The concept of emotion is everywhere in business publications these days. As examples, Forrester published six articles discussing the importance of emotions in business last year and emotions have been a recurring theme of the Harvard Business Review over the past couple of years. Yet, the notion that emotions play a role in consumer decisions is not new. For instance, the idea of impulse buying has been researched and written about for years.
So why is there so much buzz about emotions at the moment?
Going back to 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes, the role of emotions has been overshadowed by the belief that the essence of mankind lies in our ability to think and not in our tendency to feel – remember Descartes’ famous phrase, "I think; therefore I am.” Recently, bestselling books Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman captured the attention of business professionals and reestablished the fundamental role of emotions in consumer decision making. Today the prevalence of System 1 thinking (i.e., impulsive, emotionally driven decisions) over System 2 thinking (i.e., deliberate, rational, slow decisions) in consumers is gaining momentum among business professionals.
“The traditional assumption that emotion has no place in business is being questioned – and overturned. Recent research shows that understanding emotion is key to analyzing how and why consumers behave and to setting a company up for success.” – Forrester
Along with their business peers, marketing professionals also rediscovered the place of emotions in marketing communications. In 2012, the Journal of Advertising Research published an article demonstrating that simple emotional response is more predictive of business effectiveness than the widely used measures of persuasion or brand linkage. In 2015, a study of 100 ads across 25 brands conducted by Nielsen uncovered that ads generating strong emotional response correlated with higher sales lifts than ads that did not trigger emotional response. Research further determined that strong emotional activation is the key to viral success and to earned media performance.
What does it mean for creative testing?
If emotions are playing a key role in consumer decision making, and if ads that affect consumers on an emotional level are correlated with better business outcome than ads that do not trigger an emotional response, then creative testing should measure – and help optimize – the emotional appeal of creative executions.
But traditional marketing research methodologies are limited when it comes to assessing emotions. Why? First, researchers, like the rest of the business world, have underestimated the importance of emotions in marketing communications, and as a result creative testing methodologies focus on assessing the rational impact of ads, with measures like recall, recognition, purchase intent and the like. Second, traditional research methodologies rely heavily on self-reported responses, which do a good job of assessing conscious and rational thoughts, but are inadequate for measuring feelings, which are largely subconscious and nonverbal.
Over the last few years though, innovative methodologies have emerged to address the shortcomings of traditional research for measuring emotions. What are these methodologies?
A popular approach consists of using images of human faces to describe how consumers feel about creative concepts or creative executions. How does it work? In a survey, respondents are first exposed to an ad. Following exposure, respondents are prompted to point to pictures featuring faces expressing emotions, in order to communicate how the ad made them feel. The pictures are selected to represent feelings that are intuitively recognized. By pointing to pictures, as opposed to verbally stating how they feel, respondents are able to communicate non verbalized or non rationalized feelings.
Facial analysis or coding is another research method of measuring emotional response to creative content that is gaining significant momentum in marketing research. Facial analysis consists of capturing and analyzing facial expressions to understand emotional response to stimuli. This approach originated with the work of influential psychologist, Paul Ekman, who isolated six emotional states that are universal across ages, cultures and geographies. How does it work? In a survey, respondents are exposed to creatives, like a video. While they are watching the video, their facial expressions are captured on camera, coded and linked to emotions by a software scientifically developed based on thousands of examples.
Other ways of measuring emotional response to creative executions are rooted in neuroscience. These techniques are still marginally used among marketing research professionals, but are gaining interest (their usage grew from 9 to 15 % in the past two years). Such methodologies include Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which measures the activity of the brain caused by change in blood flow; electroencephalograms (EEG), which measure brain wave activities; Implicit Response Testing (ERT), in which timing of responses is viewed as a measure of non conscious associations; and Heart Rate Monitoring (ECG), which is based on the heart’s reaction to stimuli.
Today, these new tools are available to researchers to understand emotions, yet understanding emotions is a fertile ground and more developments are expected.