The five most important emotions in B2B marketing today

The feelings that B2B brands can’t ignore – and how to use them positively

August 17, 2020

The five most important emotions in B2B marketing today

We live and work in emotional times. It’s not just that we’re feeling unfamiliar emotions, or feeling them more intensely; those emotions are also playing a bigger role in how we try to make sense of a suddenly confusing world. They’re as present in our professional lives as in our personal ones. That’s something B2B marketers can’t afford to ignore.

Even before the pandemic, evidence was stacking up that B2B brands miss out by not putting themselves out there emotionally. Research from Les Binet and Peter Field for the B2B Institute shows that B2B strategies that appeal to emotions are actually 7x more effective at driving long-term sales, profits and revenue than rational messaging. The fact is that even if your audience is trying to be rational, they are still more likely to remember your brand and respond to your messages if you’ve made them feel something. They’re more likely to believe your facts if they’ve already decided they like you.

Emotion regulates our response to marketing – because that’s what emotion is designed (evolutionarily speaking) to do. Rather than thinking of it as a set of fuzzy feelings, we’re better off recognising it as a finely tuned mechanism for helping to interpret the world. The more disorientating the world becomes, the greater the role of emotion in shaping our response to it.

B2B emotional marketing myths

If we’re to give emotion a bigger role in B2B, we need the right tools. I’m writing this post to share a framework for thinking about emotion that I find really useful – and to show how this applies to successful campaigns on LinkedIn and elsewhere. But first I wanted to take a moment to address three myths that can often distort how we approach emotion in B2B.

Myth Number 1: Emotion involves a visibly emotional reaction

The word ‘emotional’ doesn’t do as any favours here. It tricks us into thinking of emotion as something you can see: a person blinking away a tear, cracking a broad grin or laughing. This isn’t the case. Binet and Field talk about emotions taking place on many different levels. Emotion in marketing can be as subtle as making someone feel that they like your ad, and therefore they trust your brand. In marketing, the subtle feeling that a brand understands you is often the most powerful feeling of all.

Myth Number 2: B2B products can’t generate an emotional response

This is an old excuse: the idea that because we’re not selling fragrance, fashion or some other aspirational category, emotion doesn’t have a role to play. If you’ve ever spoken to your sales team about how they close deals (in Europe, 59% of sellers say Trust is one of the top two factors), then you’ll know this isn’t true.

Myth Number 3: Emotion is a brand marketing tactic only

It’s true that emotion forms the influential memories that effective brand marketing depends on. However, that’s not all that emotion does for marketers. It also directs attention – and it’s designed to help us convert stimulus into response. That can make it a powerful asset in activation marketing as well. Just because your objective is to get someone to do something doesn’t make emotion unimportant. It arguably makes it an even more powerful asset.

Categorising emotions

Seeing beyond these myths helps us to grasp what emotion isn’t. However, there’s still a lot of confusion about what it is. When we talk about applying emotion to B2B marketing, which emotions are we dealing with? Come to think of it, what is an emotion anyway?

Arguably the most useful framework for understanding emotions is the wheel model developed by the psychologist Robert Plutchik in 1980. Plutchik identified eight core emotions that form pairs of polar opposites: Joy vs Sadness, Trust vs Disgust, Anger vs Fear, Anticipation vs Surprise. Each of these is designed to produce a type of response that helped early humans to survive. Despite emotions being difficult to pin down (and subject to a lot of different theories), Plutchik’s model has proved very durable. It provided the inspiration for Disney and Pixar’s hit movie Inside Out in 2015, which picked out five of the core emotions – and left Trust, Anticipation and Surprise on the cutting room floor.

The strength of Plutchik’s model of emotions is its simplicity – but things get more complicated the closer you look. For starters, each of these emotions can be expressed more or less intensely with quite different effects. The intense form of Sadness is Grief – but in a milder expression it becomes Pensiveness. Anger intensifies as Rage (which marketers usually want to avoid), but expresses less intensively as Annoyance (which features in campaigns a lot more often).

Another complicating factor is the way that emotions intersect with one another to produce quite different but related feelings. The short version of Plutchik’s list has 32 emotions including optimism (Anticipation combined with Joy), Love (Trust combined with Joy) and Awe (Surprise combined with Fear). There’s an even more complicated version of his model where emotions bounce off one another in all kinds of less predictable ways, creating Pride, Anxiety, Hope, and taking the total number to 56.

Mixing emotions – not mirroring them

The idea that emotions mix is an important one for marketers. It’s not just the content of your marketing that generates emotion – it’s how your marketing interacts with the emotions people already have. When you create an ad, a video or a piece of content, you’re not pitching it into an emotional vacuum. It’s more like applying paint to a canvas that already has base layers of colour – and so producing a different shade. The emotions you’re mixing include the emotions that people already feel towards your brand as a result of ads, content and customer experiences. If you understand your audience’s emotional starting point, you’re far more likely to succeed at generating the emotional response that you want.

System1’s data from the early stages of the pandemic shows how audiences have been spending a lot of time in some uncomfortable emotional areas, with increased feeling of Sadness, Fear and Anger. Months on, we are starting to see the effects of an extended period of Vigilance, Boredom and Anxiety. In March, the UK’s Office of National Statistics reported that half of the country was experiencing high levels of Anxiety. This reduced during the lockdown period in the country but has increased once more since lockdown started easing in July.

When people are experiencing these types of emotions, simply holding up a mirror to how they’re feeling can be counter-productive – both for brands and the people themselves. The fact that people are angry doesn’t mean they respond to anger-associated emotions. In fact, in the early months of the pandemic when feelings of anger were on the rise, advertising that featured aggressive and self-oriented messaging was dropping in effectiveness. When people feel anxious, they may well resent advertising that tries to scare them further. In situations like these, it’s often more effective to offer a release from people’s current emotional state, using the power of content, advertising and experiences intentionally, to change how people feel for the better.


The most important emotions for B2B marketers in 2020

Here are the five most important emotions that marketers should understand and engage with, if they want to use emotion positively in 2020:

Vigilance and Anxiety are exhausting emotional states to be stuck in. Marketing can offer audiences a release from the opposite side of the emotional spectrum – a feeling of Surprise and Amazement. It might seem strange to talk about the unexpected as a positive force at the moment. However, the experience of being surprised is actually fundamental to the most enjoyable experiences that human beings can have. It’s the sudden and unexpected release of tension that produces laughter. The switch from Anticipation to Surprise is humour’s emotional signature.

Research shows that ads have become progressively less funny over the last decade or so – and not just in B2B. However, the pandemic could be changing that. Several of the most effective consumer ads of lockdown have persuaded audiences to crack a smile through the unexpected. Maltesers scored well in System1’s analysis by spicing up a baking-related Zoom call between friends. And B2B brand are more than capable of raising a laugh, as the likes of Adobe, ZenDesk and HP Enterprise regularly show.

Amazement doesn’t just come about through a punchline. As the multi award-winning Epic Split ad for Volvo Trucks shows, it can be generated through the spectacular and the daring as well. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s stunt treated audiences to a surge of adrenaline and escapism – emotional responses that would have real value today.

Around the turn of the millennium, two established global banks were tackling a similar marketing objective. At a time of change and potential disruption (the idea of banking online was just taking off), they needed new ways to build trust. And they took very different approaches.

HSBC created ‘The World’s Local Bank’, one of the longest-running and most effective marketing campaigns in history. It generated the crucial emotion of Trust through funny vignettes picking up on intriguing cultural differences, and supported this with outdoor ads celebrating the diversity of life and business. In HSBC’s marketing, Trust came from Joy, Surprise and the associated feeling of Curiosity.

Barclays took a very different approach. Its ‘Big’ campaign starring Anthony Hopkins was designed to generate Trust by reminding people how dominant and impressive the bank was. It’s the type of Trust big banks were used to instilling in people through their impressive branch buildings signalling financial stability and longevity – but it didn’t work anything like as well when you tried to tell people to feel this way. Barclays’ campaign came across as aggressive and focused on forcing people to submit to its authority. At a time when people were suspicious of it closing branches to chase profits, it caused a PR disaster.

This true-life marketing parable is a timely reminder that it’s not just the emotional response you’re interested in that counts – it’s the emotions you engage along the way. Everyone in B2B marketing and sales knows that Trust matters – but there are very different ways to earn it. In worrying times, Trust can’t be enforced. It’s a product of people liking you – and of you demonstrating that you understand what they’re going through. It’s a trick that HSBC perfected and that any marketer can learn from.

Fear – being there rather than being scary

Fear is a familiar emotion in marketing campaigns. It’s usually evoked deliberately to prompt people to take action: fear of missing out, fear of failure, fear of being overtaken by the competition.

In 2020, the relationship between Fear and marketing is different. Feelings of worry are everywhere – and marketing that attempts to provoke additional Fear is likely to be shut out. People are already feeling overwhelmed by these emotions.

The brands that generate a positive emotional response don’t add to the Fear – they focus on helping people cope with it. An interesting study in 2014 showed that people watching horror movies feel a greater emotional affiliation to brands like Coca-Cola that are present with them in the cinema. These brands don’t have to remind people that they’re scared in order to enjoy this benefit. They just have to be themselves – and be visible.

Being there in the current climate has produced similar levels of emotional engagement for consumer brands like Aldi with its simple message that, “we’re here for you.” However, advertising isn’t the only way that brands can stay visible and offer a reassuring presence in difficult times. The LinkedIn feeds of Dropbox and Drift are filled with clearly branded content that calmly gets on with the job of helping people achieve their objectives in this difficult environment. The language of both of these B2B tech brands is simple, authentic and straightforward. It’s mixed in with organic video from employees that helps to establish a human connection. And it does a great job of turning an atmosphere of Fear into more positive emotions around Trust and Acceptance.

Pensiveness is the mild form of sadness in Plutchik’s model – and it’s an emotion that many people report experiencing at the moment. It often involves looking back fondly at the past – and reaffirming the things that mattered to us then and still matter to us now. In the current situation, brands can demonstrate their understanding of what motivates people by referencing the past in a similar way. And this becomes all the more powerful if you can translate that emotion into a positive experience in the present.

One of the best recent examples of this is the lockdown marketing campaign from the UK insurance brand, Compare the Market, in which its talking meerkat mascots reunited the band Take That for a socially distanced concert. This was a nostalgia kick that turned fondness for things in the past into something current – and joyful. The early response that we’ve had to a new ad for LinkedIn Sales Solutions shows that something similar but more subtle can happen in the B2B space. The ad features salespeople talking about the experience of working in close proximity with customers – and how they’re embracing the task of finding new ways to maintain that connection.

Anticipation is a complicated emotion. When its intense it becomes Vigilance, which can feel exhausting over time. Mixed with Sadness it becomes Pessimism. However, when you’re able to link this heightened sense of awareness with more positive emotions, very different things start to happen. Anticipation and Trust generate feelings of Hope. Anticipation and Joy come together to create Optimism. These emotions are positive for both the people feeling them and the brands associated with them. They’re motivating – and they can start to make things happen.

We created our new ad for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions with these kinds of emotions in mind. It’s a reminder of the things that professionals can rely on: the customers that depend on them and the opportunities that are there for them. It’s an ad that aims to leave people feeling that little bit more empowered to move things forward.

Emotionless is no longer an option

Emotion won’t tolerate a vacuum. If you don’t take an active role in shaping the emotions associated with your brand then other feelings will flood in to fill the gap. In a volatile emotional landscape, it’s hard to predict what those feelings will be. With emotion playing a heightened role in how people respond to marketing, there’s never been a better time to incorporate an understanding of emotion into how we plan it. It can help to leave our audiences, colleagues and businesses feeling better.

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