How Emotions Drive B2B Purchase Decisions

Darren ColemanOctober 11, 20186 min

We like to think we’re rational and logical, that we identify then assess the options, evaluate the consequences then make solid, well-thought-through and reasoned decisions. But the decisions we make are primarily influenced by the emotions we feel. This is why creating an emotional connection is so important when building brand experiences.

The importance of emotion in decision-making has been recognized for many years. Ancient Chinese philosophers like Confucius and Mencius acknowledged the importance of emotion. The influential work of Antonio Damasio and colleagues outlines how human behavior is primarily driven by the emotions we feel, with rational thought following behind. Professor Dan Ariely and Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman also highlight the importance of emotion in decision making.

Research shows that creating an emotional connection with stakeholders delivers value. One study found the value of a customer increases as they progress along an ‘emotional connection pathway’ which gradually deepens their emotional relationship with the brand. Other research highlights the positive influence of creative and emotional rather than factual and rational content on brand favorability. This finding is consistent with another study, which showed the profitability of ads with purely emotional content was approximately twice (31 per cent vs 16 per cent) that of those with only rational content. Another study found a statistically significant and positive correlation between emotive brands and perceived favorability, while ads with above-average emotional response scores generated a 23 percent lift in sales volume.

Businesses That Sell To Other Businesses Are Made Of People – And People Have Emotions

The value of emotions in branding is not restricted to B2C markets. A Google study highlighting the personal nature of B2B markets showed how B2B customers feel emotionally connected to B2B brands. This study compared brands with ‘no brand connection’ and ‘high brand connection’. The results demonstrate the value of a ‘high brand connection’:

Consideration: 15 percent (‘no brand connection’) vs 79 percent (‘high brand connection’);
Purchase: 5 percent (‘no brand connection’) vs 64 percent (‘high brand connection’);
Willingness To Pay A Premium: 2 percent (‘no brand connection’) vs 60 percent (‘high brand connection’).

Most B2B brands tend to follow a similar brand experience path. They focus on price and functional features, not emotion and experiences. The logic for this approach tends to relate to clients’ use of a ‘cost, quality and feature’ matrix to inform their decision. These tools aim to make people objective and logical. If only life was that simple! To address this situation you need to understand the emotions that drive your target clients’ decision making then build brand experiences that tune into a relevant emotional channel.

The types of emotions that drive B2B choice are qualitatively different to those that drive B2C markets. B2B markets are characterized by complex, high-risk, high-value and long-term investments. This means experiences that mitigate risk, provide security, reassure, give peace of mind and enhance personal or organizational reputation win. IBM’s classic ‘Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM’ was a pioneering example. The emotion IBM played on was fear and they said they could address this problem by being reliable.

More recently, other world-class brands have started to adopt a more emotive approach. GE’s (General Electric) ‘short films’ series demonstrates the work GE facilitates, while Caterpillar’s #BuiltForIt Trials illustrate the durability and strength of their products in a variety of situations.

Considering The Mechanics Of Delivery

A few years ago, I spent a week delivering a brand strategy masterclass to one of the world’s leading laser manufacturers. Beforehand, I was a little nervous due to the technicalities of the market and the scientific profile of the participants. As the first day progressed I started to wonder if the brand was plagued by an irony. They sold exceptionally complex products that had a range of sophisticated applications, but our client focused on technical features such as ‘parameters’. Later that night I went back to their competitors to review their websites again. It struck me they were all adopting the same approach, even to the extent that most of the brands’ homepages have a picture of a laser. A wonderfully advanced market had focused on function, and so commoditized their offer. The next day we set about exploring how their target customers could be reached in more emotive ways, for instance, outlining how their product could help eminent professors conduct research that would make them candidates for Nobel Prizes.

How B2B Brands Are Winning Through Emotional Experiences

Joel Harrison, Editor-in-Chief, B2B Marketing outlines how some B2B brands are increasingly leveraging the power of emotion with great effect.

“Emotion has always been a massive part of B2B marketing, but until recently, most B2B brands have struggled to understand its importance and how to deploy it properly. B2B brands majored on logic and rationality – to list the wealth of important product features in excruciating detail.

Where emotion was used, in the ‘broadcast era’ of ‘one to many’ marketing channels, it often focused on the negative. Unless they took action, something really awful was going to happen. They were going to get outmanoeuvred by a competitor, or become uncompetitive due to legislative changes, etc. Fear was the emotional lever.

But today, in the era of social media, the role of emotion in B2B has flipped on its head. Brands rely on positive messages, sharing things that are interesting, exciting, funny, cool… even (whisper it) sexy. The likes of IBM, Lenovo, Hootsuite and Microfocus stand out as particularly good examples. Being robust, solid, dependable… the rational choice, makes you invisible on social media. We’re seeing a more informal, friendlier and warmer tone of voice coming to the fore in B2B akin to consumer marketing.

This is refreshing and long overdue. Understanding the subtle but profound differences required in driving an emotional connection for B2B over B2C customers will be one of the key factors in determining which B2B brands succeed in the 21st century.”

Emotion is the trump card when it comes to building brand experiences but it’s important you don’t underestimate the role of cognition or ‘thinking’, especially during the earlier stages of decision-making. For example, if you are not aware of a brand it will not come to mind when making a choice. With all the talk about emotion and brands I would encourage you to remember this point.

To appreciate why our decisions are primarily driven by the emotions we feel you need to understand two tightly connected regions of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.

The prefrontal cortex sits at the front of our brain and deals with cognitive functions such as decision making, evaluation, logic, working memory, reason, control and problem solving. The limbic system is a complex set of brain structures located in the depths of our brain that supports a variety of functions including our sense of smell, motivation, intuition, impulse, long-term memory and emotions. The fact that the limbic system deals with long-term memories and emotions is particularly important when it comes to building brand experiences. Why? When we make a decision, the front of our brain (prefrontal cortex) accesses our memory, and when we access our memory our brain sends electrical impulses to the limbic system to recall a brand-related emotion. This is important because when we make a decision, it’s not the memory of the brand that influences our choice but the emotion we feel associated with that brand in our memory. This is a subtle yet significant point.

Think about the last time you went out for dinner. Did the rude waiter make you feel uncomfortable? Was the food overpriced so you felt like you had been ripped off? Did the fly sitting proudly on top of your soup make you feel the restaurant was unhygienic? It’s not actually the memory of the waiter, food or fly that influences whether you would go back again, recommend the restaurant or send a mail the next day to complain; it’s the emotion you feel when you recall the experience. This is why the best brands in the world work hard to generate brand-related emotion.

Coca-Cola associating itself with the emotion of happiness is a classic example. Volvo helps people feel safe. Hallmark helps people feel loved. Ritz-Carlton helps people feel special. Armani helps people feel stylish. The list goes on but these brands understand the importance of creating an emotional connection as part of their brand experience-building efforts.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Darren Coleman, excerpted from his new book Building Brand Experiences ©2018 with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

The Blake Project Can Help: Accelerate Brand Growth Through Powerful Emotional Connections

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers

Darren Coleman

Connect With Us