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The Science Behind Why Every Buy Is an Emotional Buy

by Kathryn Gillett  |  
January 29, 2013

Remember Apple’s “Think Different” ad campaign? It ran from 1997 to 2002. Now, that kind of run may happen often on Broadway but not in the ad world. However, we still easily remember the 10-year-old campaign. That certainly attests to its sticking power!

So, why were the Apple ads so successful? Yes, they featured portraits of famous people, but so have lots of short-run campaigns. The difference is that Apple's ads connected with us emotionally. Using a simple yet inspiring design that featured a world-famous change-maker, each ad communicated deeply felt beliefs that resonated with “the rest of us.”

It’s emotion, not reason, that powers our decisions to act. The science behind this is where we move beyond creative agency backrooms into the realm of biology, of brain science.

The Brain, Emotion, and Buying Connection

In regards to intellect versus emotion, our brains are hardwired to give emotions the upper hand. Information---in the form of words and data---is processed in the neo-cortex.

Meanwhile, all our emotions are rooted in the limbic system. The limbic brain is where we sense our emotional attachments, such as trust and loyalty. It’s the part of our brain that knows whether something is important to us. And it’s the place that motivates us to take action or not.

As communicators, we can benefit from knowing that. Now, we know where we need to connect  to reach our audience in a meaningful way.

But here’s the catch: The limbic brain has no capacity for language. That means no amount of information can motivate someone to buy.

The rational neo-cortex and the emotional limbic system do communicate with each other. But in the end, reasoning does not drive behavior. It’s the limbic brain that initiates the human “call to action.”

How’s this for a shocker: We were never designed to listen to reason. For years, neuroscientists have studied people’s brain activation patterns to understand how our brains work. Scientists all agree: When taking action, people quickly reach conclusions based on emotional reactions, then find facts later to support what they’ve decided.

Touching Emotional Chords in B2B Content

When we create business content, a certain amount of professionalism is called for. But to be persuasive, emotional connection is an absolute necessity.

Let’s use the “Think Different” campaign as an example. Apple used the metaphor of positive change-makers to communicate its brand. Those of us who identified with the values that those change-makers represented felt an emotional connection to those ads. And, by association, we felt more positively about Apple for being a company that associated itself with those positive people.

That concept is well-supported by study after study. Whether we’re even conscious of it, we all organize our cognitive world into stories and use metaphors to understand situations, generate predictions, solve problems, anticipate events, and make plans.

One of the many neuroscientists studying the brain and decision-making is MIT professor Gary Klein. Like his colleagues, he uses brain scanners to pinpoint where decisions are made in the brain. His research concurs with other researchers: The source of decisions is not in the analytical regions of the brain. It’s in the limbic region, where intuition, metaphor, and storytelling are the real drivers of decisions.

Want to generate more clicks and calls? Use stories and metaphors to connect with your audience.

Start “thinking different” about your content and create emotional attachments with your audience. Whenever you use words to communicate, create image-rich stories and metaphors that are authentic to your brand and have emotional meaning to your audience.

Don’t let your B2B category get in the way. No matter what you’re selling, your audience is not made up of “business professional buyers.” Your customers are---regardless of their job title---still very human.

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Kathryn Gillett is the creator of The Hero Method.

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  • by Gemma Holloway Tue Jan 29, 2013 via blog

    I think this blog makes an interesting point.

    I think Emotion is often taken in to account when brands are designed i.e what colours to use, what emotions different shapes have attached to them, but when it comes to advertising this quickly goes out the window.

    Too often people focus on being consistent with their brand but really what should be focused on is ensuring the emotions our advertising stimulates are consistent with our brand and will lead to the necessary action required.

  • by Gen Walsh Tue Jan 29, 2013 via blog

    Great article! This content is very relevant to the analytics that my company produces. It's great to see that the science is proven and backed by behavioral science.

  • by Jay Rosenberg Tue Jan 29, 2013 via blog

    Great post, Kathryn --
    People don't buy, they choose. You have to position your brand in the mind of your customer. If you get there first, then you are the leader. And they trust the leader.
    We I D our customers' personality types which lets us better engage and drive more relevant emotion/personality-based messaging to them. It builds that trust.

  • by Kathryn Gillett Thu Jan 31, 2013 via blog

    Thanks, Jay. I'm glad you liked the post. Your approach sounds intriguing. Keep up the good work! Kathryn~

  • by Kathryn Gillett Thu Jan 31, 2013 via blog

    I'm glad you liked the article, Gen. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Kathryn~

  • by Kathryn Gillett Thu Jan 31, 2013 via blog

    I totally agree, Gemma. And it's too bad. After all the energy companies put into creating a brand, the emotional impact it could have too often gets lost in the translation into content. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Kathryn~

  • by Ferran Suay Tue Feb 19, 2013 via blog

    Good post. It's very interesting to point out that the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OBC), long time considered as an important component of our 'decision-making system' (and -thus- a very 'rational' structure) is thoroughly connected with the 'emotional' amygdala. Moreover, the pathways going from the amygdala to the OBC are far more abundant than the other way around. So, emotions are much more likely to affect cognitions than viceversa.

  • by Kathryn Gillett Tue Feb 19, 2013 via blog

    Muchas Gracias por sus ideas.

    Thank you for taking the time to add so much value to this discussion, Professor.

    As I understand it, the "emotional structure" is also much faster. Some research suggests its speed is 50 meg/second, while the "rational structure" moves at only 5 meg/second. Given the bandwidth that you shared with us, plus its speed, the emotional structure is giving us a LOT more input in our decision-making.

    Thank you for your insights, Professor. I very much appreciate it.


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