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Drive your sales with 7 powerful emotional triggers

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 02 Oct, 2015
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Leverage the power of emotions to enhance your marketing

Every decision your customer makes consists of many conscious and subconscious emotions. The key to success in any business is an understanding of psychology and human behaviour.

We all have the same basic mental triggers and needs that drive action. If we understand these psychological triggers, we can craft more effective marketing messages and increase sales.

Below is an introduction to 7 important psychological and emotional triggers that can increase your sales, backed up with examples and further reading.

1. Belonging

Human nature gives most people a strong desire to belong to something; a group, a clan, a gang, a family, or a social network. Call it what you will, but very often customers purchase goods and services to show and feel a sense of belonging to their chosen ‘thing’…be it real, or fabricated.

They even carry out some highly illogical activities just to feel accepted.

Impress people on social media.

We are not rational beings. That is for sure.
And yes, this post could likely be littered with Fight Club quotes, but I’ll leave it at just this ‘meme’.

Sport is a great place to see the psychology of belonging in action.

Sports teams and the need to belong

Image source: Celso FLORES, flickr

From the World Cup to local sporting events. Fans come together in union, waving banners and flags, dressed in their team colours.

Today’s fans are driven by an emotional connection to their team through deep-seated personal motivators. That connection (whether you call it a “desire to belong” or even “purpose”) is equal parts a reflection of self and team.

The need to belong is strong

The importance of a sense of belonging can be traced back to infancy, where researchers have studied skin-to-skin contact between babies and their parents. What researchers found is that when combined with a strong emotional engagement, a baby’s developmental growth and recognition of self increases significantly. This in turn, decreases the chances of experiencing loneliness and depression in future life.

Throughout the rest of our developmental years and life cycle, a sense of belonging also targets a positive increase in many other areas of our lives. Intellectual levels, social skills, mental health, physical health and motivation are just some of the many areas that are improved when we live with a sense of belonging.

Are you Mac or PC?

The cult of Apple Mac

Queueing for the iPhone 5, West Mall, Bullring via Geograph

Regardless of your tech preferences, there’s no denying that Apple have built an epic following of people who will support and worship virtually everything they do.

Today, technology, connectivity and the social web have given marketers unprecedented opportunities to meet the need of belonging. Brands such as Apple, Harley Davidson and Vans have clearly demonstrated the power and profit of creating a sense of belonging.

We see the need to belong most in social networks and this opens great opportunities for companies to create community connections and satisfy these needs. Creating a feeling of belonging with customers satisfies core psychological needs. Companies should seek to build brand communities that allow customers to feel like they belong to something, are heard and can contribute.

2. Fear

Fear is a powerfull emotion  that often override thought processes and produce reactions without conscious thought. Fear can be used as a marketing tool to make consumers loyal to a brand, product or a service.

wwf appeal to fear

Using fear as a marketing tactic is not a particularly popular topic and in many cases it’s not the safest route to take. But if implemented ethically, its use can be highly effective.

How does ‘fear appeal’ influence consumers?

Fear appeal is a message that attempts to manipulate behaviour by arousing fear. Rogers’ Protection Motivation Theory(1975) states that people are motivated to protect themselves from physical, psychological and social threats.

When faced with a new threat this initiates a coping appraisal based on four variables;

  1. Perceived severity of the threat.
  2. Perceived probability of the threat occurring if no adaptive behaviour is performed.
  3. Availability of a coping response or solution.
  4. The individual’s belief in their ability to carry out the required coping behaviour.

The Carlsberg brand Tuborg capitalizes on the ‘fear of missing out’ (FoMO) trend with its ad campaign ‘Always Say Yes’.

Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) advert

There are countless examples of fear marketing around pricing and availability. How many Groupon or Living social deals have you purchased due to fear or missing out…only to never use the voucher?

Fear is a scary business

In study from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, UBC’s Lea Dunn  and JoAndrea Hoegg demonstrated that consumers experiencing fear while watching a film feel a greater affiliation with a present brand than those who watch films evoking happiness, sadness or excitement.

“People cope with fear by bonding with other people. When watching a scary movie they look at each other and say ‘Oh my god!’ and their connection is enhanced,” says Sauder PhD student Lea Dunn. “But, in the absence of friends, our study shows that consumers will create heightened emotional attachment with a brand that happens to be on hand.” she toldUBC regarding their 2014 study “The Impact of Fear on Emotional Brand Attachment “

In a nutshell, the report concludes that fear can stimulate people to have a greater brand attachment than other high activation emotions.

The Wheel of Emotion

Robert Plutchik introduced the idea that emotions are an evolutionary feature introduced to maximize survival of our species. With it, he identified 4 sets of opposite emotions for a total of 8 elemental emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Trust, Disgust, Surprise, and Anticipation. They are plotted on Plutchik’s famous wheel of emotions .

His model uses the idea of an emotion circle and a color wheel. The primary emotions can be expressed just like colors at different intensities and you can mix with one with the other to form different emotions and feelings. It is this model thatToneapi , Adoreboard’s emotional content optimisation and analysis tool, is based on. As you can see, fear is deemed to be a medium activation emotion – with terror being more intense.

Robert Plutchik wheel of emotions

Image source: wikipedia

Human feelings are the result of emotions

Human feelings are the result of emotions

Image source: Stephen Janaway, Slideshare

3. Guilt

As explained by Martin Lindstrom on Branding Strategy Insider , “Forget about depression, fear, angst, anxiety or night sweats. Guilt, that most puritanical of all our human emotions, has resurfaced to become a 21st century emotional social and consumer pandemic. Parents who in lieu of spending time with their adolescent children leave them with a rented DVD or on Facebook; shoppers who care about buying organic, but who can’t afford the higher prices, and then feel immoral afterwards; consumers who splurge on wine or truffle oil, then a day later feel gross and wasteful for spending so much money during a recession; the list goes on.”

Marketing messages that successfully make consumers feel guilty can be very effective and also very off-putting. As such, they are also often subject to heated debate. Charities use this tactic in their ad campaigns frequently with campaigns that guilt you over a cup of coffee, glass of beer or evening meal.

Guilt marketing and advertising campaign

The above is a recent example of guilt used for a charity. Although, in my opinion, this series of ads is much more thought provoking and effective than many others that attempt to play on feelings of guilt and shame.

It’s not just charities and non-profits who play on guilt, brands in other industries are just as guilty…

Juicy Juice advertisement

Image Source: aytm

A word of warning

Whilst feelings of guilt (and shame) are a part of everyday human life, they are also closely related to many deep psychological issues that result in high levels of self-condemnation. Guilt is a complex, compounding of emotions, strongly associated with depression and can quite literally be a killer.

Use guilt in your marketing ethically, use it wisely and if in doubt lighten things up with a dash of humour.

4. Trust

If you’re in it for the long game, trust is what you’re aiming for. Once customers truly trust you, they will buy from you repeatedly, with minimal cognitive effort. Before that, you need to persuade them you can be trusted.

The trust versus mistrust stage is the first stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage occurs between birth and approximately 18 months of age, and according to Erikson, is the most important period in a person’s life. It is during this initial stage of development that children learn whether or not they can trust the world.

Years of economic uncertainty have caused consumers to become more discerning about spending their money. Focus on how you can demonstrate to customers that you can be trusted. This isn’t something you can fake. You must sincerely mean what you say and do.

You could be subtle or you could take a leaf out of Ford’s book who have taken trust marketing to the Nth degree.

Trust Ford advertisement

So how can you build trust into your marketing? Here are 7 ways to get you started…

  1. Be transparent – everything you do is now in public view. McDonald’s ‘pink slime’ and Dominos ‘pizza turnaround’ are examples of two global companies that managed to turn around major PR disasters with transparency. The result is increased trust and brand advocacy.
  2. Display testimonials prominently. Link to great reviews, especially to those on third party sites such as TripAdvisor.
  3. Reduce perceived risk. Offer free trial and/or a rock-solid guarantee. Eg “If you’re not 100% satisfied we’ll happily give your money back. No questions asked.” Again, ensure this statement is prominently positioned on your site.
  4. Be human. Show human faces on your website – real people working. It could be as simple as a “team” page. Link to employee social profiles, show their lives outside of work, especially if they have accomplishments and contribute to social good.
  5. Display trusted and recognised brands. This could be customers you work with, publications you have appeared in, awards you have won or even a simple Visa and Mastercard image. A small piece of the trust instilled in these well-known brands – even if they really have nothing to do with your business – will magically transfer to you (same goes with employee achievements and contributions in #4).
  6. Use the Blemishing Effect; tell people what your product does NOT do. It may seem counter-intuitive, but his ‘negative’ information actually builds trust and can make your product seem more attractive.
  7. Use specifics in your copy; numbers, percentages, figures and facts. If you are a tech company and part of your audience is tech, tell them specifically what you build in. A designer? What tools do you use? What methodology? How exactly will you communicate with the customer? This builds level of specificity builds trust in an otherwise sceptical consumer.

5. Leadership

As Napoleon Hill once said “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” To really drive long term sales, your company needs to be seen to be a leader.


What exactly makes a great leader? According to Great Man theories, the capacity for leadership is inherent – great leaders are born, not made.

These theories often portray great leaders as mythic, heroic and destined to rise to leadership when needed. Here are some examples:

  • Jesus Christ, the Messiah promised to the Jews.
  • King Arthur, who will unite Britain, defeat its foes and return when
  • William Wallace, the liberator of Scotland against the English.
  • Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery in the USA.
  • Ghandi, the peacemaker who held together the fragile alliance in India at the time of independence.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, suggests the following for anyone who wishes to become a market leader:

  • Own and control the relevant technology in whatever market you are in, either through the use of patent or other proprietary protections.
  • Adopt and implement better technologies immediately, whenever they become available, regardless of whether or not any other organizations are currently using them.
  • Be the first to use a technology or create a category for a product. Then, make it an industry standard.

Several years ago Simon Sinek made a discovery. All the great inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers, think, act and communicate in the exact same way. And it’s the complete opposite to everyone else.

Simon developed the golden circle: Why? How? What?Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do.

And by “why” he does not mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “why,” he means: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?

Simon’s idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t.

6. Values

Values are judgments about how important something is to us. Values are often subjective judgments – we make a judgment of how important something is relative to something else. For example, one may judge that helping others is more important than becoming famous, one bottle of wine in a bar is worth more than a couple of bottles in the house, a day off work is worth more than a day of getting ahead.

Values may also be principles that help us make important personal decisions. These would be considered personal values. For example, if a person highly values creativity, the person may strive to find a career that will allow him or her to be creative; with monetary wealth further down the list of priorities.

Values tie together personal perceptions and judgments, motives and actions.

People make buying decisions every day based on values and judgements; sometimes conscious, sometimes not. Either way, it’s all about getting the best deal – whatever the “best” means to you.

Customer Value = Perceived Benefit – Perceived Cost

Price vs Time

One of the easiest to understand is price vs time; there is very little perception involved. Take household cleaning as an example. As a consultant earning £50/hr why would you spend 4 hours a week cleaning your house, when someone would do it for £60?

Using the above formula;

£140 = £200 (assuming you consult during those 4 hours) – £60 (cost of cleaner)

By having a cleaner you have potentially earned an extra £140 per week, or £600 per month – a monetary value. Alternatively this ‘value’ could be translated into ’12 hours off’ per month; a long weekend with treats; more time with the family; a darn good holiday every six months.

Many promotions appeal to perceived value and the emotional trigger of getting a good deal.

Value targeted advertisement.

“If you find a better price for the same product, we’ll match it” is a tone that is effective in evoking feelings related to monetary value. These value-focused ads are often blended with a degree of fear – FoMO (fear of missing out).

Value is very often subjective and brands use various tactics to increase the perceived value of their product or service relative to similar offerings.

Starbucks advert to increase perceived value

Whilst monetary values are easier to use as examples, it’s important to remember that it’s not always about the money. Understanding the values of your customer, or ideal customer, will allow you to craft a more compelling and targeted offering.

7. (Instant) Gratification

With purchase opportunities just a click away we are armed and ready to spend. But we never want to wait. We don’t even want to wait until we can afford to pay. We’ll use a credit card if we need to, or find some other means of getting what we want.

We live in a world where instant gratification has become the norm. Delayed gratification is all but gone – we want it, and we want it now. From the jaw-dropping days of the ‘magic’ Polaroid camera to Amazon Prime, Amazon Lockers and movies on demand, instant gratification has come a long way.

Instant gratification - Polaroid camera

Unlike the generations before us, we are a society tuned to expect instant gratification in virtually all areas of our lives. Injecting urgency into your marketing language such as now, today, instant access, within 24 hours will appeal to the emotional trigger of instant gratification.

The Pleasure Principle

In most psychological models, humans are believed to act upon the “ pleasure principle .” The pleasure principle is the driving force that compels human beings to gratify their needs, wants, and urges. These needs, wants, and urges can be as basic as the need to breathe, eat, or drink. But they can be as complex as the “need” to purchase a particular commodity or service. A “need” that is often driven by advertising and a desire to keep up with the Jones’s. Resists strong urge to insert Fight Club quote.

When we don’t get fulfilment, our psychological response is anxiety or tension.

Technology has made us faster. Instant gratification is not only a desire, but an expected norm in many circumstances; we get real-time feedback from the apps we use, messages can be sent back and forth in nano-seconds and we can simultaneously work on our Google Docs.

delayed instant gratification

So, how can instant gratification improve your marketing efforts?

  • Don’t make your customers wait – give them something now. For example, “Sign-up to our loyalty program today and get a FREE drink now”.
  • Digital loyalty programs are a great way to give your customers instant gratification, be it in the form of a discount, giveaway or chance to win. Loyalty programmes can be delivered via smartphones and make use of other technology such as location and activity, giving a much more personal and relevant experience.
  • Text and instant messaging is one of the easiest ways to make (or break!) loyalty, especially in a small, localised environment such as the free coffee example above. This medium is powerful but often used by spammers and should only be used with explicit permission.
  • Chat and phone support is also important for businesses to implement. Don’t make your customers wait for you to call them back. Reply swiftly to any comment or suggestion, whether it be negative or positive. The same applies to emails, tweets and any other method your customers use.
  • Deliver goods? Engage in ‘click and collect’ programmes that give your customers the option to collect at a convenient time. This removes the risk of delayed gratification (which results in anxiety and tension) through missed delivery.

Summary Anyone?

Sales triggers are often most associated with the last touch points; the final push that gets the sale over the line; landing page elements that increase conversions or a fine-tuned product page that closes the sale.

However the reality is that emotional triggers need to be woven into the very fabric of your brand; from your social media and email, to ad copy, blog posts and web content.

  1. Take a look at your marketing communications and sales funnel. Can you identify or include an emotional trigger at each step in the customer journey?
  2. Do you understand the values that drive your customers? Or do you understand what values potential customers would associate with your company, brand, product or service?

Fear, belonging, guilt, gratification and trust are triggers that resonate with the majority of consumers.

But to become a global leader you need to know the ‘why’ behind your brand and the values of your target audience.

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