Psychology in Marketing – Emotional Response Strategy

Consumers are Emotional Constructors, Not Reactors

Your marketing strategy may include attempting to evoke specific emotional responses within your viewers, in order to pivot to a sale or get that click through. But, what if the way we understand the neuroscience of emotions is wrong?

The classical view of emotional neuroscience says that people are reactive and emotions rest in regions of the brain, but new research suggests that the experience of emotions are predicted by the subject based on prior events and information. Neuroscientist, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett contends (in her book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain) that people need context and sensory input to form an emotional response. In other words, people need to have experienced a given concept before they can gauge how to feel about a given sensory input.

Give Them Sensory Input They’ve Already Experienced

If Dr. Feldman Barrett is correct, then what are the implications for the way we market our businesses and products to the consumer? I would argue that it means we have to tie our ad campaign to an existing experience, something that our target audience can relate to on the desired emotional level. 

Take for example the ad created by Wieden and Kennedy for Nike featuring Colin Kaepernick, the football player who stirred up controversy during football games in order to highlight the issue of racial inequality. Wieden and Kennedy’s team took the risk of appearing to support Kaepernick’s position by posting the sentence: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” right over the bridge of Kaepernick’s nose. This ad produced a familiar image – Kaepernick and his ideals – knowing that the emotional response from most consumers would be previously constructed and strong.

 Jump Start Effective Frequency

Wieden and Kennedy took a calculated risk that the positive emotional responses would outweigh the negatives, and they succeeded. The ad went viral and Nike saw an increase in sales of 31% over that Labor Day Weekend after the ad aired. If you believe Thomas Kennedy’s assessment of Effective Frequency (the theory that a person is totally unaware of an ad until they have seen it three times) then the strategy of using a prominent experience to share your product would bypass the need for multiple ignored advertisements. 

maybe this time

Wieden and Kennedy didn’t cause emotional reactions, they reminded people of their previous emotions regarding an experience they’d already analyzed and discussed. Thus, in a very small window of commercial ad space, Nike’s advertising company could catch the attention of those who had already built up the constructs of emotional response to a familiar image and message.

Ready for some proof? Let’s have a little fun with optical illusions! If you can’t tell me what you see in the below image (aside from black and white blobs) then, according to Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, you’ve just encountered something called Experiential Blindness. Curious? She reveals the image in her Ted Talk.

About the Doctor

(excerpt from accessed 7/24/19)

Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. In addition to the book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Dr. Barrett has published over 200 peer-reviewed, scientific papers appearing in Science, Nature Neuroscience, and other top journals in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, as well as six academic volumes published by Guilford Press. She has also given a popular TED talk.

Dr. Barrett received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for her revolutionary research on emotion in the brain. These highly competitive, multi million dollar awards are given to scientists of exceptional creativity who are expected to transform biomedical and behavioral research. She also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019.

Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Barrett has testified before Congress, presented her research to the FBI, consulted to the National Cancer Institute, appeared on Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman and The Today Show with Maria Shriver, and been a featured guest on public television and worldwide radio programs. She is also an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the Royal Society of Canada.