love,” but let’s not get fooled by old concepts with new labels; previous incarnations, such as brand attitude, brand relationships, and brand engagement, all touted the same idea.

People can develop feelings about brands. It’s just that these feelings are typically weak (it is fine/OK/does the job) and reflect, rather than predict, their own buying behavior. We should be wary of giving these feelings too much weight in the buying process, simply because very little evidence supports any disproportionate attention.

It is suggested that building brand love will lead to brand growth, but the weight of evidence does not support these claims. Other forays into the importance of emotional attachment to the brand or engagement with the brand on social media have highlighted that these extreme feelings are rare and of little consequence to a brand’s market share.

We discussed the foolishness of worrying about deep feelings about brands: we won’t give any more oxygen to this distraction except to say we see them … (as) irrelevant.

So with regard to the question of emotions in advertising—does it sell? The short answer, based on opinion and action, is yes, and that’s why brand marketers spend so much money on it. However, the true answer, based on extensive scientific evidence, is no.

The Case For The Power Of Emotions In Advertising

A compelling rationale for emotion in advertising comes from research by Google. The company’s data showed that mobile has fractured consumer behavior into dozens and hundreds of short, fleeting, intent-driven moments. Since they have been digitally enabled by smartphones, consumers search for information, learn about brands, and buy products anytime or anywhere, whenever they have a “micro-moment” of time, often while doing something else. We refer to this behavior of consumers as the flight of the bumblebee.

In a world, where consumers behave ever more spontaneously, with short attention spans and short bursts of actions, it is not the strongest brand that connects with consumers, but it is the most salient brand—the brand that comes up in consumers’ mind in many micro-moments of daily life.

That means emotional advertising does not have to emphasize a particular value proposition or USP. It merely needs to make the brand salient. Whenever consumers think about shopping or go shopping, they think about that brand.

In short, regardless of data, analytics, and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, emotional advertising pays.