Even Though Marketing is Responding to Emotion, the Wider Businesses Still Aren’t

It’s been awhile since 2011, when Daniel Kahneman wrote “Thinking Fast and Slow,” and definitively provided an answer to something marketers had long suspected: emotion is the first level of all decision making, and rationality is the second (if the rational system even plays a role at all). 

More dominoes fell in favor of this truth when Les Binet at the IPA studied the most effective advertising over decades and came to the same conclusion— emotion-led marketing conclusively outperformed nearly all other types of campaigns. It was a watershed time for marketers, who smartly shifted their messaging and approach to be more emotive. 

In my role as a qualitative researcher and freelance strategist, I often get to see marketers work hard to convince other recalcitrant people within companies that more emotive marketing is the right call. They work all the way up the approval process within their companies, convincing them that leading with emotion is the right decision for the brand AND business. 


And then. Consumers who connected to that marketing are motivated to walk into that brand or business, and… often have the same old experience they’ve been having for decades. 

Instead of empathy, they get wide smiles and same-old-tired lines of “customer service.” Instead of an intuitive floor plan to get them what they need efficiently, they get a convoluted one intended to keep them in the store longer. Instead of getting app features designed around their needs, they get features designed around monetization. And so on. 

Despite the wide acknowledgment that emotions lead our thinking and drive our decisions, how have the actual functions of businesses changed to reflect this? While marketing may have gotten the memo about emotions leading people’s behavior, have any other departments and disciplines responded as well? What about the operations, the training of employees, the layout of the environment, the design of the web experience, the return policies… any and all daily interactions and transactions people have with a company? What if THOSE could be built around the emotions people might be experiencing as they go throughout their journey?

Here’s two reasons that I think we have to build our customer experience (CX) with the emotions of our customers at the center:

1. Businesses want not just to obtain, but to retain customers, and emotion rules repurchase

If emotion leads us to make all our decisions, then it’s not just an initial purchase decision that we need to think about. Emotions will also have THE say in what brands we want to continue to use vs. drop like a hot potato. So how are we building our entire experience, for both first-time and repeat and repeat-again customers, around appropriate responses to the emotions they might be feeling about our brand, product, and category?

2. CX can focus shallowly on customer emotions about the PROCESS only

Customer Experience is getting renewed focus in the last couple years, and that’s fantastic— but I often see that discipline focus down on logical datapoints, capturing what people are feeling in shallower ways, like an emoticon here or there on a journey map. Which while valuable, doesn’t always come with that deeper emotional overlay, to really understand what emotions people are experiencing beyond their feelings about the state of the process.

How can marketing work with other disciplines to help customers feel we are responding to their emotional state throughout their experiences? Well, if selling through emotionally-led marketing is hard, I can’t imagine how tough it must be to run up the emotional hill with disciplines like finance, operations, merchandising, devs, supply chain, and HR— but with customers weighing whether to return again, these are conversations worth having. 

An example— I called a technical support line the other day, and as expected, they feigned support for the dominant emotion people typically feel when calling— frustration— by attempting to mitigate it with lines like, “I’m sorry this happened to you”. But that concern with my potential frustration didn’t translate into the actual modality of the call, when the customer service representative received 4 different notifications to attempt to upsell me into the next tier of plan (despite that having nothing to do with the reason I was calling). The function of monetization overrode the supposed focus on the customer’s emotions, and took over the customer experience. 

Of course, all the marketing in the world that was empathetic to consumer emotions would fade away in the face of an experience that so readily disregarded them.  

So, if you’re a marketer that has embraced the power of emotion and its dominance of decision-making, and sold through your creative work— that’s fantastic— but can you stop there? If the other disciplines in the organization also aren’t re-aligning the customer experience around emotional truths, then how will the people who use your product or service truly feel a difference? Will they feel you truly care about their emotional state, or only when you are selling to them?

At-best, emotion-as-motivator marketing is drawing more people in to connect with a company on a deeper level. At-worst, emotionally-led marketing opens up a noticeable gap between what a company SAYS and what people actually SEE in their customer experience— because often once they get past the door of the store, or beyond the landing page, the way businesses function is often to operate in a way that is utterly emotionless. 


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