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What the Tokyo Olympics taught us about emotional marketing


Welcome to Apparently, a regular series about what’s firing our curiosity and getting us thinking.

In this Olympic-themed edition, Dani Colubriale from Apparent’s media team dives deep into human emotions – and comes up with gold.

Watching the Olympics recently, I found myself getting heavily emotionally invested in sports I ordinarily wouldn’t follow. This in turn caused me to act in ways that were quite out of character, including:

  • Becoming unexpectedly teary following results of an event
  • Cheering extraordinarily loud at the TV
  • Feeling overwhelmed with happiness for the champions

So a little bit of context: at the time of writing, we are eight weeks into a lockdown. And yes, the pandemic meant the Tokyo Games were like none other. However, there was something else making these games uniquely memorable.

Shared experiences are a social glue 

Knowing athletes’ families were cheering on their loved ones through a screen, the same way us viewers did, made us feel closer to our sporting stars than ever before.

Because the COVID-induced isolation is a point of connection. It’s made us more passionate than usual, and triggered a stronger shared emotional response when watching the Olympics.

This got me thinking, if my emotions were driving these inadvertent out-of-character reactions, how else are they backseat driving my behaviour?

Rational or emotional. It’s one or the other, isn’t it?

Creating connections is a primary currency in marketing land, and it can occur when we tap into either emotional triggers or ask people to make rational choices – right?

Daniel Kahneman doesn’t think it’s that simple when he writes about System 1 and 2 thinking. Nor does Yuval Noah Harari as he discusses our hunter gatherer ancestry in ‘Sapiens’. Each author explores how laziness and survival have created cognitive shortcuts for us – and more recent studies have shown how our emotions are heavily tied into these shortcuts. 

Emotions are part of our continual cognitive appraisal and feedback processes, becoming the mechanism of reasoning that informs even our most logical decisions. And you don’t have to actively experience an emotion for it to affect behaviour.

When it comes to rational and emotional decision-making, it’s not either/or, it’s both.

In the book ‘How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market’, Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman concludes that a massive 95% of our cognition happens in the part of our brain where our emotions reign supreme. Most of these decisions are about insignificant things, but for those decisions a consumer really cares about, ignoring the emotional context of a decision can cost a sale. 

In this increasingly disrupted and cluttered world, every marketer knows we are in a battle for people’s attention. So how can we maximise the chances of someone’s subconscious subconsciously choosing to pay attention to our message?

  • When someone is in an activated state and is experiencing strong emotions (i.e happiness, surprise, fear, anger and disgust), they are more likely to engage or recall an ad. 
  • However, not all emotions are equal in driving action. Fear can have a dampening effect – remember those lung cancer ads?
  • A brand that understands how human behaviour is driven by subconscious signals in the form of emotions can have a greater chance to get noticed.
  • In fact, research indicates these emotional shortcuts enable us to process information 500,000 times faster than without them. So emotions equal faster cognition (and hopefully connection).
  • Emotional marketing in media should be used at all stages of the purchase funnel, across multiple media objectives.
  • In addition, we can pair evocative messaging and creative with personalisation, relatability, timeliness and motivational drivers in media – making the channel usage part of the creative.

If you want someone to act, make them feel

It’s easy to de-prioritise the role of emotion because it’s subconscious and intuitive, and not declared.

However, when we’re planning our engagement strategy it can help to consider the individual’s context.

Because understanding emotional triggers and key decision-making moments is vital to marketing success.

My top 5 tear-jerking moments from Tokyo 2020

  1. When the high jump buddies from Italy and Qatar decided to share the gold medal, instead of having a jump-off.
  2. The first medal coming home for the Boomers, and Patty Mills’ post-match interview.
  3. The Kookaburras’ loss in a penalty shootout against Belgium in the gold medal hockey match.
  4. Team GB diver Tom Daley’s victory speech inspiring young LGBTQ+ people to achieve anything.
  5. Cedric Dubler’s shouts of encouragement that will forever be tied to Ash Moloney’s bronze medal.

What do we do now the Olympics have wrapped up? Stay tuned for the Paralympics, starting on August 24th.