Business Success By Understanding Emotions

I usually write about the future, but I thought today I’d write about something eternal instead. We will base success in the future on the same principles as yesterday’s and today’s. I thought it would be useful to point this out.

Success in any business depends on our understanding of emotions. The reason: whoever buys what you are selling is doing so for emotional reasons. Emotions drive human action. Good emotions draw your customer closer to a sale while negative emotions motivate your customers to buy your product to relieve their discomfort. Our whole lives are a series of actions guided the emotions of joy, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, trust and anticipation. Every sale ever made was completed because the product stimulated the buyer through one or a combination of these 8 fundamental emotions. It’s all biochemistry baby!

For example, a customer looking for movie CD’s these days is a collector. He or she may be a big fan and wants to examine the CD, the booklet, see it in his or her collection at home. This person wants to touch the product, to feel it. This customer is not shopping to watch the movie alone. He or she is acting on different emotions than the customer that simply wants to see a good movie. The latter customer can watch the same movie on stream, and for cheap. Still, because many movie buffs feel an emotional attachment to the physical CD displayed at home, the CD market is significant. Paper books are another example. Even though it is cheaper and more practical to download a file and read an eBook on a tablet, laptop, and even smartphone, paper books are still popular these days. Bottom line is, people don’t buy most things because it makes rational sense, they buy because they feel a need. To succeed, we must understand the emotions behind our customer’s decision-making and align our design and production to create what the customer wants.

The most successful businesses out there have all touched their target clientele’s emotions profoundly. You may have already heard one of the key factors of success is to have a unique product that solves a big problem for as many people as possible. Being the first to solve this problem and get noticed by your target audience is important. If you are solving a serious problem, they will want to use your product to solve their problem. What drives these customers is not a desire for the product, but an emotional impulse to get rid of frustration. Most customers just want relief. We buy food because eating is pleasant, and we want food in the house to avoid frustration. After we feel relieved of frustration, we often brag to our friends and family. Sharing the story of overcoming these challenges makes us feel good. “I bought this widget, and it solved my problem. It can solve yours too!” Nowadays, people express their joy and frustrations in social media to their networks of online friends — instant marketing for the seller!

None of this is new to most people. What is interesting is what happens before a product gets out the door and available for the consumer. Designers, developers, programmers, producers all get mixed up with their own emotions trying to deliver a product a target demographic wants. Companies whose design decisions focus on solving a dominant frustration win big.

I remember when I first used Google’s search engine many years ago. Google was not running ads in the beginning, but many search engines preceded it — the competition. Before Google came along, all search engines were slow and inefficient. They also had cluttered interfaces. When Google came along with a clean interface, superior search algorithms and speed, my geek friends and I felt like we discovered the Holy Grail! So much better. We started using Google Search and never looked back. This was the start of Google’s success. The company saw the competition, understood the frustration of slow inefficient, cluttered search engines, and solve that problem. Most of those search engines don’t exist anymore.

The company could have failed soon after if it hadn’t continued to think about their customers’ emotions. Copycats like Yahoo Search (which survived and restructured itself) and Bing tried to follow Google Search’s success to outdo it, but Google kept innovating, sticking to its mission. Google kept focusing on making their algorithm better and better every year, always a step ahead of the competition. After all, consumers are loyal only to their own feelings. If another search engine became faster and more accurate, then Google Search would be a thing of the past. Google kept working on its superiority in search and will continue to do so. The Google team did not clutter Google search with additional features. It does the job we customers want it to do, period.

A couple years after its initial success, Google made money without frustrating its customers, keeping their excellent services free. Businesses that wanted to advertise their services to web surfers were paying Google’s expenses. They still are. It is the businesses that expect to pay extra to generate sales, so businesses are happy customers too. It is a beautiful business model where everyone wins.

Most of the times, however, entrepreneurs don’t get it right. We can easily get confused by our own emotional needs. While developing a new product, a team can lose track of the main principle of sales: relieving a frustration or giving joy to an emotionally driven customer. As creative people, we project our own desires and ideas into the product, thinking “if I like this, our customer will too”. What a load of crap!

We are not making a product for ourselves. The audience’s emotional drivers are often different from ours. Just like the example of the CD, we may be movie streamers while we’re trying to sell to CD collectors. Totally different motivations. Obviously, if we lose focus and do what we feel is right to our taste, the product will surely fail in the market. If you’ve ever heard of “feature creep” in product design, you know what I mean. For those who don’t, “feature creep” is the concept of everyone on the team adding cool features to a product they think would make the product great. After a while, the product’s primary function, and the solution gets lost in a jumble of features the client never asked for. As entrepreneurs and investors, we need to keep our eye on the prize. Simple thinking, singular focus. If we fix the problem in the market, just like Google Search did, we’ll be fine.

Another example of thinking of going the wrong way is the 2013 attempt by Burger King to serve healthier food for a demographic that was more health conscious. What came out of the think tank was “Satisfries”, a reduced calorie French fry. The problem was, the food people at Burger King forgot their clientele never wanted a healthier French fry. If they wanted healthy food, they could buy the salad that was already on the menu or visits a restaurant serving healthier food. This time Burger King did not realize few people went to their restaurant to buy healthier fries. They liked their fries greasy and salty. So, the product flopped and Burger King removed the Satisfries from menus a few months after launch.

Sometimes product designers and entrepreneurs forget purchases are emotional altogether. Solving a frustration through invention or design takes guts because it is risky. Some other company may beat us to the punch, we may misread the customer’s emotional needs and many other things may go wrong. Often companies forget the golden rule and duplicate an existing product in the market in the hope the product will sell. This works if it targets a demographic not directly served by the main innovator. If the product sells to a different audience, it means we have solved the problem for a different type of person. The design may be similar, but another group of people is buying the product.

Microsoft copies other company’s successes, depending on its own brand name and captivated audience to generate success. Microsoft’s Windows operating system is a copy of Apple’s old operating system. It worked out for Microsoft because Windows was an upgrade to its own delinquent operating system, which was installed on millions of machines already.

However, when Microsoft saw Apple’s success with digital music players with the iPod, they tried to pull the same trick. Out came the Zune. Unfortunately, there was no strong reason why a Microsoft user would buy a Zune over the already popular iPod. It wasn’t an upgrade, just a device that did the same thing as the iPod. The former leader of Microsoft’s home entertainment and mobile leader in 2006, Robbie Bach, said it best: “We just weren’t brave enough, honestly, and we ended up chasing Apple with a product that actually wasn’t a bad product, but it was still a chasing product, and there wasn’t a reason for somebody to say, oh, I have to go out and get that thing.” Bach and his team were hungry for the hugely successful iPod market back in the day and wanted a piece of it, but the Zune was targeting the same audience as the iPod. Why would anyone surrounded by friends with iPods, get a Zune, which did the same thing at about the same price? Total flop. This is not the last time Microsoft tried to duplicate Apple’s success (remember the Microsoft smartphone?).

These are all examples products succeeding or failing because of a decision-maker or a team failing to keep the focus on the only reason a product gets sold in the first place: resolving a customer’s emotional issues. The product is never about us entrepreneurs and engineers. It is always, always about making the customer somehow feel better.

So, when thinking of a new product, no distractions and no additional features. Keep the solution clean with a clear message of how it fixes an emotional need. An old marketing story says it best. “To build a wooden deck, we don’t go to the hardware store to buy drill bits, we visit the hardware store to find a tool to drill holes.” The point of the story is the solution may be drill bits, but if the builder finds a better, cheaper way to make holes, he or she will buy that. That’s the thinking that leads to products that sell, and therefore successful businesses.

We are walking talking balls of emotions. Our customers are the same. They won’t reason with you. They just want solutions to feel more comfortable in whatever they are doing. Solve that basic emotional need and customers will buy your product. Simple as that.