Emotion and Brand Involvement: Ekman’s Error (with apologies to Antonio Damasio)

Julie Wittes Schlack explores the intersection of neuroscience and market research, shedding light on how feelings affect product and brand involvement.

Take a look at this:

How does it make you feel? Hungry? Sure. But chances are that if you get beyond the obvious, you’ll recognize that maybe it makes you feel antsy, repulsed, nauseated, classy, guilty, perplexed, skeptical, or ashamed.

These are just some of the rich set of words used by members of one of our communities in a recent experiment with EmotionCentric®, a technique developed by Ed Chao to elicit and classify emotional responses to a concept or package in order to more asses how effectively it drives product involvement. And they’re all words that incorporate not just the primal emotions (anger, fear, disgust, surprise, happiness, sadness) that Paul Ekman has hypothesized are encoded in facial muscles, but more complex and higher-order feelings associated with cognition (“skeptical”), social rewards (“classy”), and self-awareness and esteem (“ashamed”).

In his groundbreaking book, Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio proposed the “somatic marker hypothesis,” arguing that “emotion is in the loop of reason, and … emotion can assist the reasoning process rather than necessarily disturb it.” However, as he ruefully notes in the new preface to this book, “I never wrote … that the assistance emotion provides to reasoning would necessarily occur nonconsciously … [and] I never suggested that emotion was a substitute for reasoning.”

Given the rush-de-jour towards neuroscience as the ultimate marketing research tool, this is an important distinction. Feeling informs cognition and choice by quickly signaling you whether to approach, avoid, or ignore; by narrowing the consideration set; sometimes even by helping you to think you’re making a “rational” choice. In short, it’s not that Eckman’s biologically based measures are wrong; they’re simply too crude to be used as the exclusive instrument for assessing the appeal and viability of a product, package, or message. And while it’s tempting to latch on to that which can be easily measured (such as heart rate, temperature, or EEG patterns), this approach may be too reductionist to stand alone.

That being said, feelings are a critical starting point for testing concepts, packages, messages, etc.. Ed Chao’s model is based on four dimensions of product involvement:

  • Consumer’s interest level – whether the concept has potential to activate consumers to explore.
  • Physical pleasure – what they perceive to be the physical reward and how strong…
  • Social rewards – what they perceive to be the social advantages (or disadvantages) of the concept… will it increase their stature in front of others, or how they feel about themselves…
  • Expectations and risks – will consumers have enough doubt or fear of downside to not act?

Another leading firm in this space, Brain Surgery, employs a similar approach (particularly with professionals), developing “Attraction Models” by following the path from emotion to reason to behavior. As their founders, John Karr and Steve Blaising, noted in a recent conversation, “If you don’t look at people’s feelings connected with their reasoning, it’s a worthless exercise.” And in a recent ESOMAR webinar, Mark Whiting of Added Value offered some very concrete, useful tips for brands trying to elicit and understand consumers’ feelings, including this one: “Stop asking consumers to judge a brand; help them to express their emotions.”

This is the kind of consumer-centric approach to research that thrills us at Communispace, and it’s why we’re experimenting, not only with the partners and techniques I’ve discussed above, but with other, non-textual modes of emotional expression. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming months. And I’ll be doing it not just because it makes me measurably happy, but because it’s the rational thing to do.

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