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Increase customer engagement by creating emotional marketing experiences

By: Chris Goward Last updated: June 17th, 2021 18 min. read

  • Behavioural Science

Most marketers know the age, sex, geolocation, browsing behavior, and purchase history of their target customer segments. Although, despite having a lot of data, marketers are still just scratching the surface of why their customers behave the way they do. Marketers in the retail sector are able to discern the who, the what, and the how, but we are still missing the why.

Many tools and technologies integrate personalization and artificial intelligence, which can help address customers directly. However, marketers must understand risk and avoidance behaviours to employ emotional marketing experiences.

Finding the emotional connection

Suppose you’re a marketer at Madewell, for example. You might know that your customer, Gwen, is a woman in her mid-20’s, living in Chicago. Her recent purchase history might include buying heels in size 7. You might also know that she is a repeat customer and most often purchases from her tablet.

Still, you don’t know why she bought that pair of heels. You don’t know what motivated her to take action and buy that particular pair of shoes at that precise moment.


What makes Gwen tick?
What if you did know what makes your customers tick?

Recognizing emotional triggers allows marketers to understand how to better engage with their customers and design connected marketing experiences.

In this post, we are going to look at how emotion and buying behavior drive your shoppers to motivate them to make decisions. At WiderFunnel we have a proprietary framework that helps us to:

  1. Identify the dominant personality types of our clients’ target customers, and
  2. Create emotional marketing experiences that resonate with these different personality types.

How people make decisions: A brief research overview

Before we get into the framework, let’s look at the current research behind how people make buying decisions. Specifically, are your customers’ decisions triggered by emotional drivers or reason?

This situation may seem like the proverbial chicken or the egg problem, but consider this scenario, for example:

A customer is about to purchase a new refrigerator. The one they have is only a year old, but it has already broken down twice. The repair company blames the brand’s product quality—they always get calls about these models. The customer service line is no help. The customer knows they need to move ahead and buy a new one.

They don’t want to make the same mistake twice, so they prepare by doing some market research on available choices. They consult product reviews online and ask the repair company for suggestions on refrigerator brands and models. They read about the features and benefits of each model to compare them.

And after careful consultation of these sources, they make a final decision.

Question: Is this an example of an emotional or a rational decision-making process?

Even with a lengthy, seemingly rational decision-making process, they are highly motivated by their emotions. The fear of purchasing another subpar appliance drove their decision to consider alternate brand options.

Behavioural scientists know that decisions aren’t based on reason alone. Ancient philosophers like Plato initially separated emotion from logic. We now have evidence that our emotions inform the cognitive process and influence our decisions.

To offer some context, In the 1990s, findings in cognitive psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and neurology began to challenge the original assumption. Scientists realized that emotion and reason are integrated systems rather than separate states. And that emotions (like fear) can prompt action before a subject can cognitively process the threat.

The evidence has led to a shift from thinking of a rational to an emotional decision-making process—which can provide insights into purchase intent. In summary, many scientists and researchers now believe that emotions drive actions. And while this may be obvious, many marketers are not capitalizing on this insight.

The power of emotional communication

We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.

– Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Southern California

Imagine for a moment that you live in a nice neighborhood. Your home and yard mean a great deal to you. After all, this is the place where you and your family spend the most time. You’ve taken pains with the paint job, the hanging plants, the grass, the garden, the cobblestone pathway leading to your door.Your favorite chair is waiting on the porch for you after a long day at work. You’ve created a space that is a sanctuary. Your sanctuary.

And the last thing you want are pushy solicitors walking up to your door, interrupting your tranquility and invading your family’s space.

So, you decide to hang a sign on your front gate to keep unwelcome guests out. You are deciding between the two options below:


Which one do you choose?

We’re going to guess that you’re leaning toward the sign with the ferocious-looking dog (because most people do). But why is this sign more effective than the other?

What makes the dog so effective?

In the example above, the sign on the left relies on fact-based, informational communication. The message “Private Property | No Trespassing” seeks to inform an attitude based on the traditional societal norm of respecting another person’s property.

The sign with the dog, however, relies on emotional communication. It seeks to probe a much more powerful underlying response. For many people, the threat of being attacked by a dog triggers a risk-averse emotional response. And that emotional response makes it less likely that they will trespass on your property. Communication (the sign) triggers an emotion (fear), which triggers an action, or lack thereof (not trespassing). Your shoppers are influenced by emotional communication in the same way.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux explains, “the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.

LeDoux suggests that our brain waves flow from old brain to new brain, meaning our decision-making processes are much less rational than we’d all like to believe.

Moreover, emotions happen before thought, and they happen far faster.

Marketing and emotion—the dominance of implicit processes

There are two types of human thinking: conscious thinking and unconscious thinking.

In classic economic theory, consumers are rational economic actors who make choices after considering all relevant information, using conscious thinking.

But there’s a problem with that theory.

Conscious thinking is an explicit process and requires a significant amount of energy. The human brain accounts for just 2% of your body weight, but it consumes more than 20% of your energy. Because your body has evolved to operate as efficiently as possible, it limits energy-sapping conscious thinking.

This means that your brain processes almost all communication signals from your environment unconsciously, through implicit processes.


Implicit vs. explicit processing illustrated in bits of information absorbed per second.

This implicit process is controlled by the limbic system, which is sometimes referred to as the emotional brain. As a result, many of our decisions are made unconsciously and are based on emotion.


The limbic system is sometimes referred to as the ’emotional brain’.

We have gut reactions in three seconds or less. Emotions process sensory input in only one-fifth of the time our conscious, cognitive brain takes to assimilate that same input. Quick emotional processing also happens with cascading impact. Our emotional reaction to a stimulus resounds more loudly in our brain than does our rational response, triggering the action to follow.

– Dan Hill, Author, Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business

When a customer decides to buy from you, they have often decided before their conscious mind is even aware of it. Based on millions of cues, they have determined that your product is a fit for them at that moment in time.


Want to go more in-depth on this topic? Here’s a recorded webinar that digs deeper with more examples of how to speak to your shoppers’ emotional motivations.


It’s up to you to create that feeling of ‘this fits me’ for your target customer and to provide the features and benefits they need to justify their purchase after the fact.

Optimizing your marketing experiences for emotional connection

The trouble for most marketers is that it is tough to:

  1. Identify what your target customers’ core emotional drivers are,
  2. Showcase your findings as a dataset, and
  3. Incorporate those motivators into your marketing experiences

Identifying and measuring emotional motivators is complicated because customers themselves may not even be aware of them. These sentiments are typically different from what customers say are the reasons they make brand choices and from the terms they use to describe their emotional responses to particular brands.

– Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas, and Daniel Leemon, “The New Science of Customer Emotions“, Harvard Business Review

But it isn’t impossible. We call this optimizing for emotional relevance. And it first requires an understanding of the emotional systems of the human brain.

In particular, you need to understand the three main emotional systems and how they influence customer behavior through both desire and aversion. These include:

  • The Stimulance System, which aims to discover new things and learn new skills. This part of the brain is triggered by novelty, curiosity, change, surprise, and excitement. This system avoids boredom but is drawn to new sensations.
  • The Dominance System, which focuses on performance, self-assertion, the suppression of competition, and achieving status, power, and autonomy. This system’s desire is pride or a feeling of victory. And its aversion is anger, rage and powerlessness.
  • The Balance System, which is motivated by risk avoidance, and stability. This area may be triggered by fear and anxiety, but it is also associated with harmony and conformity, as it seeks security.

The Dominance and Stimulance systems are the expansive and risk-oriented systems in the brain, whereas the Balance system is the risk avoidance counter-system.


The Reward / Desire vs. Punishment / Aversion sides of each system.

Ok, great. But how do you, the marketer, explore, understand, and leverage these emotional systems?

Let’s go a little deeper and jump into the Limbic® model.

The Limbic model

The Limbic model is one of the world’s best-founded approaches for understanding your customers’ emotional systems.

Developed by the German research group, Gruppe Nymphenburg, over the past 20 years, it is based on the latest findings across various disciplines that include neuroanatomy, evolutionary biology, neurochemistry, and psychology.

For the past four years, WiderFunnel has had the exclusive North American rights to the Limbic model and the development of digital marketing services based on the Limbic model. (More on this later)

The Limbic model reveals the different emotional systems that exist in your customer’s head, how these systems interact in the brain, and how they influence (p) behavior.

What sets Limbic apart from other personality profiling tools, like Myers Briggs or Predictive Index, is that it is the first tool of its kind designed specifically for marketing. It focuses on uncovering the emotion and motivation of a customer rather than on how people relate to one another.

At the center of the Limbic model is the Limbic® map. All human motives, desires, and values can be represented and related to one another within this map.


The Limbic map showcases human motives, desires and values as they relate to one another. The exact position of each value on the map has been developed through a rigorous process over decades.

The Limbic types

Remember when I touched on the three central emotional systems: Stimulance, Dominance, and Balance?

Well, each emotional system is present in each of us, but to varying degrees. Most people are dominated by one of the three systems. The Limbic model allows you to categorize a target customer segment by psychographic profile rather than just demographics or geographics.

Digging deeper into the primary emotional systems, you’ll notice seven defined Limbic® types based on the emotional values illustrated on the Limbic map.


The seven main Limbic types.

Understanding a customer audience by Limbic type means that you can design marketing experiences that effectively resonate with this audience on an emotional level.

An example of Limbic system marketing

One of our retail clients recently told us that she feels like her company’s products are always on sale—This is an excellent example of a typical marketing problem. Discounts are a tried and true method for lifting conversion rates and moving inventory for retailers.

But what if a sale is not the best motivator for your target audience?

Different persuasion principles will work better for different limbic types.

A person dominated by the Stimulance System, for instance, is less motivated by a discount than by something new, limited edition, or rare. One of Robert Cialdini’s 7 Principles of Persuasion, scarcity, is a better tactic to try for a Stimulance audience.

A person dominated by the Balance System, on the other hand, needs to know that they are making the right choice. This person is highly risk-averse and sensitive to consensus. Rather than a discount, putting your best-reviewed products forward to showcase social proof would be a better tactic.

How we leverage the Limbic model at WiderFunnel to engage customers

There are two primary ways we are leveraging the Limbic model at WiderFunnel.

The first is within a brand new service called MotivationLab®. MotivationLab is a way to dive deep into your target customer’s mindset, and reveal their core emotional drivers.

MotivationLab experiments are conducted through a series of interviews with carefully recruited respondents. Respondents are recruited based on customized criteria, which considers the demographics, geographics, behavior, motivation, and Limbic type of your target customers.

Each MotivationLab experiment aims to:

  • Reveal inconsistencies between the effect that you, the marketer, planned to create with your communication, and the actual impact of your communication
  • Identify optimization potential, especially regarding target group-specific communication
  • Evaluate “brand fit”: Does your marketing communication support or weaken your brand (positioning)?

Our Strategy team is also leveraging the Limbic model as part of our Explore phase as a source of information for marketing hypotheses.

Even if you haven’t run a MotivationLab on your target audience to determine their Limbic type, you can still test variations that reflect these types.

For example, our Madewell marketer could test a Balance variation of their product page, emphasizing social proof (featuring testimonials and product reviews). Or, they could test a Dominance variation that emphasizes a prominent discount.

When testing persuasion principles through the Limbic model’s lens, you can test according to the emotional driver. As you learn more about what motivates your audience, you can build the business case for even more investment in learning about your customers’ motivations.

The future of marketing is emotional marketing

Marketers have more data than ever before. But even with all of this data, we aren’t seeing a complete picture of who our customers are, and why they do what they do.

The strategies WiderFunnel has built around the Limbic model are allowing us to deeply explore the “why” behind people’s behavior, and create truly connected marketing experiences for our clients. Experiences that motivate customers on an emotional level.

Comfort. Acceptance. Power. Freedom. Control. Love. We are all longing to find satisfaction for our intangible desires. If you can provide a payoff for your prospects’ unspoken needs, you will find yourself handsomely rewarded.

– Chris Goward, Author, You Should Test That!

And unlocking your customers’ core motivators won’t just benefit your digital strategy. It will impact every single part of your marketing. You won’t need the Don Drapers of the past to guide your campaign strategy, design your in-store experience, build the perfect homepage or write the most compelling headline.

Instead, you can leverage a scientific methodology to figure out what makes your customers tick and why they buy across your marketing spectrum.

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