How to Use Emotional Theory to Create Brand Loyalty

We all like to think we’re rational human beings, but every buying decision we make is triggered by emotion.

This is particularly true of the choices we make during stressful times — like a global pandemic.

Last spring, industry leaders attempted to predict whether people would buy more junk food or healthy food during COVID-19.

The CEO of McDonald’s believed it would be the former, and Unilever’s CEO was confident in the latter. In reality, both business leaders were correct.

This can be explained by emotional theory.

Throughout 2020, there were two powerful emotions: disgust and fear.

The infectious disease triggered disgust, and fear made things feel out of control.

As a result, we gravitated toward familiar products. Health-conscious consumers doubled down on healthy eating; everyone else stuck to what they knew.

The crazy conditions of 2020 would be tough to replicate, but what about brands that continue to deliver year after year?

Take Disney, for instance.

I personally love Disney World, and I’ve visited it every year since 1971.

People ask me why I stand in line for the same rides every year, and it all comes down to the feeling of belonging that’s triggered by memories I have from my visits.

As a brand, you would probably love to achieve Disney’s cult-like following, but what you may not realize is that the Disney effect is completely replicable.

It’s all about using emotional theory to trigger a connection with your brand.

Memories are formed at a molecular level, created by the body’s response to internal and external events. It should come as no surprise that emotions have the biggest influence on what we remember.

Advertisers and marketers tend to think that as much information needs to be delivered as possible, but that’s not true.

The content that leaves the strongest impact doesn’t detail a product’s every bell and whistle. Instead, it makes us feel something: happy, relieved, sad, angry, scared, etc.

If you’re looking to inspire brand loyalty, stop trying to make customers buy your product. Tap into emotional theory and aim to form a connection that resonates with people’s subconscious. Here’s how:

Implementing Emotional Theory Prompts Decision-Making

When I work with agency clients, they always want to talk about product features.

A consumer might have certain criteria in mind, but it’s an emotion that triggers decision-making.

After all, only 5% of our cognitive activity reaches our conscious awareness.

Features, benefits, and figures justify people’s decisions, but our wallets are linked to our subconscious, where our hopes, dreams, and fears reside.

Great branding is about isolating the emotions that cause action and triggering them through advertising.

Subaru is one brand that has perfected this with its lineup of emotional dog commercials.

(More than 60% of Subaru owners have a dog, so this messaging resonates with them.)

At the end of one tear-jerker about an aging dog named Banjo, Subaru flashes the tagline: “97% still on the road after 10 years.”

The emotional scenes make people want to buy, and the figure validates their decision.

Apple also understands what people want to see, especially around the holidays.

Instead of creating solely promotional commercials, the tech company makes ads that effortlessly integrate its products and services into the story.

For instance, Apple’s 2019 holiday commercial follows a family with two young daughters.

For Christmas, the kids gift their grandpa an iPad with a video featuring their family — including their grandma who recently passed away.

Emotional stories move people more than anything else.

Pair Two Emotions to Activate a Sense of Need

Human beings can feel thousands of emotions, but only 15 of those emotions (including altruism, approval, attraction, authority, and belonging) are capable of activating the decision to buy.

By triggering one feeling, you can lead someone to experience a deeper emotion that creates an urgent sense of need.

Geico has tapped into consumers’ need for approval through its family-friendly, accessible humor, but there’s something deeper at work.

With its tagline, “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance,” Geico is pairing affinity with ambition — a primal emotion.

You want to get more for your money, so you call Geico (a brand everyone approves of) to fulfill both needs at once.

Another good example: Snickers.

The candy bar company’s slogan reminds consumers that “you’re not you when you’re hungry.”

Feeling angry?

Eat a Snickers.

Don’t want to do what you love?

Eat a Snickers.

By aligning happiness and identity with its product, Snickers tapped into basic human needs.

The brand saw a 16% increase in global volume sales in the first year the campaign ran.

Great advertising follows a formula (even if creatives hate to admit it). If you study ads from brands that inspire loyalty, you’ll find common attributes.

Not only do these ads focus on specific emotions, but they’re also entertaining, authentic, and relevant.

The end products are still unique, but they don’t ignore tried-and-true recipes for success.

Axe perfected this formula by addressing adolescent boys’ insecurities via entertaining, authentic ads.

The idea behind the brand’s advertising was to make the prospect of dating (a relevant problem for its audience) less daunting by helping boys feel more confident.

Axe has been using variations of the same concept for nearly two decades because it found a formula that works.

Another company that found its groove is the footwear and apparel company Nike.

In its commercials, Nike reminds athletes that they are the go-getters, the trailblazers, and the first to step up.

Each ad shows athletes working hard, overcoming challenges, and securing victories.

The company’s goal is to boost customers’ self-esteem and let them know that they can do it. It’s not the clothing that makes people want to buy Nike — it’s the story the brand tells.

The next time you’re creating an ad, don’t start by listing product features and benefits.

Remember: it’s not the alluring scent of Axe that’s moved millions of bottles, and it’s not reliability that sells a Subaru.

It’s the universal emotions behind those brands that have inspired their cult-like followings.

Drew McLellan

Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry for more than 25 years. For 18 of those years, he has owned and continues to run his agency. McLellan also leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small- to medium-sized advertising agencies on how to grow and build their profitability through agency-owner peer networks, consulting, workshops and more.

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