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Using emotions to plan and advance your learning agenda

Emotions are the central organizing process of our thinking and behavior. What makes this process so messy – so frustratingly and beautifully messy! – is that it is driven less by immediate response to discrete stimuli and more by the ever-changing and ever-unstable tone and tenor of our relationships. What that means for brands is that affinity and loyalty is the result of how we feel about being in a relationship with (i.e. consumers of) those brands. The smart brands are figuring this out and driving the movement toward customer-centricity and conversational marketing.

This insight isn’t wholly new. In 1740, the philosopher David Hume asserted in his Treatise on Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Now, after a 250+ year detour through rationalism and the French Enlightenment, this is the thesis emerging from pioneering work in the behavioral and social sciences, particularly neuro- and cognitive science on the one hand and interactional sociolinguistics and anthropology on the other. And what makes this thesis profound – or antagonistic, depending on your vested philosophical and political loyalties, not to mention whatever money you’ve plunked down on the convenience of approaches and methods grounded in other propositions – is that it suggests an inherent flaw (i.e. the assumption that people are rational actors) in the traditional ways of understanding and measuring what people do and why they do it.

In the healthcare space, for example, physicians may deliver very thorough, data-heavy descriptions of lab results and metabolic processes to help patients understand their Type 2 diabetes diagnoses. And patients may nod and say they understand the diagnosis and its implications and the need for both pharmaceutical treatment and lifestyle modification. And yet many leave the physician’s office, prescription in-hand, with no intention of having those prescriptions filled, or with no long-term commitment to sticking to the treatment plan. Emotions tied to their sense of identity and need for autonomy trump their rational understanding of the risks associated with an unmanaged metabolic condition.

We are social creatures, forever entangled in and emerging from relationships. It is how we feel about ourselves in the context of these relationships – whether with our friends, families, physicians, companies, brands and so on – that most influences what we believe and what we do.

To better understand and influence the behavior of your target audience, the following questions can help advance the effectiveness of your learning agenda:

  1. Who Am I to My Target Audience?
    This is not about what your brand plan says you are, but about what your audience says you are. The strategies and tactics underlying your brand plan should help bridge the distance between the two identity claims.
  2. What Do They Think I Think About Them?
    So much of who we are and what we do is influenced by assumptions and expectations intuited from the subtext of our communications. The ticker tape running at the bottom of our thoughts always fears that our claims for identity and power are not being sanctioned in the eyes of the people and companies we engage with. The question is, What do your customers think you think about them and how do they interpret your actions and communications?
  3. Who Are They and Who Do They Want to Be?
    An interaction is largely a process of negotiating positive and negative face claims. Positive face has to do with self-image and how we want to perceived in the world; negative face has to do with autonomy and individual freedom of action. As a company, you want your customers to do something – to buy your products, engage your social media campaigns and love your brands. By asking them to do these things, you are encroaching on their negative face claims, on their sense of autonomy and desire to be unimpeded by others. To provide balance and facilitate a productive relationship with your customers, you should compensate by affirming their positive face claims – by acknowledging and affirming their self-image. And the best way to do this is to have a bottom-up understanding of who your customers are, both in the observable world and in their own imaginings.

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