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Uncommon Sense: The Emotive Power of Marketing

9 minute read | David Brandt, EVP, Advertising Effectiveness Strategy | June 2015

A Q&A with Dr. Robert Heath, Professor, The University of Bath

Dr. Robert Heath is a professor at the University of Bath and a pioneer in establishing the value of emotion in advertising. His research includes the development of the Low Attention Processing Model of advertising, as well as an advertising research system known as the CEP® (Cognitive Emotive Power Test), which analyzes Information and Emotive Power. Nielsen is collaborating with Dr. Heath to incorporate CEP into its new TV Brand Effect module, Creative Evaluation. Creative Evaluation will allow marketers to measure how consumers are connecting with their ad compared to competitor ads and across key demographics.

We recently talked to Dr. Heath about emotional resonance, its importance and how it can be used in improving the effectiveness of advertising.

Q: Why is emotional resonance in advertising important?

A: My research with David Brandt and Agnes Nairn shows that emotional response toward advertising plays an important part in building a strong brand. Although advertising often appears to be there just to communicate a message about what the brand does, we have found that the way this message is conveyed – what psychologists call metacommunication – typically has a greater influence on brand favorability and how likely consumers are to buy a brand in the longer term (1). The basis on which metacommunication operates is entirely emotional, conditioning your feelings and building strong relationships. An ad that resonates emotionally is one that will build a stronger better brand over time.

Q: Tell us about Emotive Power and Information Power scores. How did you develop them? How are they useful to advertisers?

A: All ad research looks at what is being said about the brand, and most attempts to measure the sort of emotion that the ad elicits. Results like these are not always very helpful. For example, an ad can convey a message, but that message may not be much of an incentive to get the consumer to change their behavior; and an ad may be seen as warm or funny or serious or shocking, but how can one tell if these emotions are going to have any positive effect on sales?

We wanted to go a bit further. So we studied academic research on scales that measure ad content, and found two main types of responses: cognitive and emotive. From this we developed a set of metrics and a way to ask questions that encourage respondents to reveal how they are likely to respond when exposed to the ad.

The response we measure has to predict how well the ad will build the brand. Our Information Power metric doesn’t measure what the message is; it measures the perceived value of the message by the consumer. Similarly, our Emotive Power metric doesn’t tell you what emotion is triggered by the ad; but it does tell you if that emotion is going to change feelings about positive brand perception.

Q: Do all ads need strong Emotive Power?

A: I would say yes. You might think that if all you want to do is communicate information, then it doesn’t matter whether or not people respond emotionally. But there are two reasons why you should always try to get a positive emotional response: The first is that it has been shown that the way that information is communicated has an important influence on how likely you are to believe that information. The second is that if you are going to pay for an ad, why not use that ad to strengthen your brand? The best way you can do that is by getting a positive emotional response from the ad.

Q: Is an emotional connection the only factor in determining ad success?

A: Not at all. Advertising cannot work if it doesn’t connect with the brand in some way, so it’s important to be sure that the ad or some elements within the ad are distinctive enough to link to the brand. One way to do this is describe the ad and see if those who remember it can identify which brand it is for. This process uses recognition memory, which is very powerful and very reliable. It is also true that, in some cases, the information in the ad is very important. When that is the case, you need a good Information Power score as well as a good Emotive Power score.

Q: What are different approaches to creating an emotive ad?

A: Broadly speaking there are two types of Emotive response: those that are based on empathy and those that respond to creativity. You may create these responses through all sorts of elements in the ad, including the casting, tone of voice, humor, background music, setting, storyline, or even just the way the ad is directed.

An empathetic response is when people empathize with and feel closer to your brand after seeing the advertisement. You get good empathy if you show kids or babies or dogs in your ads. A creative response occurs when the ad makes people feel your brand is imaginative and ahead of the game. A good example is the FIAT 500 Crossover ad from the Super Bowl, where the Viagra pill falls into the gas tank. It’s a very creative ad (with a score of 162 out of 200), and will make people feel FIAT is a clever and smart brand.

Of course it’s always best if you can get both empathy and creative. A recent ad for Home Depot, with great music, fast intercuts, lots of iconic shots, was seen as highly empathetic (138) and highly creative (140). With a good offer at the end it also scored very high on Information Power (133). A winner all around.

Q: What types of emotion are best at eliciting emotional response? Are sentimental ads more impactful than funny ads?

A: Experience has taught us that it’s a very bad idea to try to generalize about what is likely to be a good emotive ad. For example, some creative experts maintain that you can’t generate empathy using cartoons, and that you have to show real people to create real feelings. Yet one of the most empathetic ads we ever tested (Honda Diesel) was a cartoon treatment for a car brand (195).

So we don’t seek to be prescriptive about what makes a good emotive ad. It’s easy to assume that something sentimental is going to create more feeling than something funny, and sometimes that is the case. But if a sentimental ad isn’t really well directed, it can really miss the mark and fail to resonate. Yet if an ad is clever and entertaining, it can get a high rating on Emotive Power even though it doesn’t include any people.

One thing that’s really important to bear in mind is that you don’t need impact to create an emotive response. Emotion is part of our natural response system, which handles things like responding to danger. As humans, we’re designed to process emotion automatically and instantaneously, regardless of how much attention we are paying. So as long as emotive ads connect with the brand, they can often work without needing to have people say, “Wow, that was a great ad.” Indeed, as we found in the 2015 Super Bowl, if ads are too obviously trying to influence your emotions, they can easily spark a serious backlash.

Q: Do you think creativity or empathy is more important for certain advertiser categories?

A: Yes, I do. Food and toiletries companies, for example, would definitely be looking for empathy. These are personal purchases, and you don’t want to be eating or using products on your skin from a company you don’t feel good about. For them, it may not be so important to be creative. At the other end of the scale, however, an electrical goods or computer company needs to be seen as clever and up-to-date with everything that’s going on. A company like that may feel that creativity is all-important, and that they don’t necessarily need to generate a lot of empathy. But, as I said earlier, if you can generate lots of both in equal measure, then you’ve got a winning ad.

Q: How might the role of multi-tasking and shortened attention spans affect an ad’s ability to connect emotionally with viewers?

A: This is a very important reason for thinking seriously about the Emotive Power of your ad. Trying to get people to understand and remember information requires high levels of attention. That’s never easy to get these days, as no one really expects advertising to tell them anything very new, so we all tend to mentally switch off when the ads come on. We are designed to process emotion automatically and instantaneously, regardless of how much attention we are paying. So ads with high Emotive Power, as long as they connect with the brand, can exert a significant influence on behavior, even among those who aren’t paying attention. The power of emotive advertising explains why, in my opinion, TV advertising is still the best way to build a strong brand.

Q: What effect does having a very well-known brand have on emotion?

A: I think being in charge of a strong brand is a pretty unenviable task. People can resent you because of your size and power, and of course, if you are leader in the market, there’s only one way your share can go.  For strong brands, I’d say it isn’t so much a question of if you need emotive advertising. It’s more a question of how long can you survive without it.

But I’d say you also need to look at this the other way around. Brands that have really strong equity are almost always those that have, at some stage, had emotively effective advertising of some kind. Would Apple have been seen as great innovators without their very early ads about Einstein and 1984? Would Coke have been a universally beloved as they are if they hadn’t run those Father Christmas ads way back in the 1930s? And would VW have sold a single car in the U.S. if it hadn’t been for their highly creative, perfectly tuned and targeted ads? Great advertising isn’t a new phenomenon, but perhaps now is the first time we have a really good way of measuring greatness in advertising.


(1) Heath Brandt & Nairn 2006 Journal of Advertising Research

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