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Emotion and rationality. Facts and feelings. These forces govern each decision we make, from the products we buy to the people we spend time with and even to the careers we enjoy. Yet, though they are ever-present, they often seem to be at odds with each other, pulling us in opposite directions when we are faced with choices. The head and the heart respond in different ways to stimuli, and this can cause a lot of confusion when creating and interpreting messages. A perfectly logical option may fail to excite us while an alternative that seems irresistible may make no sense.

rational or emotional marketing main question

This internal conflict can wreak havoc on marketing campaigns. When trying to connect with customers your message may fall flat simply because it targets the wrong part of the target market. The million dollar question then remains: which is best, rational or emotional marketing? Should a brand try to evoke conviction or focus on clarity? Should communications aim to have customers understand or to make them feel? Should you speak to a customer’s head or to their heart?

The Case For Emotion

rational or emotional marketing maya angelou quote

Conviction Inspires Action

Emotions are perhaps the most universal part of being human, which is why they are so effective when used in communication. There isn’t a person alive who can deny their influence on our decisions and anyone who grew up with siblings will assure you that some arguments just can’t be won with facts. Appealing to emotions works because humans are inspired by their feelings. As Mother Teresa famously said: “If I look at the mass I will never act, if I look at the one I will”. This quote illustrates that while stats and figures may provide knowledge about a situation sometimes a single person -someone to care about- is what provides that little push to make a change.

rational or emotional marketing roger ebert quote

To put that idea in action, consider the difference between the statement “40% of the earth’s population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water”, and the statement “Bobby will go thirsty tonight”.  The latter is inherently more action-inspiring than the former because it focuses on the individual and, in doing so, urges a reader to make a change. It’s easy to wrap your head around a concept but easier to wrap your heart around a person. The line between action and inaction lies in the sentimental part of the mind.

AT&T Knows How to Start With the Heart

AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign is a perfect illustration of this concept at work. Even though teens are constantly being bombarded with facts about the dangers of texting and driving, these figures have done little to actually change their behaviour. For example, did you know that almost half a million people are killed in texting and driving accidents in the U.S. alone every year? A survey conducted by AT&T showed that 97% of teens recognize the dangers of texting and driving and yet almost half of them continue to do it anyways.

rational or emotional marketing text drive stat

So how do you get it through a teenager’s head that they need to change when the facts can’t seem to do the job? You don’t. You get it through their heart.

In the summer of 2016 AT&T took this approach with their “It Can Wait” campaign. They gathered some young adults who admitted to texting while driving and instead of educating them about the percentage of time texting drivers spend out of their lanes or the distance a car can travel in the 5 seconds it takes to check a phone, they introduced them to Jacey.

Jacey is a young woman who suffered partial paralysis and lost both of her parents due to a tragic texting and driving accident that was no fault of her own. Through this brief exposure to Jacey and her story, I would argue AT&T made a more actionable impact on the lives of these teenagers than all the texting and driving statistics combined, and their reactions prove it.

rational or emotional marketing it can wait screengrab

Teens began the video providing justifications like “texting is my main form of communication” and “what if something exciting is happening” but by the end of the video these reasons had melted away. Quotes like “I’m not going to look at my phone ever again” and “I’m not going to look at my phone… until it becomes a habit” echo around the room as, through tears, the teenagers vow to make a change. From these reactions, it’s clear to see that emotions are the key to action.

The Theory and Implications of Emotional Appeals

I understand that an example of one campaign doesn’t exactly make a theory, but luckily we have esteemed neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio to help with that. In his book “Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain”, Damasio discusses patients who had sustained damage to the area of the brain where emotions are created. You probably wouldn’t be able to pick one of the patients out in a crowd, but if you engaged one in a conversation you’d start to notice something peculiar: these individuals are unable to feel emotions.

rational or emotional marketing emotionless

This discovery had some unexpected ramifications, the most relevant of which is that these emotionless individuals were subsequently unable to make even the simplest of  decisions. A discussion of Damasio’s famous study explains that “they could describe what they should be doing in logical terms yet were unable to arrive at a decision”. Simply put, the will to act doesn’t come from fact; motion is derived from emotion.

The implication of this study for businesses is quite clear. To get a customer to take action it is imperative that you make them care. Many marketing campaigns are designed to generate a response from customers and in this goal there is no greater ally than emotions. Focus on stories over stats, personalize messages wherever possible and take special care to highlight how your product will make a customer feel. These appeals to emotion can be polarizing but leaving emotion out of your communication is paralyzing. Now let’s take a look at the other side of the coin: logic and reason.

The Case For Rationality

rational or emotional marketing sigmund freud quote

Clarity Helps Organize Choices

Logic and reasoning are the gears that run our society. It’s why we as people are drawn to things that are symmetrical and why we cringe when we hear someone say something that is blatantly incorrect. Logic brings order to our world and also to our decisions. There’s a certain comfort that comes when things make sense and a palpable uneasiness when things in our world are out of whack.

rational or emotional marketing symmetry

Appealing to logic works because humans seek to make rational decisions and logic help us organize information in a way that makes that possible. When we are faced with choices, clarity helps us make sense of the options in front of us. It helps us compare and contrast alternatives in order to land on a decision we can justify and understand. Where impulse and emotion can often mislead, logic is not so easily fooled. The mind is objective and the clarity it runs on helps individuals optimize their decisions.

rational or emotional marketing augustus hare quote

Hyundai Knows How to Get In Your Head

The power of clarity comes to life in a recent Hyundai commercial where the issue of distracted driving is once again a feature but in a very different way. The auto industry is one of the most competitive markets to operate in, requiring constant innovation and effective marketing to enjoy even limited success. As of January 2017, even the leader in U.S. auto sales (General Motors) held barely over 15% of the market. Competition is tight and since consumers have virtually every option at their fingertips, auto marketers need to make the most of their outbound communications.

This ultimately means going against the status quo.  When every car commercial is designed to pull at a customer’s heartstrings with images of happy families and the freedom of the open road it can be hard to have a genuine heart-to-heart. That’s why Hyundai took a more “head” on approach with the Hyundai Test Town series.

Most of us would expect an automatic braking system commercial to follow a certain pattern: two young parents load their adorable children and perfectly packed camping supplies into a flawless new vehicle.  All of a sudden a distracted driver slams on the brakes in front of our perfect family and the car hurtles forward towards certain doom… until the automatic brakes kick in and stop the car just in time. A deep baritone voiceover then says “introducing the new and improved model A by manufacturer B.” The driving parent looks into the rearview and catches the eye of one of the children. The voiceover continues: “A car that looks out for you… all of you”.

rational or emotional marketing hyundai family car

Hyundai’s commercial doesn’t have any of that. No loving glances, no swelling string music, or even real people for that matter. Instead, it is laser focused on clarity. The baritone voiceover is replaced by a clear, matter of fact narrator who discusses the features in explicit detail explaining exactly how the automatic brakes work. The narrator succinctly explains how the system uses “both cameras and radar sensors” and that it “can apply full brakes from 5 to 50 MPH”, details frequently missing in flashier ads. The neutral colours in the advertisement keep viewers focused on the visual demonstration that accompanies the narrator’s words ensuring none of the message is lost along the way.

rational or emotional marketing hyundai dummies

The commercial ends with a still shot of the vehicle and while a viewer may not be left with with a lump in their throat, they’re also not left with any doubts as to how the Hyundai Tucson can bring value to their life. So while the typical safety commercial may do wonders for our emotions, it leaves many questions unanswered that Hyundai’s “Test Town” address directly. Laying out all the facts makes the value of the Tucson easy to understand and, consequently, easy to justify.

The Theory and Implications of Rational Appeals

The theory that best helps explain the power of rationality is the economic concept of utility. Investopedia defines utility as “the total satisfaction received from consuming a good or service”. Utility can be used to map all manner of human decisions and has been instrumental in the construction of most economics practices as we understand them today. The basis of the theory is that we humans are hardwired to maximize utility and will make rational decisions in an attempt to do so. The law of diminishing marginal utility explains why we eat less as we get full (each additional bite provides less value and then eventually detracts from our satisfaction).

rational or emotional marketing loyalty utility definition

Utility even helps explain why products and services are sold for the prices they are. Buyers are willing to pay a price at or below the value they derive from the product while sellers will sell for a price at or above their utility. Any area in-between is an acceptable price for both parties and allows a deal to be made. The concept of utility powers our decision making like clockwork. The evidence for rationality leaves us with a simple conclusion: if it doesn’t make sense it won’t make a cent.

rational or emotional marketing loyalty communication

The conclusion of utility for today’s brands is easy to see. Effective communication is clear, logical and allows a customer to easily understand the value a business provides. When educating customers about products, businesses should make every effort to provide tangible takeaways that a customer can easily remember and internalize. Marketers should quantify claims wherever they can and highlight indisputable facts that reinforce your value. A flowery commercial might warm your heart but it won’t change your mind.

So Who Wins: The Head or The Heart?

Examining the duality of clarity and conviction makes it clear that both have a place in effective marketing. The best communications will balance appeals to both emotions and rationality as the situation calls for it. I hate to end such a contested issue with an answer of “it depends” but in this case, context truly is everything.

rational or emotional marketing balance

Our two distracted driving videos are perfect illustrations of the importance of context. While AT&T’s public service announcement was focused on inspiring action and changing behaviour, Hyundai’s commercial was positioned to educate a buyer on the value of their offering. As a result, it was perfectly effective for AT&T to aim for the heart while Hyundai spoke to the mind.

To provide another example, think of a brand’s loyalty program. A loyalty program has two halves: the earning of points and the spending of those points. The trick here is that each portion of the program is best communicated in a different way. When communicating the earning of rewards it is imperative to be clear in exactly how a customer earns points. This ensures a customer understands how the program works.

rational or emotional marketing balance

When moving into the communication of rewards, the motive switches to conviction. A customer should feel why a brand’s rewards are desirable and why the program works for them. A great loyalty program leaves a customer understanding how they earn points and feeling why they want to spend those points.

The switch between rationality and emotion requires a kind of cognitive ambidexterity. You need to be able to tell a customer’s head “what” and then their heart “why”, which can often be easier said than done. Though it may be a challenge, the rewards are worth it. Brands that master this skill are second to none when it comes to marketing.

psychology become an expert CTA