There’s so much advice out there these days when it comes to marketing. Among the most popular revolves around emotional marketing, the art of storytelling and evoking feeling rather than rationalisation by customers.
However, despite its popularity, emotional marketing does raise some ethical concerns.
None of us want to feel like a sleazy salesperson, and for conscious entrepreneurs in particular, finding a marketing strategy that feels comfortable can be a challenge.
So is there a way to use emotional marketing without being unethical? I believe that yes, there is. Here are my thoughts on the matter!
What is Emotional Marketing?
Emotional marketing is essentially any form of marketing communication aimed at using a customer’s emotions to entice or persuade them to buy a business’s products or service.
Emotional connection is used to build a more meaningful connection between a brand, product or service and its customer.
Studies estimate that as much as 80% of buying decisions is based on emotions, with only 20% being based on rationality.
Likeability is reported to be the most important factor in whether marketing efforts result in increased sales, and fMRI brain imagery has shown that centres which process emotions are more active than those which process information when considering different brands.
So what does it look like in practice?
There are several ways that organisations use emotional marketing, but most often they come back to storytelling.
Throughout history, humans have been telling stories. Consider the conversations you have, the films you watch and the books you read. These capture our attention; they intrigue us, entertain us, teach us.
The emotions they raise in us inform our behaviours and the ways in which we connect with others.
This is precisely the aim of storytelling in marketing. Though rarely do we see campaigns that take us from “Once upon a time…” to the desired “happy ending”, most marketing is based on micro-versions of traditional storytelling patterns.
Marketers encourage customers to form emotional bonds to their organisation and its offers while deepening emotional investment by displaying narratives which portray them as likeable, trustworthy, empathetic, relatable and so on.
These stories are about the organisations themselves, but brands also use stories about their customer. By spinning tales of the problems their customer experiences, they evoke emotions which consumers wish to solve (through buying products or services which promise solutions).
Brands can also tell stories of success, whether based on possibility or backed by evidence such as case-studies or testimonials from previous customers, which raise feelings of trust and aspiration inviting to potential buyers.
The components of this marketing style reflect those of any other form of story. The customer takes the place of the hero, faced with a problem or conflict. The problem is then relieved by the organisation who guides them in finding a solution and achieving their ‘happy ending’ – whether that be some goal or status achieved, a problem solved, something cool to show off or a feeling of inclusion/acceptance.
You may even recognise techniques such as cliffhangers being used – when marketing content opens with something so intriguing or promising that you can’t help but pursue it. For example, think of all those email subject lines beginning with “DID YOU KNOW THAT…” or “THE BEST WAY TO…”.
Other methods include the use of powerful emotional imagery, for example the classic ‘starving African child’ pulled out by charities in TV campaigns.
Such imagery immediately appeals to our humanity, without necessarily giving the background and relationality of story, and can be thoroughly effective in leveraging the sadness and compassion which motivates people to donate.
Marketing can also encourage consumers to write the story for themselves. This promise alone builds a sense of empowerment which might boost the chance of making a sale.
Examples of this include car commercials, where the car is shown to reflect the brand’s story, and imagery displays wide open planes on which the viewer’s mind imagines their adventure.
This example highlights the intricacy of storytelling in emotional marketing, as different paths are layered on top of one another culminating in a euphoria of trust, achievement, hope and aspiration that leads us to say “yes please!”.
It could be argued that all marketing is emotional. Purchasing decisions all involve some form of desire or necessity inseparable from human feelings. With this assumption, even content which simply informs the customer could be considered emotional marketing.
Some forms of marketing evoke emotion through minute psychological influence. For example, colour psychology is used by brands to opt for colour schemes based on the associations our minds make about them – red for romance or courage, green for growth or health, and so on.
What distinguishes the type of marketing discussed in this post is its deliberate use of storytelling to capture carefully chosen emotions and use them for organisational gain.
The Ethics of Emotional Marketing
It is this distinction that raises some ethical concern around emotional marketing. Many marketers feel somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that they are essentially manipulating people’s emotions in order to gain trust, popularity or sales.
Storytelling constructs emotions by creating psychological tensions. The end of the story provides release of these tensions by satisfying hopes and curiosities or eliminating troubles such as fear, sadness or conflict.
Storytelling in marketing allows organisations to frame themselves and their products or services as the key to releasing these tensions.
To give an extreme analogy for the ethical issues here – imagine a business were to poison its target audience and proceed to demand £10 from each person for the cure.
As I said, this would be pretty extreme, and quite clearly unethical.
But critics of emotional marketing argue that many organisations behave similarly, exploiting customer emotions to coerce them into paying for products or services they do not truly want or need.
In the worst cases, this could be harmful to consumers either in terms of the product/service itself causing harm, or in the wastage of their resources such as money, time, storage space etc.
A further ethical issue of emotional marketing concerns negative emotions.
Is it ethical to cause someone to feel sad, scared, angry…? Is it ethical to inspire hope or ambition which cannot be fulfilled?
What if marketing campaigns which elicit negative emotions are viewed by particularly vulnerable people? People who already suffer with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or more specific phobias/trauma-related illnesses may have their condition heightened by insensitive emotional marketing.
Consumers have varying tolerance of negative emotions, and though there is no legal regulation of their use in marketing, they can often cause unpleasant experience for even the most tolerant.
A good example of this is the worrying rise in what is now officially known as ‘climate anxiety‘. Green products and services are often marketed through storytelling of the danger and urgency of climate change, which has contributed to this newly defined mental health issue which negatively affects people’s lives by placing them in a constant state of fear over the future of our world.
Such fear can be debilitating to consumer’s lives, demonstrating its severity as an ethical concern for emotional marketing.
Negative emotions are also experienced differently depending on individual consumer familiarity with marketing. For those of us constantly exposed to the same messages, their effects tend to be dulled. What to us is a drop in the ocean to others may be a flood in the desert.
For example, one journal study revealed that fearmongering campaigns about smoking raised far stronger and less critical fears when displayed in nations which were less accustomed to such messages.
A final ethical problem to discuss is what happens to those who can’t release the tension created?
Consider an advertisement for a beauty product which promises clear, beautiful skin for enhanced reputation and success. Viewers may feel desire, hope, aspiration… but then they note its price and realise its far outside their budget. The tension is build, but the promised solution is out of reach.
Similarly, imagine your heart is broken by a campaign you see depicting suffering animals who need your help.
Your sadness puts you on edge, but by donating a portion of your income, you’d have the relief of knowing you were doing your bit. Currently, that portion of income pays your gas bill, or for your kid’s new school shoes. You know these are things you can’t sacrifice, so you are left with the burden of that sadness.
I hope these examples have highlighted some of the ethical considerations you should have when it comes to emotional marketing. I apologise for the hypocrisy here – I suppose the discomfort this might cause is another perfect example of physiological tension being built.
Shall we try to relieve it?
How to Use Emotional Marketing Without Being Unethical
As we’ve seen, there can be some distinct ethical issues when it comes to emotional marketing. But, there are still many reasons why you might want to use it.
Emotional marketing helps brands to build personal connection and trusting relationships with their audience. It boosts sales, encourages fundraising/crowdfunding, and helps raise awareness of important issues across the globe.
Here are my thoughts on how you can balance these pros and cons. As a brief disclaimer – its worth saying that ethics are an extremely personal thing. What follows is a summary of some common ‘best practices’ that I personally believe in, as well as some thoughts and ideas of my own. You may or may not agree with these concepts, and thats entirely your decision. I have no more authority than any other to define, for once and for all, what is ethically ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in marketing.
I’m beginning this section with a little note on mindset. Before you fall into a pit of despair over the ethics of your marketing, get yourself in the right mindset.
Marketing is a necessity in business. We all know that. If no one knows your product exists, no one will buy it. If no one knows what your service does, they wont opt in.
People are exposed to marketing all day, every day. If your organisation isn’t infront of them, someone else’s will be.
If you believe in your brand and its products or services, which I hope you do, then you’ve already cleared a major ethical hurdle. If you believe you can help, if you believe you are SERVING others, then your marketing is already substantially justified as you are giving consumers the opportunity to hear of and access your offer/request.
Authenticity and Transparency
This is a crucial factor in the ethics of your emotional marketing. To avoid behaving unethically, its important to be honest and open in any stories you tell.
This includes stories about your organisation, such as its origins, operations or motivations. Being authentic in these stories allows your audience to form their own opinion of you, and the resulting relationships you build will be genuine.
It also applies to stories which involve your customers. If you are promising to help them achieve their goals, or encouraging them to form new aspirations, you must be transparent about whether and how these can be achieved. Don’t go making false promises that you can’t keep.
If you’re sharing information or pictures, for example statistics on climate change or images displaying social injustice, its vital that you check your facts or make sure that your narrative includes any uncertainties.
This doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming, it can literally be as simple as swapping words such as “is”, “will” or “all” for alternatives like “is estimated”, “has been predicted” or “most”.
Personally, I don’t necessarily have a problem with marketing which evokes negative emotions. Sometimes, what you’re doing is more about solving problems than creating dreams. In fact, I’d argue that most organisations operate somewhere in balance of these.
And frankly, any purposeful organisation concerned with people and planet as well as profit has likely grown from the recognition that there IS negativity in the world and avoiding it often causes far greater problems.
An easy way to balance emotions in your marketing is simply to vary your content. If yesterday you reminded your audience of a big problem, perhaps today you could show them the alternative.
Of course, this relies on people receiving 100% of your message in exactly the order you release it which, I’m afraid, is a little unlikely.
A better alternative is to try and capture a balance of emotions within the same content. Maybe you share a sad narrative alongside an encouraging story, or a scary statistic in the same post as a reassuring initiative aimed towards managing it.
By doing this you can still convey important messages, you can still raise awareness and highlight your position, but you bring some salvation in the midst of any negativity.
Certain topics might benefit from the addition of trigger warnings or resources for support such as helplines or further information. While not directly helping your marketing efforts, this fulfils your ethical responsibility to minimise harm. Furthermore, it shows your audience that you care, which can strengthen their relationship with you.
Know your Audience
As well as helping you craft a valuable offer or relevant request, knowing your audience can help you determine your emotional marketing strategy.
First of all, think about accessibility and what it means for the strength of reaction you seek.
Is your audience in a position to buy from you straight away? Consider the resources they have available – from spare cash to spare time, any resource that is necessary for them to opt in.
If, for example, you are selling something at a high price to an audience that might need to think deeply about the decision or spend some time saving up, then it is unethical to hit them with such an intense physiological response that they feel compelled to buy right at that moment.
Such an approach would harm customers who bought in to something unsuitable for them, or leave you with an audience of emotionally distressed individuals desperately waiting until they had the right resources.
Instead, you could aim for gentler emotional engagement, building relationships which will result in customers who like and trust your brand and are poised to buy from you when it is most appropriate for them.
Another factor to think about here is your platform.
For example, your email list have shown more direct interest in you than your Instagram followers. The emotions you seek to capture from them may already be lurking below the surface, so by putting your emotional marketing content out through email you are simply strengthening emotions they already have.
As another example, LinkedIn is a more professional platform than other social networks, and a high proportion of its users are in senior positions. Rather than mess with the emotions of your Facebook fans who might not have the resources to act on your efforts, you could put more strength into material which will reach those with the authority to make decisions, attend meetings, make donations, and so on.
A final, but perhaps most important, component of knowing your audience is understanding different sensitivities. A mild emotional trigger for one individual could be overwhelming for another.
While you can’t be expected to know every detail of every individual’s lives, think carefully about the different segments of your audience. Will emotional reactions to your marketing differ by age, socio-economic status, gender…?
Involve your Audience
Finally, its important that you involve your audience. There are a few ways in which to think about this.
Focusing on active emotions rather than passive emotions is a good start. While you could put out content that makes people feel simply happy or sad, these are more passive emotions which they may hold without really knowing what to do with.
Other emotions are more active, causing our minds to start thinking as well as feeling. Here are a few of my favourites.
Anger – Yup, its a negative one I’m afraid, but when we feel angry we generally start asking questions and demanding answers. Anger can be used when telling stories of issues you hope to solve, for example, if your organisation is premised around its ethical supply chain then you could tell the alternative story.
Nostalgia – Nostalgia encourages reflection, when something sparks a memory within us we tend to remember specific events or perhaps changes we’ve seen over time. Nostalgia could be used when promoting vintage products/designs, or by businesses committed to local markets where many customers have been raised in the same community.
Inspiration – Inspiration sets the consumer’s mind on a journey of imagination. Perhaps you tell your own story of struggles overcome, highlight the opportunities your offer opens to them, or explain how their purchase from/involvement with you can have a tangible impact.
These active emotions engage your audience in more meaningful thought processes than simply overwhelming them with “my brand makes you happy” or “my campaign stops your sadness”.
It encourages them to think about what newly emerging emotions actually signify to them, and empowers them to make decisions based on what this rational thinking reveals.
In this way, your marketing efforts still benefit from the emotions raised, but you have empowered your audience to regain the more critical aspect they are entitled to.
Another way to involve your audience is to provide choice. Perhaps you offer multiple pricing plans or payment options. Maybe you provide an easy way to share your content if they themselves can’t engage.
For example, your marketing material could trigger someone to wish they could contribute to your fundraiser, but if they can’t then at least being able to share it might relieve some of their emotional tension.
Similarly, if your marketing has evoked great ambition for what a life with your service could look like, then opting for a cheaper entry plan allows your customer to feel relieved that they are ‘on their way’ if not quite there yet.
Giving your customers choice can also be as simple as reminding them to follow your media for further information, or suggesting they leave a comment or drop you a message. This gives them the option to continue their engagement with your organisation, whether as a means of expressing emerging emotions or saving them up till later!
There are always going to be ethical grey areas in marketing, particularly when it involves deliberate efforts to influence consumers’ emotions.
Nevertheless, I hope this post has helped you in identifying some of the things you need to consider, and given you some idea of how to ensure your emotional marketing is as aligned with your ethical values as it can be.
If you’re ready to get started, I’ve created a free downloadable cheat sheet to guide you in your emotional marketing strategy. Just fill out the form below to let me know where to send it, and you’ll be on your way!