Most people believe that the choices they make result from a rational analysis of available alternatives. In reality, however, emotions greatly influence and, in many cases, even determine our decisions.
In his book Descartes Error, Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, argues that emotion is a necessary ingredient to almost all decisions. When we are confronted with a decision, emotions from previous, related experiences affix values to the options we are considering. These emotions create preferences, which lead to our decision. Damasio’s view is based on his studies of people whose connections between the “thinking” and “emotional” areas of the brain had been damaged. They were capable of rationally processing information about alternative choices, but were unable to make decisions, because they lacked any sense of how they felt about the options.
The influential role of emotion in consumer behavior is well documented:
Emotions are the primary reason why consumers prefer brand-name products. After all, many of the products we buy are available as generic and store brands with the same ingredients and at cheaper prices. Why do we decide to pay more for brand-name products?
A nationally advertised brand has power in the marketplace, because it creates an emotional connection to the consumer. A brand is nothing more than a mental representation of a product in the consumer’s mind. If the representation consists only of the product’s attributes, features, and other information, there are no emotional links to influence consumer preference and action. The richer the emotional content of a brand’s mental representation, the more likely the consumer will be a loyal user.
While emotion can be communicated effectively in a print ad or television commercial, there are other important components of a brand, which also have emotional dimensions. For example:
But for consumers, perhaps the most important characteristic of emotions is that they push us toward action. In response to an emotion, humans are compelled to do something. In a physical confrontation, fear forces us to chose between fight or flight to ensure our self-preservation. In our daily social confrontations, insecurity may cause us to buy the latest iPhone to support our positive self-identity.
Over time, marketers have developed theories about why consumers buy. Most of these err by viewing the consumer through the lens of the product. Marketers start with the features and benefits of a product and conduct consumer research to find matching needs and motivations. More recently, Internet and digital media companies added a new layer of suppositions to explain and predict consumer behavior. Their approach views the consumer through the lens of digital technology. However, they misinterpret data about the activity of online users as being a valid insight into the consumer decision-making process.
Consumers do not have a Pavlovian response to products and to their marketing programs. Nor do the fundamentals of consumer behavior change to accommodate the latest innovation in digital technology.
An understanding of consumer purchase behavior must be based on knowledge of human emotion and include the paramount influence that emotions have on decision-making.