mastering emotional marketing

Chased by a cheetah, your ancient ancestor comes to a fork in the path and must choose left or right. They don’t exactly have time to draw a pros and cons chart, so they (the survivors, at least) choose based on emotional intuition: “gut” choice. A few million years of evolution later, and modern humans still continue the tradition and make a lot of their decisions more by emotions than logic — that gut instinct.

That’s the understanding Don Norman came to in his landmark paper, Emotion & Design: Attractive Things Work Better. People make decisions based on emotions, sometimes even against their best interests.

There’s plenty of marketers today who think the best way to promote their product is to logically explain its value. That’s an admirable intention, but psychology suggests the best way to influence consumers’ decisions is appealing to their hearts, not their heads.

In this short guide, we explain the ins and outs of emotional marketing: what it is, how it works, and where to use it. Though there aren’t many cheetahs in ecommerce today, the life-or-death urgency is still the same.


What Is Emotional Marketing?

Emotional marketing is the practice of connecting a consumer’s emotional state with your products and brand. For use in ecommerce, emotional marketing can be boiled down to two basic steps:

  1. Elicit an emotion in a potential customer
  2. Have the customer associate that emotion with your product or brand

At its most blunt, emotional marketing could be showing a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching scene and them immediately flashing a product placement. Such lazy approaches are still effective, but with finesse and nuance you can take those effects one, two, or ten steps further.

For example, which emotions are you invoking? Your first answer might be “happiness,” but happiness doesn’t always produce the desired effect. For some industries and products, emotions like fear or pity may be better for business. You can even run different emotional campaigns for different audiences.

We’ll try to explain as many of the specifics as we can, but first let’s start with the very basics of emotional marketing: fear and hope.


Prospect Theory: Fear of Loss vs. Hope of Gain

In 1979, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky released a paper on “prospect theory,” their attempt to better understand how people make decisions. Although ahead of its time, Kahneman was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for his work, although Tversky had passed away by then.

What did they find that warranted a Nobel recognition? In a nutshell, people would rather avoid pain than receive pleasure. When faced with a decision, test subjects tended to overvalue choices that guarded against losses and undervalued those that offered the possibility of reward. All things being equal, a person’s fear of loss is stronger than their hope of gain.

This idea has since been adopted by marketers and integrated into all forms of retail. (The Nielsen Norman Group published a great article on the nuances of the study if you’d like to learn more.) But the real question is, how can you use loss aversion in ecommerce… without being an A-hole.

A lot of it has to do with framing and how you phrase your communications. For example, “Our sale is finished in 5 days” is stronger than “our sale keeps going 5 more days.” The former highlights the risk of missing the sale, while the latter does not.” This emphasis on the risk — and how to avoid it — is the heart of loss aversion.

In long-form content like blogs, videos, or certain product pages, you can utilize a more sophisticated, step-by-step strategy:

  1. Establish a problem or risk, preferably with evidence.
    UV rays from the sun are damaging to eyesight. An estimated 10% of all cataract cases are caused by UV exposure.
  2. Link the threat to your reader.
    Every day, we must go out in sunlight at some point, and most of us don’t use protection. 
  3. Offer a solution, again preferably with evidence.
    Luckily, all you need is a single pair of sunglasses to block more than 99% of UV rays from your eyes.
  4. Call to action.
    Click here to find the best sunglasses to fit your style!

When using loss aversion for ecommerce, you must not overdo it. With fear marketing, a little goes a long way, so “just a pinch” is enough. Using too many loss aversion tactics will make people uncomfortable and literally scare them off; ecommerce is too competitive and customers can always find a rival who creates a more comfortable shopping environment.


Emotional Marketing for Retail: Content, Social Media, and Ads

Expanding on Norman’s original concept that emotions impact decisions more than logic, the video marketing firm Unruly found that 70% of consumers who felt an “intense emotional response” to an ad were “very likely” to buy the product.

That same study also found that viewers who experience strong emotional reactions are twice as likely to share a video on social media than those who feel weak emotional reactions.

No matter where you use emotional content — product videos, social media, advertising, branding — it’s statistically likely to improve your business. Consider these five areas where you can use emotional marketing in ecommerce.


1. Sentimentality

Inspiration. Nostalgia. Puppies and Mom’s home cooking. Your brand doesn’t have to be the subject of an emotional narrative to reap the benefits — it can be as simple as reminding your customers about emotions they already have.

Through associations, you can connect your brand to powerful emotions that already exist in your audience. Think of it like this: if a brand releases a video about a baby being born, it will remind all the parent viewers of when their own children were born. The viewer then feels grateful to the brand for reminding them of such a sweet memory, and that gratitude leaves a lasting, positive association with the brand that extends until their next shopping trip.


2. Sense of Belonging

Humans are social creatures and crave community — at least, biologically speaking. If you can express to a customer that you understand them, this leads to an assortment of benefits:

  • The customer develops a personal connection to your brand.
  • The customer assumes other customers are the same as them, creating the idea of a community around your brand.
  • The customer sees your products in a new light, as recommendations from a like-minded individual.

This works particularly well with niche marketing, and likewise is harder to achieve for more general, mass-appeal stores. For this technique to be effective, you must first and foremost actually understand your target customers.


3. Identity

What happens when you use sense of belonging tactics on people who don’t know where they belong? One of the most interesting facets of marketing is the idea that your sales campaigns can actually help people figure out who they are, what they like, and how they identify themselves.

Identity marketing is the concept of people buying your products because they feel connected to them, as if they’re part of who they are. It works best with brands that have a potent style, and they essentially “share” that style with their customers.

This is a popular tactic for fashion and apparel, but can conceivably work in any industry. Look how successful Apple’s identity campaigns have been in the tech industry, proving wrong the idea that consumers only look at specs when buying tech products.


4. Color Theory

Emotional marketing doesn’t have to involve saccharine videos and Sarah McLachlan songs. Your influence can be subtle, based on your use of colors. The idea of color theory is that each color elicits a different emotional response from viewers, and that your brand colors and website color scheme have a stronger effect than you think.

For example, red evokes feelings of power, energy, and alertness — the color of BBC news and youthful brands like Target or Coca-Cola. Brown, the color of wood and mud, denotes stability and reliability, as well as a rustic, old-fashioned atmosphere. You can read more about the meanings of different colors here.

The findings of color theory suggest that you should choose your branding and site colors with care. If you’re just using your own personal favorite colors, you’re shutting the door on a great marketing opportunity.


5. Humor

As class clowns have known for years: when all else fails, make them laugh. When used correctly, humor can be one of the strongest forces in marketing. The Dollar Shave Club proved this beyond a shadow of a doubt with the 2012 viral video that led to the $1 billion acquisition of their company.

Of course, humor alone can’t run a successful business — the Dollar Shave Club also had an exemplary business model to back their hilarious video. But humor can be the icing on the cake, and tip the scales for a customer on the fence about a purchase.

The key to using humor is to match the style of your jokes to your target customers. Different consumer groups have different tastes and sensibilities; a joke told at a poker game in a bar may not go over as well at a Sunday luncheon after church. As always, applying this technique requires an acute understanding of your shoppers.



They say humans are creatures of logic, but all logical evidence suggests the opposite! Time and time again, humans prove themselves at the mercy of their emotions, whether it’s deciding who to date or what toothbrush to buy.

Sure, it’d be nice if all you had to do was post the data on why your products are superior, but that’s not how shopping works in the real world. On the other hand, if you have a subpar product, not even the emotional stirrings of Adele could save you from the red. In other words, you need both: a product that is objectively good, and subjectively enjoyed.

Need some product sourcing tips? Check out this guide on product sourcing, no matter your business model.

Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published January 2015 and was updated in January 2020 to reflect more accurate and relevant information.

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