Feeling Better? How Emotional Insight Drives Innovation

Flu season notwithstanding, we all know how to feel well. As human beings with limbic systems, we generate and manage an abundance of feelings during every waking moment and while we’re asleep. But as marketers and researchers, our challenge is how to help people feel better, to get in touch with and illuminate their pre-conscious or sublimated emotions to understand how feelings inform people’s outlooks and drive their behavior.

Why is that so important? First and foremost, because more than data, empathy is a precursor to transformation, and market research is useless if it doesn’t effect attitudinal and behavioral change. (Sneak Preview: Keep your dial on Verbatim for future rabble-rousing blog postings about the role of market researchers as change agents, and why humanistic approaches are needed as a complement to big data.) While consumers may think and talk in terms of rational and functional needs (which are crucial for brands to address), all rational benefits ladder up to emotional rewards — they satisfy some emotional need.

Some emotions are social, deriving their source from interpersonal dynamics. Positive feelings like pride or belonging — or on the negative side, rejection or shame — are manifestations of our experiences as social beings. Other emotions are rooted in pleasurable or painful physiological states, such as feeling tranquil or aroused, angry or fearful. Regardless of their source, we are consciously and subconsciously driven to seek pleasurable emotional experiences and to alleviate uncomfortable emotional states. As consumers, we respond to or reject messages, affiliate with or reject brands, and buy and use products because they help us reach these goals.

When I drive a hybrid car, I’m not just getting good mileage; I’m reducing my own cognitive dissonance about driving instead of taking public transportation, and deriving the emotional satisfaction of being perceived by others as a good global citizen doing her part to fight climate change. And when I buy a blouse from Nordstrom online, I’m pre-empting any anxiety I might feel about not keeping it, since I know it will come with a postage-paid return label. My thinking isn’t entirely rational – I am, after all, paying a tidy sum for the blouse and, indirectly, for the return label – but my emotional comfort trumps that logic.

Emotional insight is essential to innovation, fueling it in two significant ways. In the ideation/new product generation phase, an understanding of emotional needs enables marketers and research and development leaders to transcend the obvious and find truly breakthrough ideas. And further along in the product life cycle, that understanding allows marketers to optimize their products and messaging. In this recent article for The Hub Magazine, my colleague, Ed Chao, and I offer some concrete examples of how exploration in our private communities — using proprietary methods for eliciting and understanding emotion — have  had this kind of impact.

I hope you’ll read it. And if you do, please let us know: How does it make you feel?