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Emotional Research - the Challenges of Being the ‘Next New Thing’
Image Credit  Joe Shlabotnik Creative Commons license

Emotional Research - the Challenges of Being the ‘Next New Thing’

There's been a lot of talk in the media and in the professional journals about the huge role that emotions play in shaping our decision-making and behavior. In the business world in general, and the advertising industry in particular, this rising recognition of the powerful role of emotion in our lives has resulted in a flurry of activity.

Marketers everywhere now have ‘need to measure consumer emotions’ inscribed prominently on their to-do lists. New products are arising almost daily from every corner of the business research world, all claiming to unlock the secrets of consumer emotion. 

I recently attended a market research conference where this trend was evident in full bloom. A broad range of market research scientists and professionals were all talking about techniques for emotional measurement and emotional research.

As I look back on that event it seems that the most striking feature was the range of diversity in both the methods proposed for studying emotions, and in the types of phenomena under study – all of them called ‘emotion’.

It leads me to think about the importance of having the research community agree about what things we can mean when we use the word ‘emotion’, about what these different types of ‘emotion’ have to do with human decision-making behavior, and what sorts of methods are appropriate to help us learn about these different kinds of emotions.

A new interest 

The study of emotions as they drive consumer behavior is still a relatively new interest in the business community and still a relatively new focus for market researchers.

Those of us who have a long-standing commitment to emotional research may have reasonable cause for concern about the status of this topic as ‘the next new thing’. It seems important to temper this atmosphere of enthusiasm a small bit, and begin to insert the thread of discipline alongside it.

We need to explicate the various ways in which we think these different types of emotion play a role in consumer realities. We need to clarify how insights about these different types of emotion can become a resource for business planning and marketing strategy.

In our work, we focus on one particular type of emotional force - one that I actually hear very little about in the conversations about emotional research.

We focus on the type of emotional force that can pull someone from their armchair at home, move them to their automobile, and get them to a retail store to purchase a particular type of product, hoping for a particular type of outcome from that purchase.

Psychologists typically call this type of emotional force - motivation.

Motivation at the centre

I believe that it’s important that the study of motivation occupy a central role in market researchers’ study of emotion – for several reasons.

Firstly, the emotional forces of motivation are what we should be studying when we seek to uncover new business opportunities in the consumer lifestyle. Our lives are propelled by motivational drives which push us toward the attainment of our life's aspirations, as-well-as by motivational drives which push us away from the vexation of frustrations and roadblocks in the path of our lives.

When either of these drivers are unfulfilled in a consumer’s life, this lack of fulfillment represents an emotional need state that can be targeted by new product ideas.

Secondly, a new product concept is far more likely to succeed if it offers the promise of emotional benefits that speak to consumer lifestyle aspirations and frustrations.

Finally, the emotional forces of motivation that are most important, and probably the best element in the narrative of promise, is that of a consumer advertisement.

Adverts certainly need to deliver a credible and interesting message about a function which a product will perform for the consumer, creating a rational ‘purchase interest’ in that product.

However, promise of emotional fulfillment, expressed or implied, will be a key element of communication for advertisers who want their messages to become a call-to-action.

Maximum advertising impact occurs only when the rational, functional promise in a product story is married to the emotional excitement of a motivational fulfillment opportunity.

Motivations v other emotions

Motivations can be distinguished from other types of emotion in part because they derive from forces inside the individual, rather than being primarily ‘reactive’ to outside stimuli. We all carry around inside us two distinct forms of motivational forces.

One type consists of aspirations that we have to make our experience of life better - a desire for outcomes which psychology calls ‘positive reinforcement’. The other type consists of frustrations that we experience in life which, drive us to seek relief – that drive for what psychology calls ‘negative reinforcement’.

In my recent paper in the Review of General Psychology, I’ve attempted to summarise a great deal of research on motivation, and I have developed a unified model that identifies nine distinct types of motivating emotional forces, each of which can be manifest as an aspiration for positive outcomes, or a search for relief from frustration of negative situations.

It is important to help clients/companies understand what kinds of frustrations and aspirations are energising consumers as they go about the various tasks and activities in their lifestyles.

We should also seek to uncover the kinds of motivational fulfillment that cause a client’s most loyal customers to bond with their brands. Choosing a brand is a way of making a statement to others – and to ourselves – about what we stand for. And achieving the right kind of image of one's self, while avoiding potential negatives in that self-image, is a major source of emotional fulfillment that energises brand choice.

Sensory-emotional states

Clearly the concept of emotion can take several other forms aside from the emotions of motivation.

From studying the various sensory-emotional states activated by experiences in life (like excitement), and studying emotion as a pattern of vascular activity through the technique of brain imaging, to looking at the study of physiological expression emotional states as expressed by the facial muscles (like happiness, or disgust) – there is plenty to look at.

I suspect that all of these types of emotion will continue to play a role in the marketplace of ideas and in the work of market researchers and marketing strategists. I only hope that enough of us decide to focus on the emotions that drive motivation, and seek to understand the aspirations and frustrations that drive consumer choices and actions in life.

And I hope most of us will eschew the low road, and avoid marketing forms of ‘emotional research’ that can spoil the new opportunity for serious business scientists. 

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David Forbes

David Forbes

David Forbes holds a Ph.D. in clinical and cognitive psychology from Clark University (US), and was a member of the faculties of Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry and the Harvard Laboratory of Human Development -  before beginning his career as a business consultant.

Dr. Forbes founded Forbes Consulting over 20 years ago as a strategic market research consultancy dedicated to creating business advantage through deep psychological consumer insights. Since that time, he has built Forbes into a major resource for scores of major corporations in the CPG, Financial Services, and Pharmaceuticals industries, domestically and internationally.

David is also the creator of the MindSight® emotional assessment technologies, a suite of applied neuropsychological methods for understanding consumer emotion and motivation, without the distortions of conscious editing and self-presentation. This image-based tool has been validated globally, and is currently in use world-wide.

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