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The Effects of Emotional Decision-Making

Updated: Apr 1

“Technology that puts you in control.”

That was one of the last lines that appeared in a 2019 TV commercial. This commercial was part of a larger marketing campaign that features an actor most of us know.

Before I give away the brand and the actor, let me describe the commercial for you.

The A-list actor walks down a hallway at what appears to be a dinner party. As he walks by a pool table, he picks up a cue and takes a shot, looking contemplative. The party guests look on. The ball rolls as a female voice says, “I’ve never seen that before.” The actor walks outside, gets into his vehicle, and drives off.

The vehicle?

A Lincoln Nautilus.

The actor, as you probably guessed, is Matthew McConaughey.

A few years ago, Lincoln took a risk with its marketing campaign that ended up paying off. By moving away from feature-heavy ads to a dramatic storytelling approach, Lincoln ultimately reinvented the brand in ways that paid off.

The new ads were unscripted. McConaughey was given loose storylines to riff off. The series of ads followed McConaughey as he talked about his fondness for the Lincoln and philosophical topics.

Lincoln was once known as a leading American luxury vehicle brand. Over the years, it became known as the vehicle that gives you a ride to and from the airport more than anything else.

The new ads worked. The campaign drove traffic to dealers, tripled Lincoln’s website traffic, and helped the brand hit about 10% market share—about double its brand average.

But did the commercials only speak to emotions? Is that why people bought Lincolns?


There was a subtle display of a logical reason to buy the Lincoln used in the commercial, which we will discuss in a minute.

There are three underlying psychological principles associated with emotional decision-making that help explain the success of the Lincoln campaign. Let’s look at each one in detail.

1. Most Behavior is Driven at a Subconscious Level

Everything we do as humans happens at a subconscious level. Our conscious mind is more like a computer monitor than the computer we normally think of.

Originally, researchers believed subconscious thought was only used in simple mental processes. Today, experts believe it dominates our lives.

Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard business school professor and author of How Customers Think: Essential Insights Into the Mind of the Market, claims that 95% of cognition happens in the subconscious mind.

Cognition simply means thinking, while the subconscious mind refers to our automatic actions. We can become aware of these actions if we think about them.

When Zaltman was asked how marketers can begin to understand behaviors and attitudes, he suggested doing in-depth one-on-one interviews where interviewees use metaphors to express their thoughts and feelings. He even said these interviews are more productive than focus groups!

This concept doesn’t just apply to marketing messages. For example, let’s say you are in the business of creating personal care products. Determining what is important to the consumer will help the development process. You might discover that a personal care product invokes deep thoughts and feelings about social bonding. In that case, you would focus on incorporating colors and scents associated with social bonding experiences.

Again, most of our behavior is driven by automatic responses. We don’t always do what we say. I love this quote from the book Hidden Persuaders: “People have a terrific loyalty to their brand of cigarette and yet in tests cannot tell it from other brands. They are smoking an image completely.” Our deep-seated feelings and emotions drive our behaviors.

From a business perspective, we must find out what consumers want. Consider interviewing 5-10 of your favorite customers to accomplish this.

2. Emotions Act as Gatekeepers for Decisions

Early beliefs regarding human behavior were based on the idea that we are perfectly rational beings with the emotional intelligence needed to make decisions that are in our best interest. According to these beliefs, the only thing we need to make rational choices is the necessary information.

As the study of human decision-making has evolved, evidence has revealed that we often do not behave rationally, and decision-making processes often take place in uncertain environmental conditions. This means we do not have all the necessary information to predict different outcomes rationally, so we rely on our emotions.

Emotions are so powerful that very few purchases of any kind are made for entirely rational reasons. They are the necessary ingredient to nearly all decisions, as shown in neurological studies.

Emotions are even tied to memory–we remember our emotional experiences better.

Many brands are known for using emotions in their ads, including Hallmark, Procter & Gamble, and McDonald’s. They hope audiences will experience nostalgia or sentiment.

Studies have shown that positive mood states and feelings created by marketers can have a favorable effect on consumers’ evaluations of a brand and their emotional buying motives.

Hamish Pringle and Peter Field, authors of Brand Immortality, found that advertising campaigns with purely emotional content are nearly twice as likely to generate large profit gains as campaigns using only rational content.

Their analysis also uncovered a reason why emotional campaigns work so well. They reduce price sensitivity and strengthen the ability of brands to charge a price premium, which contributes to profitability.

Even an everyday product like laundry detergent will sell better if an emotional benefit is perceived, such as the satisfaction of getting the stain out of your son’s little league uniform.

There are two types of emotions that can influence our emotional purchases: immediate emotions and anticipated emotions.

Immediate emotions are intense and have a major impact on our decisions. Anticipated emotions involve how we think we will feel after we make a decision. When making decisions based on emotions, anticipated emotions often influence our decision-making process.

One research group suggested that anticipated emotions influence decisions. For example, say you are at Costco and walk by the massage chairs on showcase. You might pause and imagine yourself happy and relaxed using this chair. The anticipated emotion might result in a purchase.

What if a marketing message for a product didn’t just focus on the current emotion in the ad but highlighted anticipated emotions? Most likely, it would lead to a purchase.

Subaru did a great job of this in its “Love” campaign.

Instead of focusing on logical reasons for buying a vehicle, the campaign consisted of a series of commercials that showed friends going on camping trips in their Subaru and memories and experiences families have had with a Subaru.

The campaign clearly helped Subaru develop an emotional bond with car buyers. According to follow-up research, those who saw the “Love” ads had their awareness goes up by 27 points, saw their familiarity triple and had their opinion of Subaru vehicles go up by 400 percent.

Does this mean that we should only focus on emotions and not rationality when it comes to our customers? Not necessarily, which leads to the third principle.

3. Purchase Decisions Are Often Based on Emotional and Rational Motives

When it comes to emotions and decision-making, Attention must be given to both rational and emotional motives if you want to develop effective marketing communications. Here is a paraphrase from another excerpt from Hidden Persuaders:

A Midwestern ad agency found that a significant part of the appeal of buying a new, more powerful car every couple of years is that the emotional purchase gives the buyer a renewed sense of power—an emotional need that an old car fails to deliver.

One complication of the power appeal of a new car is that the person buying it often feels guilty indulging themselves with power that might be seen as needless. The buyer needs rational reassurance for their emotional buying habits. A good solution is to provide the power appeals but stress that all the surging power would provide an extra margin of safety in an emergency. This provides the illusion of rationality that the buyer needs.

Remember the Lincoln commercial I described? There was one important element I left out that mirrors this example from Hidden Persuaders.

As McConaughey started his vehicle, a brief shot appeared on-screen showing the Lincoln dashboard. What did it say? “Driver assistance: Blindspot, Cross traffic alert, cruise control, driver alerts and lane keeping system.”

A rational appeal was made.

The commercial might have caused the viewer to anticipate the emotions of driving the vehicle and the status involved. However, the viewer also needs a rational reason to justify their purchase—in this case, the vehicle’s built-in safety features.

Purchase decisions regarding services can also be based on both emotions and rationality. For example, most of us choose an airline based on price, availability, arrival or departure times, stops, and the ability to earn miles or points. Airlines understand that it is also important to appeal to emotional factors in competing for passengers.

Delta did this in its “Keep Climbing” campaign when declaring the company’s commitment to making flying better. In one ad, it used words that brought in emotions and logic:

“Make Sent from International Waters your new email signature. The world doesn’t stop when you fly, so you shouldn’t either. That’s why we’ll have WIFI on all long-haul international flights by mid-2016.”

If you want your customers to buy, appeal to their tendency toward emotional decision-making. However, you also need to give them a rational reason they can use to explain their purchase.


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