Do people really buy brands based only on emotion?

by Nigel Hollis | December 17, 2018

Brand choice is driven primarily by emotion and feeling. People don’t make brand choices based on logical, persuasive marketing arguments (as many in our industry still like to believe), rather the more you feel for a brand, the more likely you are to buy it. But is this equally true for all product categories?

By now we should all know that people tend to choose brands quickly– using their intuitive brains - rather than slowly, methodically and rationally using their deliberative brains. Fast thinking, our instinctive and emotional response to a brand, guides our purchase decisions. But does this imply that our deliberative thought has no influence on the purchase decision at all?

If nothing else, there are product categories where people do seem to think it is important to check out the comparative merits of different brands. A quick look at differences between categories in BrandZ finds that people are far more likely to research or shop online for some product categories than others. The mere act of researching something online implies a degree of deliberation.

When it comes to choosing a bank, I suspect few of us would be content to make a decision based purely on gut feel. In fact, most people do report that they research choices online, ask friends and colleagues for advice, check out rates and fees and so on. In other words, they deliberate on their decision. Even in the supermarket people are forced to make decisions occasionally, for instance, buying for a different need or occasion, someone else, or their habitual choice is out of stock. Even the obvious impact of price promotions suggests that a proportion of people are paying attention to the alternatives available to them and not just buying purely on instinct and habit.


Returning to banking it is possible that people will simply go with the brand for which they have the strongest affinity, but my suspicion is that many will want some proof that they are making the right choice. Santander in the UK called their new 123 Current Account a “blockbuster product” precisely because it gave people a reason to think again about why they might choose Santander. If they had not done so, the bank’s previous poor reputation would have prevented many people choosing it.

Santander needed some credible reason for people to change their attitude toward the brand. I doubt very much that people remembered much about the new account beyond the fact that it paid them money back if they paid their utility bills online but that was enough to get them thinking ‘I better check it out’. Would their subsequent investigation be independent of their emotional response? Absolutely not. But without that initial challenge I doubt people would have included Santander in their consideration set. And besides, academic evidence suggests that if people have an easy rationale for why they made a choice they will be more satisfied with it than if they cannot easily explain their decision.

But what do you think? Are there categories where purchasing really is all about people’s emotional response? What about salty snacks or ice cream? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Nibedan Kumar Bhawsinka, December 18, 2018
    Decision of making a purchase is governed by the price of the product, its life after ownership and spending capacity/intent of the individual. For a common man,  decision to go for a coke or pepsi will be purely instinctive. It is the subconscious decision that is made just by seeing the brand name displayed on the screen or the product kept on the shelf.  Here, the conscious mind didnt feel the need to intervene. Reason being the product being too 'affordable' for the buyer.  Plus,  the buyer wont have to live with the wrong choice (if that is the case) for long. You drink it off and move on.  Simple.  Had it been a decision between the flavors of a 1 kg icecream cube from a reputed brand that is a bit expensive,  at that time the conscious mind intervenes forcing the customer to take a pause and evaluate which flavor to opt for. The time spent by the buyer will increase in case of selecting this ice cream vs.  selecting the cold drink because of the involvement of the conscious mind. Notice how the slight increase in price and quantity (translates to length of ownership/ life of the product) affected the state of decision making.  Now,  if the same individual is asked to make a decision on which brand to choose for the next jewelry shopping,  it is majorly the conscious mind that will takeover forcing the buyer to do a thorough research and consult other people before deciding on the final brand/shop. Not only the price of the product (jewelry in this case) increased many folds,  but the length of ownership (or life of the product) became infinite. Hence,  the need of the conscious mind to intervene forcing the subconscious to take the back seat. 
  2. Rand Pearsall, December 17, 2018

    I think a lot of auto purchases are not emotional.  Certainly, the luxury category would be highly emotional.  But I suspect many Camry, Corolla, Accord and Civic purchases over the years have been much more rational.  This was a competitive advantage in the 80s and 90s although both Toyota and Honda now recognize the need to offer much more emotional products, even among their core models.

    Looking ahead, I am curious about the implications for autonomous vehicles.  Do people care about the auto brand driven by current Uber drivers?  In the future, since you are not driving the AV, how much emotional appeal will it need to have?  Or will the premium be on cleanliness for shared vehicles?

  3. Seth Grimes, December 17, 2018

    I agree that people choose brands based (only) on emotion, but counter that, that of course people don't always (or even typically) look first to brand in making purchase decisions. I suspect that brand-first purchasing is the exception -- Apple products, for instance, or when there's loyalty-program lock-in or an existing business relationship -- and that most of us, most often, look first instead at product/service elements such as features, price, availability, and so on. For instance, I own a Prius because of fuel economy and emissions. I don't care one bit that it's manufactured and sold by Toyota. I buy any of a half-dozen brands of ice cream, depending which the store I'm in carries and whether there's a promotion and if I have a hankering for a particular flavor. Brand is a mere category qualifier, a very loose consideration. Brands would like us to make brand-first purchase decisions -- that's why they strive to build emotion around themselves -- but in most cases that's not going to happen.

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