Time to Get Emotional

Methods for predicting, measuring and targeting emotional reactions to current packages and products as well as understanding aspirations for better next generations are a key part of developing brands that succeed today.

Eight out of ten new product introductions fail. Of the two that make it through, eight out of ten of those fail in year two. These are dismal statistics and point to an enormous amount of wasted effort and revenue. Perhaps it’s past time to better understand why the target isn’t being hit more often. Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman in his seminal book “How Consumers Think” 2003 suggests that 95% of why we buy something is motivated from our subconscious. He goes on to say that 95% of why marketers make what they make is also based on a subconscious response. And the book, a terrific read, goes on to strongly make that case. The subconscious of course is where emotions live. Understanding the emotional drivers behind a Brand purchase has gone from a nice to know to the only thing that really matters.


Ask Marc Gobe (Author of Brandjam2006) who coined the term “emotional branding” and who is an emotional powerhouse to watch in action. When he speaks about design you can see his whole being get excited by the conversation; he becomes very emotional in his delivery. It’s a lesson not lost on his listeners. His message, buoyed by the fact that emotions are the fuel of successful branding efforts, would be a lot less effective if delivered in a monotone.

So how do you wrap your business’s arms around an emotion? Below are some ideas:

1. Semiotics

If not familiar with the term, semiotics refers to… the decoding of codes. The understanding of what is being communicated to people (below the surface) by the words, pictures and shapes we have created. The late Rudolph Arnhiem (Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954), Visual Thinking (1969), provides a seminal discourse in his teachings (Harvard again) of why what we see, and how we feel about what we see, are linked below the surface by our emotions and physiology. “Semioticians” are professionals trained in the de-coding of language and symbols. Terms like “meaning dynamics”, “visual semiotics and “consumer discourse analysis” are the vocabulary of these highly educated practitioners. Who knew there was an English school of semiotics that emphasizes emerging, dominant, and residual codes for specific segments and categories of goods? A PHD of semiotics might be just the ticket to either analyze or suggest an emotional response to a product offering.

2. Design Research

Often research is conducted to measure reactions to things already created. Very few protocols for research exist to measure a response to the future. That’s where Design Research comes into play. Certain traditional research methodologies such as focus groups are fairly ineffective when it comes to provocative ideas. They are a good way to shave down all the unusual bits and pointy edges that make things interesting.

New research methodologies often integrate designers into the process as active participants. The result is Designers visualizing ideas in response to real time user stimulus. Influencing the creative process by direct consumer interactions is a much more successful way to get to “ah ha” moments and possibly inspire solutions driven by emotional responses. A very different way of thinking about new ideas than the analysis of metrics. Design participates in and acts as a key influencer in the execution and creation of the research. Input is not filtered through a lens. Single insights that strike at emotions can matter as much as thick decks of sifted information.

3. Consumer Therapy/Gut Instinct

In certain cases, say where efforts have failed time and again or a market is stagnant or growth is stalled, two completely opposite approaches can yield amazing results. The first, I call it “deep tissue therapy” may be required in order to truly understand what emotional drivers and triggers are not being accessed. This can involve rich ethnography, the kind where designers and researchers live with test subjects for long periods of time and reach deep below the surface to understand the true want or need. Psychology and Psychoanalysis may play a role.


Interestingly the exact opposite can work as well. As profiled in Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant book Blink (2005), the gut reaction of deeply qualified critics to whatever the problem or opportunity is can yield results hard to quantify but on target emotionally. Regardless of which approach is used, the chances of striking a nerve are much better than a typical approach of extending the analysis and using familiar techniques.

4. Education/Risk

Metrics of measurement are hard to apply to emotions and require companies to take leaps of faith in discerning directions and strategies based on non provable hypothesis. There are many examples of product that came to market only due to courageous belief of individuals and sometimes in the face of research that suggested otherwise. Witness the Aeron chair. (ref Gladwell/Blink). Which never made it to acceptable metrics by Herman Miller standards but was introduced regardless to huge success. The Minivan is another striking example.

Reviewing these case studies and training teams to accept risk is a key part of creating answers that have a better shot at touching true emotion. Getting a 75% positive reaction to a product, package or service may seem initially positive, but there is also a good chance that it represents the watering down of something to milk toast. No one really loves it anymore on the trade off that no one hates it. It may be better to find a 30 % love it and 70% hate it and work on the issues. This will take some serious education in accepting risk.

5. Super users

Often dismissed as the fringe. This may be the most fertile area of all for finding and understanding emotional response to unspoken needs and wants. Why do some people covet and want things beyond reason? Ask or watch those who do. Usually discounted for being outside the mass, new thinking suggests that the mass no longer exists as once understood. Viewing consumers as segmented by income or demographics has gone the way of the focus group. That we are aligned by desire and only successfully marketed to as tribes of individuals connected by like desire or need as opposed to segmented by age and or niche. Today’s “amazing” product or service offerings address those needs/desires. My mother has everything Tony Benet ever recorded on her I-pod. My 10 year old daughter has everything Aly and AJ have ever done on the same device. Find out what the desire is and then answer it. There is no kids version of the I-pod or nano, just the right one.

The five ideas above are just a handful of suggestions and references. Another book that’s on the must read list around this topic is A Whole New Mind by ex Wall Streeter, Daniel Pink. In it’s tenth printing and named best business book of 2005, the book basically makes the case that the business world is coming out of a left mind, or metric dominated, era of rational decision making, into a right mind, a more creative emotionally driven mindset and that this shift will effect all knowledge and development work. Coming from a hugely successful left brainier, it’s a very persuasive argument.

Here’s what we do know for sure. Consumers are better informed, in fact hyper-informed. Hence the growth of social networking and the death of “push advertising”. They need to feel the tingle when they respond to and buy and use things… it must be an authentic tingle because they will rat you out on the Internet otherwise. Look for non quantifiable emotionally driven business opportunities.


For many businesses, used to making things in reliable repeatable ways, this can offer some anxiety. Embrace it. Try a few of the methods above and stick with them and if someone argues that they are flawed argue back. Get emotional; it might be the only thing that counts pretty soon.

Resources; Semiotics
J.Ducan Berry, PHD

Gregory Rowland, PHD –