How to Use Emotion to Elevate Your Marketing: Insights From ONWARD19

It’s an old business school adage, written by Ted Levitt in 1962: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” At ONWARD19, keynote speaker and marketing expert Seth Godin brought up this classic example of selling the feeling a product yields, rather than its features, but took it a step further. “[Levitt] didn’t go nearly far enough, because you know what? No one needs a quarter-inch hole,” Godin said. “What they need is a place to put the lag bolt. Nope, what they need is a way to hang the shelf. Nope, what they need is the way it makes them feel when their spouse comes home and says, ‘Thanks for cleaning up the den.’ That’s what they go to buy. That’s what you sell.”

His point is that people buy emotions, not things. The decisions we make, across the board, are fueled by emotion, not logic — up to 80% of them. This means that to compete, marketers must appeal to emotion. Logan Cherotti writes in Inc., “Humans are driven by feelings. So if you want the consumer to remember your product or brand, they must be engaged and impassioned by the interaction with your company.”

“Your primary focus and messaging in presenting your product or service to the customer and ultimately, properly setting and meeting customer expectations, should be as closely aligned as possible with the results and benefits they seek,” explains Howard Tullman in Inc. And those results and benefits almost always have an emotional core, even in B2B (think, “I want my boss to respect me”).

Marisa Thalberg, former CMO of Taco Bell and Strategic Advisor across Yum! Brands, explained in an ONWARD19 panel that her transition from the luxury beauty market to mass market fast food yielded a lesson in understanding the emotional benefits that all customers seek. “When I was at the Estee Lauder companies, the great recession hit. And here you are in a luxury world, suddenly thinking and talking about how do you reframe value,” Thalberg said. “Conversely, when I went into this world of very mass market products, I felt a responsibility to flip the script and get under what are the emotional desires that we all have.” And turns out? All of us have the desire for something great — within our means.

Thalberg explained: “When you’re in a business where it’s so closely tied to the heartbeat of America that you can feel it in your sales when gas prices go up, or it’s pay-day, and you stop and think about what that means — that means there are Americans out there choosing between a taco and a tank of gas — that’s really poignant,” Thalberg said. “And underneath that it starts exposing that people want great things, but they want to be able to afford them. It’s that syntax that really matters — we don’t just want what we can afford, we want what we want.

So she changed Taco Bell’s marketing according to this emotional understanding: “For me, that became an interesting way of reframing value in my mass-market world — let’s not just yell price points at people. Let’s instead ask, ‘How do we make this emotionally gratifying?’ And then the punchline is, anyone can afford it.”

Businesses who can successfully appeal to emotions have reaped considerable rewards. According to HBR, “After a major bank introduced a credit card for millennials that was designed to inspire emotional connection, use among the segment increased by 70% and new account growth rose by 40%.”

So how can your brand get started prioritizing the emotional needs of your customers in 2020? To take understanding emotional needs from guesswork to science, lean on data — including what you learn from what your customers search for. Dig into common emotional motivators, like standing out from the crowd, feeling a sense of belonging, or succeeding in life. (HBR defined a standard lexicon of emotions twelve years ago after surfacing that no such thing yet existed.) 

And in your search efforts, maintain the brand voice and feeling that you channel in your more traditional forms of advertising — so that your customer has a consistent experience with you, producing a consistent emotion. As with any effort, making emotional connection an explicit KPI for your business and giving it visibility among senior leadership will help ensure success. 


Editor’s note: Want even more insight from our ONWARD19 conference? Visit our ONWARD On Demand page for more recaps and our favorite full-session videos. (And none of it’s behind a gate!)

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