Filter by/
Region/  All
Type/  All
Sorted By/  Most Recent

Sensation creation: 7 emotions marketers must understand to resonate with consumers

By / / In Insight /
What do you think the greatest piece of marketing of all time is? Why did it work so well and why have you remembered it? It did something marketers aspire to – it sparked emotion. There are five emotions marketers should be harnessing to help consumers recall brand advertising – and two that should be avoided:

Perhaps you agree with a 2002 poll by Channel 4 and The Sunday Times that named Guinness’s ‘Surfer’ ad (below) the winner of the best-ever ad accolade?


Or maybe you’d pick Apple’s once-shown, never-forgotten ‘Think Different’ 1984 Super Bowl ad? Maybe you’d go back further, to ‘I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke’, or jump forward and pick a modern-day viral campaign like Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ (below)?


Whatever your choice, it’s a safe bet that what made it great was the emotion it invoked – awe, excitement, delight or even anger or sadness. Emotion is central to great marketing. The more people feel, the more people buy, and there’s a stack of evidence to back that up. Most notably, there’s the comprehensive analysis of the Institute Of Practitioners in Advertising database (the IPA DataMine) by Les Binet and Peter Field. The two have crunched thousands of case studies and award-winning ads over the last ten years, and have shown that ads which take a purely emotional route were the most effective for long-term brand growth. That’s emotional, as opposed to just pushing a message onto consumers, or even wrapping that message in a ‘velvet glove’ of feeling.

But saying, “Be emotional” can only take you so far. You have to know what emotion to activate when. Which means understanding, first of all, which emotions are truly universal. In our book, System 1: Unlocking Profitable Growth, we explore the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, the man who mapped the universal landscape of human feeling by looking at which emotions register on the face in every human culture. He came up with just seven – all the other emotions are shades or sub-categories of these seven primary feelings.

The seven Ekman emotions are:

  • Happiness
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Contempt

Looking at that list you’ll notice that most are negative, for an excellent evolutionary reason: confronted with something bad, it mattered a great deal whether your face warned your fellow humans to avoid, attack or flee from it. Something positive, on the other hand, was safe and the subtle details of response could wait.

Each of the seven emotions works in a different way, and each has different values for marketers. But the simplest truth lies in this imbalance between positive and negative emotions. The first and foremost goal of any emotional communication needs to be HAPPINESS. There are plenty of routes you can take to making your audience feel happy – humour, awe, inspiration, even schadenfreude – but the end goal must be leaving them with a smile. Our work testing advertising has shown that even in the most seemingly functional categories – like toilet paper or financial services – happiness means a higher chance of brand growth.

That isn’t to say marketing should only aim for happiness, though. The other six emotions are vital, because they allow marketers to create dynamism and tell stories. In fact, our analysis of short-term ad effectiveness – predicting actions like online conversions, likes and click-through rate – suggests that while happiness drives long-term brand building, in the short term what matters is the variety of emotions you can activate and their intensity. If you can take your customer on an emotional journey – moving between different feelings – they are a lot more likely to share or act on it right away.

A particularly useful emotion here is SURPRISE. Ekman says that surprise is by its nature a fleeting emotion – it shows quickly on the face, but almost instantly resolves to one of the other six. This makes it extremely useful for creating dynamic marketing – there’s a reason the gold standard of customer experience is to ‘surprise and delight’, as these feelings make for a potent one-two punch. A lot of advertising makes brilliant use of surprise – take Guinness’ award-winning ‘Basketball’ ad (below):


The ad revolved around a group of wheelchair basketball players turning out to be able-bodied, playing the wheelchair game so they can join in with a wheelchair-using friend. It’s a twist that creates huge surprise which very quickly turns to happiness as the situation sinks in.

Beyond happiness and surprise are the five negative emotions, which all work in slightly different ways for marketers. The most useful – because it’s easy to resolve – is SADNESS. Few marketers have gone broke playing to the public’s sentimental side and sadness is a great way to do that: tug at people’s heartstrings, then resolve it with a more upbeat ending to create a pay-off of even greater happiness. The tactic works around the world, but perhaps the greatest exponents of ‘Sadvertising’ are Thai Life, a life insurance company who create heartbreaking but uplifting epics of ordinary people stoically facing the worst of circumstances.


emotions marketers understand

A robin’s epic journey home across perilous land and seascapes proved to be a winner with viewers last Christmas for Waitrose – the ad was unusual in that it prompted FEAR.

Other negative emotions are harder to resolve. FEAR can work, but it’s harder to establish and resolve credible peril in a short storytelling format than it is to create and resolve misfortune. Some ads succeed – in 2016, British supermarket Waitrose produced a superb film about a robin’s Christmas flight across Britain, including several heart-stopping moments when the bird is almost eaten or drowned. The ad tested extremely well, but Fear is still a rare emotion for marketers to evoke. Part of the problem is that fear induces caution – which is bad for marketing, as it puts people into a more considered, slower ‘System 2’ frame of mind which makes action less likely.

Just as fear is the flight reflex made manifest, ANGER is the fight reflex, creating a desire for action to remove the source of the emotion. You see anger used in political or charity ads fairly often – in the short term, it can be a powerful motivator. At 1985’s Live Aid concert, donations got off to a sluggish start, but jumped after organiser Bob Geldof swore angrily on TV. For commercial marketers, it’s much harder to reach that level of intensity.


emotions marketers understand

Tom Ewing is co-author of new book ‘System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth’. It is out now, priced £12.99. For more information, click here.

That leaves the final two emotions, DISGUST and CONTEMPT. Both are best avoided by marketers – disgust creates extreme aversion and is extremely hard to resolve successfully. And while contempt may seem a less dramatic emotion than anger or fear, it’s more subtly corrosive. In our branding work at System 1, it’s the negative emotion most commonly associated with businesses – and the hardest to recover from.

These seven basic emotions form the palette around which our spectrum of feelings is built. Marketers should know which to use and which to avoid. And they should also beware of neutrality – the absence of emotion. In the short term, and often in the long, for consumers to have no emotion about you is the worst outcome of all. If you feel nothing, you do nothing.

Have an opinion on this article? Please join in the discussion: the GMA is a community of data driven marketers and YOUR opinion counts.

Read also:

What can science of the subconscious teach marketers and designers?

Ad appeal, add emotional impact – ditch the message

Tom Ewing
Author: Tom Ewing
Senior director at System1 Group |

Tom Ewing is a co-author of the new book, ‘System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth’.

Leave your thoughts

Related reading

  • Keep up to date with global best practice in data driven marketing