MARKETING | The Emotional Brain

publication date: Apr 2, 2024
author/source: Nick Thomas

Over my agency career, I’ve worked with some great marketers: Bill Thompson (WAHT ), David Strickland-Eales (Chapter One), Paul Handley (Campfire), Stephen Pidgeon and Pauline Lockier (Target & Tangible). They showed me how to produce great work, run a business, sell an idea, and inspire a creative department. But none has taught me as much about the most important component in creative marketing as a bald, overweight, English film director – Alfred Hitchcock. 

I had just started my career when I came across an interview Hitchcock had given about film-making. Being a fan, I hoped it might reveal how he made his best films (Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo) so engaging and suspenseful. I had expected him to describe the importance of a powerful opening, a simple plot, compelling characters, beautiful cinematography, and a great soundtrack. 

I was wrong. 

To him, these elements were secondary to creating emotion. He felt his primary job was to transfer the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience. Not to make them think but to feel. Or better still, to suffer. If a part of the plot wasn’t helping him do that, he would cut it. Hitchcock knew that to elicit emotional investment from his audience he could not confuse them with fuzzy thinking. 

Listening to this great film director made me appreciate what film-making and marketing have in common: to be successful, they need to move people. To do that, they need emotional clarity. Despite all the changes since Hitchcock’s era, one constant has remained – emotions are far more powerful than thoughts, overriding even the strongest parts of our intelligence. That is good news for marketers and communicators. Utilised properly, emotion is the irresistible force, the key to unlocking the resistance of any target market. Emotional marketing can provide your rocket fuel for success – and the supply of combustible elements to fire up your audience is almost inexhaustible. 

As a fundraiser, I have utilized feelings to gain an emotional foothold, although for the nonprofit sector, some are not appropriate. Clearly, you can’t embarrass, confuse or depress someone into donating money and no one will be attracted to your cause if you make them feel worthless or sceptical. Evoking guilt has also been a contentious issue for fundraisers. My view is that it’s an emotion most right-minded people feel inherently and already does a good job of pricking the conscience. While “guilt giving” may work once or twice, it shouldn’t be employed as a long-term tactic. It’s forced philanthropy, and donors will ultimately resent being beaten into supporting a cause. 

With these exceptions, most emotions can be used to supercharge your message and when I’ve created ideas specifically to trigger an emotional reaction, invariably they have succeeded. So, I hear you ask: Why haven’t I produced all my work with an emotional focus? 

The first reason is that my creative ego kept trying to find another way. While chasing emotions was a wholly sensible route to gaining audience attention, I often felt it was too prescriptive, so would try “cleverer ways” of solving the problem. More often than I care to remember, this has proved to be the wrong path. 

The second reason is that in the modern fundraising world, producing emotion-led marketing has not always been easy. For many charities (especially bigger brands with guidelines on projecting a strict corporate language and tone), emotional marketing is viewed as dangerous—principally because it has the potential to offend. Often, the mantra has been “better to be bland than upset someone.” 

This has also been a mistake.

Helping good causes is serious work; it involves saving lives, alleviating misery, righting horrific injustices, preserving habitats, and protecting the planet. The stakes could hardly be higher, so why should we overly concern ourselves with petty sensibilities? After all, if we can’t get worked up about a cause we believe in, then why should anybody else? 

In the absence of others taking the lead, charities are more important than ever in creating a kinder, more sustainable world. They should do all that is necessary to nudge people to act on ingrained good intentions and take the actions humanity needs. 

As I write this, our species has arrived suddenly and brutally at the last possible point at which it can save itself. We must radically rethink our consumption, our relationship with nature, and with those we share borders and resources with if we are to survive. There are big decisions to be made and marketers can potentially play a planet-saving part in making them happen. 

We’ll be more successful if we understand the emotional needs of audiences beyond what they simply want from our product or service. There is no dark art to bridging this knowledge gap; good research will divulge what really pushes their buttons. It will reveal their fears and desires, and show how we can address them. It can put us in our audience’s shoes so we can acknowledge them as individuals because when people feel recognized and respected, they respond in kind. 

The more scientific marketing gets, the more human it must become. With the same technology available to all, utilising emotional intelligence will become a competitive advantage for brands. Human beings are like moving balls of unexploded emotion ready to go off with the slightest provocation; stirred in the right way, they are usually more than ready to engage with you.  

This excerpt is from “How Emotional Marketing Can Save the World published by Civil Sector Press.

Nick Thomas is an advertising and marketing creative director, speaker and author. Co-founder of three successful marketing agencies, he has won over 90 national and international awards for his work. His climate change novel, Cull 2031 was named as one of the most notable books on conservation and the environment in 2021 by Nick has been a part-time lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire for 20 years.

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