Emotional Marketing: Successfully Affecting Behavior Change

We talk a lot these days about emotional marketing. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this is that we ever imagined marketing wasn’t emotional. But we did.

There’s a rich history. In fact, we’ve had a predominantly rational model of how marketing works—not just in healthcare, but in marketing generally—ever since the 1930s when researchers like George Gallup and Daniel Starch began using sequential models to explain how people were affected by marketing communications. Models included AIDA (Attention → Interest → Desire → Action).

These were important. Not least because the “intermediate variables” they introduced (like awareness, attitude shifts and consideration) became the bedrock of how we measured marketing effectiveness. They described a common sense and plausible account of our decision-making processes that—tallied with the assumptions economists have always made about consumers acting as rational folks—minimized their utility. As rational models became widely accepted, they spread beyond packaged consumer goods to durables, cars, OTC medicines and B2B.

But there was a problem. Although these models were very helpful in planning and measuring, they were terrible at describing how marketing actually affected people. So, when we talk about emotional marketing, we are typically contrasting our current thinking with these common, but increasingly outmoded ideas.

How Do We Know Emotional Marketing Works?

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) in the UK conducted an analysis of the winners of their effectiveness awards (by far the most demanding anywhere in the world). They found campaigns based on emotional strategies outperformed others on nearly all criteria—generating extra sales, increasing market share, commanding price premium and consumer loyalty.1

It’s currently fashionable to cite the Nobel-prize winning psychologist and behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman, to explain this. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman described two different modes in which humans make decisions: System 1 thinking is the quick, instinctive mode, prevalent for millions of years of evolution. System 2 thinking is the slower, more intellectual, highbrow mode we use for solving higher order problems. System 1 is primarily emotional while System 2 is what we think of as “rational” deliberation. We think we use System 2 most of the time—but that’s an illusion. What we actually do, as Kahneman shows with a host of examples, is to make decisions instinctively—emotionally—in System 1, then subsequently justify our decision in the slower, but more intellectually persuasive System 2.

Brands save us from having to go through the mental effort of extended rational analysis, instead giving us a short cut to a choice.

The contention that follows from Kahneman’s version of events is that most buying decisions—even those that seem thoughtful and rigorous (think buying a car or house)—are principally influenced by emotions, instincts and mental short cuts. This is borne out by the most recent learning from experimental neuroscience, which can show us literally where in the brain these events are taking place, as they happen.

Behavioral Economics and Emotional Marketing

Emotional marketing has also been boosted by the growing popularity of behavioral economics (BE). BE points us towards aspects of our behavior such as choice architecture and cognitive bias—in short, it shows we don’t behave to maximize utility, as old-fashioned economists would have had us believe.

BE was given a major push in the private sector by the IPA. In the public sector, it was championed by the British Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, established in 2010 and known as the “Nudge Unit,” after the influential book by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. In the U.S., The White House Office of Science and Technology has a “Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative.”

Creative people have intuitively understood this for decades. The idea of emotional marketing had been alive and well in ad agencies long before BE became influential. As early as the 1990s, the former Agency Account Planner, Robert Heath had demonstrated the power of “low attention processing” where campaigns—which were hardly noticed at a rational level—were still demonstrably effective because they worked emotionally.

This is now all quite mainstream when it comes to packaged consumer goods, but it is more counterintuitive in markets where it feels as though we do apply more rational deliberation. Take medicine for example. Can it really be the case that we choose remedies for sometimes quite serious conditions, on such seemingly flimsy logic?

The answer is emphatically “yes.” How else could we explain two identical products, such as Bayer aspirin versus generic aspirin, where the branded one retails for a premium of 400% over the unbranded? This is typical in OTC medicines especially where pioneering brands, which have invested heavily in new product development, have to compete post-license with imitators who have simply copied their formula.

Indeed, there is a strong argument that healthcare is becoming more like packaged goods markets as patients and consumers become increasingly knowledgeable and empowered—rather than being guided by a physician—to make healthcare choices for themselves.


1. Marketing in the Era of Accountability, by Peter Field and Les Binet, published by the IPA.

Sidebar: Cut Through Communication Clutter

Emotion grabs attention. Pharma marketers who learn to use it well can cut through the ad clutter and not only reach patients and consumers, but also engage them as well. Before you get started on your first—or next—emotional marketing campaign, consider these seven tips for success.

1. Be brutally honest when looking at an idea. Does it make you feel something? Or does it just tell you something?

2. When talking to patients, online for instance, let them talk. If you simply respond by extolling your product, you are likely to miss the true insight needed to create a great ad or campaign—the real emotion.

3. Keep it simple. You want to convey one simple emotion—so don’t distract from that with logos and messages.

4. “Authenticity” requires work—without that you have nothing. If you want an image or piece of film to feel authentic, it cannot be shot on a white background—with no feeling to it. In order for your work to actually mean something to your audience, it is critical to show patients relaxed—using natural lighting—within the context of their real lives.

5. Be honest. The challenge is to tap into a human truth that is related to a product truth. If your product can’t back up the promise, a clever ad is not going to fool people—but it might make them annoyed.

6. Be patient. The effects and benefits of an emotional marketing campaign aren’t always as instant as direct response coupon campaigns. Set the expectation up front that payoffs won’t necessarily be immediate.

7. Make it resonate. At the end of the day, if you don’t feel anything when looking at your work, your audience won’t feel anything either.

  • Adrian Zambardino

    Adrian Zambardino is Director of Planning at Langland. After studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, Adrian has spent 30 years as a researcher, client and ad agency Planning Director. He has worked with a roll call of the world’s most respected and successful brands, from Andrex to Zantac. Adrian joined Langland in 2014 to champion strategic planning.

  • Mark Evans

    Mark Evans is Digital Strategy Director at Langland. In 2012, Mark joined Langland, the world’s most creatively awarded healthcare advertising agency and part of the Publicis Healthcare Communications Group (PHCG), creating award-winning ideas for clients such as IDIS, Roche and Abbott Nutrition.