Emotions: The Competitive Battlefield Of The Future

We all have read or heard that companies should be emotionally connected with consumers; we all have read or heard that companies need to emotionally bond with consumers and need to “emotionalize” their brands, products and services. It looks like that emotional connection is the battlefield of the future in many consumer industries, and I would add also some business to business industries.

In several posts I wrote, I pointed out the importance of improving emotional perfomance as the key competitive driver of the future. Nevertheless I think there are some concepts that have to be clarified to be successful in the emotional battlefield.

The term “emotion” is definitely too vague to effectively guide a corporate effort aimed to improve business metrics, and offers a lot of room for subjective interpretation.

So, what are emotions about?

Neuroscience has proved that human brains are programmed by evolution to respond in certain ways to significant situations. Significance can be signaled by information built into the brain by evolution or by memories established through past experiences. In either case, though, the initial responses elicited by significant stimuli are automatic, and require neither conscious awareness of the stimulus nor conscious control of the responses. But this is not the essence of an emotion. They occur during an emotion, but an emotion is something else, something more. An emotion is a subjective experience, a passionate invasion of consciousness, a feeling. A subjective emotional experience, like the feeling of being afraid, results when we become consciously aware that an emotion system of the brain, like the defense system, is active.

Let’s go a little deeper using an example. If you are not interested in some “scientific neuro-details”, that I tried to make as much digestible as possible, jump directly to the conclusion.

Imagine you encounter a rabbit while walking along a path in the woods. Light reflected from the rabbit is picked up by your eyes, and the signal is then trasmitted through the visual sytem to your brain — to be precise, to your visual cortex. Neural connections from the visual cortex to the cortical long term memory networks activate relevant memories — facts about rabbits stored in memory as well as memories about past experiences you may have had with rabbits. By way of connections between the long term memory and the working — short term — memory, you become consciously aware that the object you are looking at is a rabbit.

Let’s assume now that, a few strides later down the path, there is a snake, coiled up next to a log. Your eyes pick up the stimulus. Conscious representations are created in the same way as for the rabbit. However, in the case of the snake, long term memory informs you that this kind of animal can be dangerous and that you might be in danger.

But these cognitive representations and appraisals are not enough to turn the experience into a full-blown emotional experience. Something else is needed to turn cognitive appraisals into emotions, to turn experiences into emotional experiences. That something is the activation of the system built by evolution to deal with dangers. That system involves the amygdala.

Connections from the amygdala to brain cortex allow the defense networks of the amygdala to influence attention, perception and memory, in situations where we are facing, for instance, danger. But these connections are insufficent for producing the feelings that come from the awareness that something good or bad is present.

There are other channels through wich the effect of amygdala activation can impact on cortical processing. These connections involve the so called arousal systems of the brain. In the presence of novel or otherwise significant stimuli, neuron terminals — so called axons — release neurotransmitters and arouse cortical cells, making them expecially receptive to incoming signals.

But the information content released by arousal system is weak. The brain cortex is still unable to discern that danger exists. Another basic ingredient for a complete emotional experience is necessary, that is the bodily feedback.

The activation of the amygdala results in the automatic activation of neural networks which control the expression of a variety of responses: specie-specific behaviors (freezing, fleeing, fighting, facial expressions), responses of the autonomic nervous system (like changes in blood pressure and heart rate, piloerection, sweating) and hormonal responses. When these responses are expressed, they create signals in the body that return to the brain. Different emotions — anger, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise, happiness — can be distinguished to some extent on the basis of different autonomic nervous system responses, like skin temperature and heart rate. It’s impossible to have emotional experiences in the absence of bodily responses.

Just to recap, here are the three main neuroscience findings that are important to be known by companies to influence and predict consumer behavior.

· You cannot have conscious emotional feeling without aspects of the emotional experience being represented in the working — short term — memory.

· You cannot have a sustained emotional experience without feedback from the body or without at least long-term memories that allow the creation of so called “as-if” feedback. But even an “as-if” feedback has to be taught by real life feedback. The body is crucial to an emotional experience, either because it provides sensations that make an emotion feel a certain way right now or because it once provided the sensations that created memories of what specific emotions felt like in the past.

· You can have an emotional feeling without being conscious of the eliciting stimulus — that is, without the actual eliciting stimulus being represented in a short term brain buffer and held in the working memory. If emotions are triggered by stimuli that are processed unconsciously, you will not be able to later reflect back on those experiences and explain why they occured with any degree of accuracy.

And so, what?

Let me try to make these concepts easier to digest, using an example: the iPhone — when it was introduced into the market, against Blackberry — as remarkably reported by Phil Barden in his “Decoded” book.

The main difference the iPhone had when it was launched, was the way it was operated — its touchscreen and its operation by finger. Which mental concept — memory — is recovered by using an iPhone? The first typical finger movement in operating an iPhone — and today with any touchscreen device, is a kind of flicking — the movement of our index finger is as we are leafing through a magazine, or flicking cards across a table. That is turning light and flexible pages. When we turn heavier pages we use the thumb together with the index finger. This activates our memory related to everything we feel when we read a magazine. Reading a magazine is highly associated with leasure and distraction, relaxation, entertainment and related emotional experiences, like to be stimulated, exploratory, pleased.

The second typical action when using a touchscreen device is scrolling with the index finger. The index finger is put onto the touchscreen and then pulled back. Which mental concept — memory — is recovered through this action? We usually make this type of finger movement when we turn something, for instance a small wheel. If we want to control where the wheel stops, we don’t retract the index finger as far, as we want to be able to stop the wheel quickly — we let the wheel run a bit and are not entirely sure where it will stop. Observing children we can see that this movement is carried out by playing with a wheel, maybe on a toy car; to start with, they may use the whole hand and then only the index finger. These stimuli generate emotional experiences like surprise and joy in children, that most likely will be felt also when you are scrolling a touchscreen device.

On the other side, let’s remind how a Blackberry was operated. It was operated by thumbs. When do we use our thumbs? When we need strenght and want to turn something in a controlled and precise way, like a dial or a combination lock. Do these stimuli generate emotional experiences like surprise and joy? Not really!

And now let’s try to make these “neuroscientific issues” a little bit more actionable.

· Identify Critical Emotions and Touchpoints

Positive emotions — like to be stimulated, pleased, enthusiasm and joy — drive purchase intention, loyalty and positive recommendation. On the other side, negative emotions drive churn and negative recommendation. No doubt about it. I have plenty of data to confirm that.

Using emotional data analytics — a sort of predictive intelligence — it’s possible to measure the effect on actual sales and customer lifetime value, derived from a certain increase of positive — or negative — emotional experience.

For instance, in a recent program I run for a leading automotive brand, we have collected several thousands data points, for almost 60 touchpoints across physical and digital channels, which allowed to identify the quantitative relations between a few positive emotions and customer acquisition rate, retention rate and probability to be a promoter.

Through emotional data analytics, it’s possible to set goals of service emotional performance for those touchpoints with the highest Service Emotional Performance Gap. For instance, a certain service emotional performance target is defined for “meeting a sales associate in a store for a test drive”. Furthermore, due to the universality of the emotional currency, a target of emotional performance can be fixed using as a reference the emotional performance in similar touchpoints of best in class brands of other industries — following the above example, the reference is “meeting a sales associate in a store of the luxury fashion brand xyz”.

· Stimulate emotions during the customer journey

First of all a clarification. Here I do not refer to so called nostalgia marketing nor to brand’s emotional attachment, that is using old brands, simbols, images, logos, slogans or jingles to recover past emotional experiences in consumers’ mind. This is quite an established and well known discipline — see one of my posts here. To add an example, Microsoft recently released an updated, high-definition Pack-Man video game, a product that may stimulate some consumers to create imagery of using the old Pac-Man game.

So, I assume you are wondering what I’m refering to. I’m refering to any kind of service behavior that is happening during the customer journey.

For instance, service behaviors acted by a store associate, a salesperson, an after-sales technician, an “in store” event involving several persons, even a behavior acted by the customer himself during a service co-creation activity, etc. In a few posts I already mentioned different ways to stimulate positive emotions through service behavior.

But, what’s about rituals?

Rituals actually are biologically significant events for humans. Several researches with ritual participants engaged in meditation and trance demonstrate changes in brain wave patterns, heart and pulse rate, skin conductance, and other body functions. Experiments suggest that some of these neurophysiological changes may be associated with the “rhythmic drivers” that characterize rituals. Human rituals share basic structural components of formality, pattern, sequence and repetition.

Recent researches from Harvard University (under publishing) have shown how ritualistic behavior potentiates and enhances the enjoyment of ensuing consumption. As part of a consumer study, participants in the ritual condition were instructed, “without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it”. In the no-ritual condition, participants relaxed for approximately the same duration and then ate the chocolate. Participants in the ritual condition reported higher enjoyment of the consumption experience more than those in the no-ritual condition (5.95 against 5.15 in a scale 1–7); participants in the ritual condition were also more willing — literally — to put their money where their mouth was: they reported being willing to pay more for the chocolate than did participants in the no-ritual condition ($0.59 against $0.34 — that is an increase of more than 70% for such a simple sequence of human gestures: breaking in half the chocolate bar, unwrapping half of the chocolate and then unwrapping another half. Not bad!).

…and about eye contact? Do I have to explain it to you?

Do you remember your mom’s eyes? Take a breath, close your eyes and think about it. Your are moving your mom from long term memory to short term one!

It’s quite well known that during eye contact, our axons (remember, the neuron terminals) release a neurotransmitter called oxytocin, improperly labeled as “love hormon”. Longer the eye contact, longer the effect…that’s the power of eye contact.

If eye contact is then accompanied by hands contact, the neurotransmission becomes…an explosion…

· Measure the value of emotions

Research on consumers’ emotional reaction due to different service behaviors, are still challenging researchers. For instance, rituals have been studied almost exclusively with qualitative design, making it difficult to draw causal inferences about rituals’ power to change consumer behavior in terms of purchasing behavior, loyalty and willingness to recommend.

For this reason, companies have to implement robust emotional data analytics through which measure the effect on consumer decision-making triggered by different kind of service behaviour experienced during the journey.

The following chart reports some data drawn from my consulting experience and research activity. It shows how standard business metrics grows across a variety of industries when the service emotional performance grows due to some pre-defined service behaviors — in most cases, very simple ones.

Companies normally start with analyzing features and benefits of a product or a service and conduct consumer research to find matching needs and motivations. More recently, digital companies added a new layer of suppositions to explain and predict consumer behavior. However, in almost all cases, they do not consider the effect of service behavior during the customer journey.

The fundamentals of consumer behavior do not change to accommodate the latest innovation in digital technology. A real understanding of the consumer decision-making process must be based on the knowledge of the paramount influence that service behaviors have on that process.