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What Is Emotion? (Consumer Psychology 101)

Posted On  March 3, 2020
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An emotion is a feeling associated with physical and psychological changes that influence our behavior. For example, a consumer waiting with 100 other people for the doors to open on a big annual sale at her favorite retailer is likely to feel excited. Maybe her heart rate is slightly elevated as she anticipates all the good deals she will get.

At the most basic level, we can characterize an emotion like excitement by two dimensions:

1) Valence, i.e. whether it is a positive or negative emotion

2) Arousal, i.e. the level of energy produced by the emotion

How do emotional factors influence consumer purchasing decisions? 

Emotions influence what we should do in all aspects of life, including with purchasing decisions. The variability in the valence and arousal of an emotion acts as a source of information that helps people decide whether they should proceed or stop, to take action, or to think carefully. Positive emotions serve as a cue to continue with the behavior whereas negative emotions suggest we should consider something different. And whereas high arousal emotions move us to act, low arousal emotions give us bandwidth to think.

The consumer in the example at the top is experiencing a positive, high-energy emotion of excitement. She is primed to take action. In her excited state, she’s less likely to evaluate the quality of the deeply discounted item than if she was relaxed. On the other hand, a consumer who stumbled on the crowd while intending to pick up only a few basics may feel overwhelmed or frustrated. While these are also high arousal emotions, they are negative. Thus, this consumer is primed to act but likely in a way that will get her out of the situation that is causing the negative feeling. She may walk into the store and just get those few items without taking time to browse other aisles, or she may just leave and shop at a less crowded store.

What emotions are most likely to influence consumer buying behavior? 

All emotions have the potential to influence buying decisions. What matters more is the type of purchase and the kind of thinking that would facilitate the purchase. High arousal emotions, for example, facilitate impulse purchases because consumers are primed to take action. On the other hand, some situations may benefit from low arousal emotions, which will facilitate greater thinking.

Consider, for example, a brand that is not the category leader, but that makes a great product. Consumers who are buying on habit and not thinking very much about the purchase are likely more inclined to purchase the category leader. But a consumer who is more relaxed, or even bored (both low arousal emotions), is more likely to do some research. In this state, the consumer is more willing to read additional information about the challenger brand and is more likely to consider the actual features of the product relative to competitors. So, when considering emotion, a brand needs to think about its type of product, its position in the competitive landscape, and the cognitive and behavioral state that would be of most benefit to that brand.

What methods and tools can brands use for measuring emotions? 

A variety of tools can be used to measure emotion. Physiological measures such as facial coding or heart rate are certainly intriguing because they seemingly get directly at the emotion. However, physiology alone isn’t a sufficient marker of emotion. Physiological measures ideally complement other measures that provide context about how the person is interpreting the situation. For that reason, researchers should rely use a stated measure of emotion grounded in a framework that focuses on the valence and arousal levels of emotions. In so doing, they should ask consumers about basic emotions that they readily understand, can report, and which have clear implications for how they are likely to behave.

What brands do a great job using emotions to drive consumer behavior? 

One brand that comes to mind is Peloton. Peloton is disrupting the high-end exercise industry, as evidenced by revenues that doubled year over year to almost $1.0 billion in 2019. Peloton can credit least some of this success to the brand’s ability to make a strong emotional appeal. Peloton leverages high-arousal emotions such as inspiration. Their ads, which feature attractive people accomplishing their goals with high-energy music during early-morning or late-night workouts, makes the consumer want to take action. The emotions evoked by these ads may encourage consumers to overlook considerations such as cost, the physical space required to fit the equipment in their home, and the absence of amenities that otherwise comes with a traditional gym.

How does emotion influence brand identity?

Consumers are more likely to identify with a brand if they associate it with positive experiences and emotions. But emotions associated with a brand also need to be consistent with the brand’s purpose. For example, Peloton’s use of inspiration is perfectly consistent with the brand, given its presence in the fitness space. That same type of high arousal emotion, however, would probably be inappropriate for a luxury spa, which promotes a calm and relaxing environment.

Are consumers emotionally connected to your brand? LRW’s Pragmatic Brain Science Institute® can help you assess and shape how consumers engage with your products and services on an emotional level. Contact LRW today!

Collette has over 10 years of experience conducting behavioral science research. She specializes in applying behavioral science theory and methods to market research. Prior to her career in market research, Collette was a professor of psychology at Syracuse University where her work addressed stereotypes, attitudes, identity, and group interaction. Collette received a B.A. in Psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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