How to create emotionally resonant marketing experiences for your shoppers

By: Natasha Wahid
20 min. read Last updated: August 27th, 2020

What’s emotion got to do with it?

In 2017, most marketers know the age, sex, geolocation, browsing behavior, and purchase history of their target customer segments.

They are investing in new and exciting tools and technologies, like personalization and artificial intelligence.

Many marketers are moving away from gut-feeling marketing, and are focusing on measurables and experimentation.

But even with all of this data, marketers are still just scratching the surface of why their customers behave the way they do. As a group, we are getting pretty good at the who, the what, and the how…but we are still missing the why.

Buyer persona example
What makes Gwen tick, really?

If you’re a marketer at Steve Madden, for example, you might know that your customer, Gwen, is a woman in her mid-20’s, living in Chicago. You might know her recent purchase history — black velvet pumps in size 7. You might know that she is a repeat customer, and that she most often purchases from her tablet.

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

But what if you did?

What if you could identify what resonates with and motivates your target customers on an emotional level, and design your marketing experiences around that data?

In this post, we are going to look at how emotion and personality drive your shoppers to make buying decisions. And we’re going to introduce a proprietary WiderFunnel framework that is allowing us to:

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

How people make decisions: A brief research overview

Before we get into the framework, however, let’s look at the current research behind how people actually make buying decisions. Namely: Are your shoppers’ decisions driven by emotion or reason?

This may seem like the marketer’s chicken or the egg conundrum, but consider this scenario:

You are about to purchase a new refrigerator. The one you 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. But the customer service line is no help. You know you need to just buy a new one.

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

And after careful consultation of these sources, you finally make a decision.

Now, is this an example of an emotional or a rational decision-making process?

Even with an extended, seemingly rational decision-making process, you are actually highly motivated by your emotions.

Your fear of purchasing another crappy appliance drove not only the decision to buy, but your conscious consideration of the different options.

Scientists used to believe we made decisions through reason; emotions only interrupted this cognitive process. In this school of thought, originating from ancient philosophers like Plato, emotion was the opposite of reason.

But, by the 1990s, findings in cognitive psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and neurology began to challenge this assumption. Scientists were realizing that emotion and reason are integrated systems, rather than separate states. And that emotions (like fear) can prompt an action before a subject is able to cognitively process the threat.

The evidence has led to a shift from thinking of a rational to an emotional decision-making process.

In other words, many scientists and researchers now believe that emotions drive actions. And while this may not be news to you, many marketers are still 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

Ok. So, according to recent research, emotions drive action. What does that really mean for you?

Imagine for a moment…

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:

Emotional communication - WiderFunnel example
Which sign do you think will be more effective?

Which one do you choose?

I’m guessing 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 is suggesting 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. Which leads us to…

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.

Which 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.

how do people make buying decisions
The limbic system is sometimes referred to as the ’emotional brain’.

We have gut reactions in three seconds or less. In fact, emotions process sensory input in only one-fifth 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.

When a shopper decides to buy from you, they have often made the decision before their conscious mind is even aware of it. Based on millions of cues, they have decided 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 relevance

The trouble for most marketers is that it is very difficult to:

  1. Identify what your target customers’ core emotional drivers are,
  2. Showcase your findings as a dataset, and
  3. Actually 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 these systems 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 it’s 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.

Emotional systems in shoppers
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?

This is where the Limbic® model comes into play.

The Limbic model

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

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

As of this May, WiderFunnel has the exclusive North American rights to the Limbic model, and to the development of digital marketing services based on the Limbic model. (Which I will touch on more 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 (shopping) 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 is focused on uncovering the emotion and motivation of a shopper, 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.

Emotional marketing strategy using Limbic model
The Limbic map showcases human motives, desires and values as they relate to one another.

The exact position of each individual value on the map has been developed through a rigorous process, over decades.

The Limbic types

Remember when I touched on the three main 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 main emotional systems, you’ll notice that there are seven defined Limbic® types based on the emotional values illustrated on the Limbic map.

Limbic® types - WiderFunnel
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

One of our retail clients recently told us that she feels like her company’s products are always on sale. This is a great example of when marketers get stuck in a rut. Particularly for retailers, discounts are a tried and true method for lifting conversion rates, and moving inventory.

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

buyer personas by emotional profile
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.

Further Reading: Click here to see a mini-case study where we tested social proof for a beauty retailer.

How we leverage the Limbic model at WiderFunnel

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 effect 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 Steve Madden marketer could test a Balance variation of their product page, that emphasizes 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 lens of the Limbic model, you can test according to 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 gets emotional

Marketers have more data than ever before. But even with all of this data, we still 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 resonant marketing experiences for our clients. Experiences that motivate shoppers on an emotional level.

Chris Goward

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 shoppers’ 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 scientific methodology to figure out what makes your customers tick, and why they buy. Across your marketing spectrum.

What strategies and frameworks are you leveraging to explore your customers’ emotional drivers? How are you incorporating emotional communication into your marketing? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this post: please leave ’em in the comments section below!

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