How Emotional Motivators Can Drive Authentic Brand Growth

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We all remember what happened when Apple CEO Steve Jobs passed away, hundreds of thousands of people voluntarily lined up outside of Apple stores, flowers in hand. They were mourning the loss of a great tech visionary but also paying tribute to the creator of a brand that they felt a deep emotional connection to.

Apple doesn’t just have a bigger market share than Microsoft (at least, with smartphones), it pulls at the heartstrings of millions of consumers. It is true that supplying helpful information to customers will reduce buying risks and add practical value, but what’s more powerful is your brand’s ability provoke emotions in people, as Apple successfully does.

value of emotional connections

Research has shown that customers who fully connect with the brand demonstrate higher value.

It’s not news that an emotional connection to a brand leads to higher customer lifetime value and brand loyalty. So why spend advertising dollars when you can get higher ROI on your brand equity by building a lasting emotional connection with your customers?

In this post, we’ll take a customer-centric approach by looking at what emotional motivators drive human actions, and how to use this understanding to build the long-term value of your brand.

1. Motivation – What Drives Our Action

Marketing success is all about modeling your target customer’s behavior – whether it’s trying a new product that’s new to the market, choosing an alternative brand over a familiar brand, or staying loyal to the same product consistently over time. And behavior, without adequate motivation, will not be sustained. Think of motivation as the driving force of your customers’ lives – it gives them a sense of purpose and reason to act.

So what drives our behavior? What compels us to act? Clark L. Hull (1943) famously proposed the Global Theory of Behavior to describe what motivates behavior. Hull’s theory tied in various factors in precise mathematical terms in this formula below:

sEr = SHR × D × V × K

Here reaction potential (sEr) is positively correlated to D (drive strength), and drive strength is determined by a need state: the longer the subject is deprived of a need (such as food, water, sleep, etc.), the higher the drive strength.

Another factor that motivates behavior in Hull’s framework is incentive. If drive urges us to act to increase a need that’s lacking, incentive compels us by potentially decreasing this need in a predictable future. So in the case of eating, hunger as a drive increases the need for eating while the satiated state after eating acts as incentive.

Another major scientific discovery on the role of motivation is the 1948 hungry rat experiment by psychologist Neal E. Miller. In his experiment, the psychologist examined the behavior of both a satiated (well-fed) and a hungry rat. The hungry rat was motivated by hunger and successfully learned a new behavior when the reward (food) was presented every time motivation (hunger) is triggered. The satiated rat, however, was not motivated by food. But when psychologist introduced a new trigger (electric shock), the satiated rat was motivated to act for the reward (reduce physical pain).


What Miller added on to Hull’s theory was the role of both an internal and external “reward” in driving behavior. His experiments also showed that drive can be learned from environmental cues, as in the case of the satiated rat learning to reduce an artificially imposed “drive.”

In short, the classical physiological behavior model is very much need-based and goal-oriented: it proposes that we are motivated to act to reduce the lack of a need to survive, so that we can:

  • optimize well-being
  • minimize physical pain
  • maximize pleasure

But the theories of motivation only address our autonomous needs — those that are unconscious and involuntary — and omit our emotional and psychological motivators. As humans, we are motivated by more complex factors than animalistic needs.

2. The role of emotion in motivation

There are several myths about emotion. First off, emotion is not a feeling.

Dr. Sarah Mckay, neuroscientist behind the blog Your Brain Health explains it well:

“Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind.”

In short, emotions are physical and can be discovered either through conscious emotional experiences or subconscious associations of one’s desires, beliefs, actions, etc. In comparison, feelings are mental reactions to and subjective representations of our emotions.

Secondly, emotion does not equate mood. Mood is an emotional state usually heavily influenced by our environment, physiology, current emotions and thinking. Compared to emotion, mood is also more diffuse and lacking in contextual stimulus. While emotion can have complex dimensions to it, mood is more dualistic and general – we often describe mood as either positive or negative.

So how is emotion defined in psychology? Emotion originates from the French word émouvoir, which means “to stir up”. Encyclopedia Britannica defines emotion as “a complex experience of consciousness, bodily sensation, and behavior that reflects the personal significance of a thing, an event, or a state of affairs.”

The definition of emotion is still a much-debated frontier in psychology. Paul Ekman tried to define emotions by facial expressions. He traveled across countries, showing people photos of facial expressions, namely happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust. These six emotions later came to be known as the “basic emotions” all humans can recognize and identify, regardless of culture.


Paul Ekman’s six emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust.

Although “no one agrees on how to define emotion” in the field of psychology, a few theories have been proposed to describe the complex range of emotional experiences. Famously, Robert Plutchik classified emotions into eight broad categories by positive or negative basis. This model is more multi-dimensional and highlights the many potent areas between polarities.

flower chart of emotions

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions.

Why is emotion relevant to our discussion of motivation? It’s because emotions are closely linked to behavioral tendency. Emotion is often the driving force behind motivation, positive or negative (Gaulin, Steven J. C. and Donald H. McBurney, 2003). The shared Latin roots of “emotion” and “motivation” – “movere” (to move) – imply that association.

For instance, our instinctual emotions of pain and hunger can motivate behaviors of withdrawal and eating, as evidenced in the case of Miller’s hungry rat experiment.  In fact, some psychology defined emotion’s original role as to “motivate adaptive behaviors that in the past would have contributed to the survival of humans”.

But emotion’s role in motivating behavior goes beyond serving our survival needs. One way emotion is closely related to motivation can be seen through Thayer, Newman and McClain’s research on self-regulation of mood, which indicates that humans tend to take actions – such as exercise, relaxation, listening to music, sleep etc. – to reduce negative emotions.

A more humanistic approach that looks at emotional motivation is Maslow’s Need Hierarchy theory. It combines both biological needs and social needs. Portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, it puts the need for self-actualization above fundamental needs to stay safe and healthy. Once the fundamental needs are met, we move up the hierarchy for higher needs such as the need for love and belonging as well as self-transcendence.

pyramid of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the shape of a pyramid.

Maslow’s hierarchy of need is important for us to consider because we are all social animals that move through different development stages, motivated by different emotional needs.

Beyond the functional benefits your product can deliver, can you identify which emotional needs higher up the pyramid motivate your customers? Does your brand motivate your customer to achieve higher esteem or feel a deeper sense of fulfillment?

3. Growth by emotional connection

Emotional motivators are the driving force behind the most profitable customer behaviors such as repeat purchase and brand advocacy. While marketers go to great lengths to craft emotionally compelling copies, to truly leverage the emotional motivators of your customers goes beyond advertising campaigns. It involves understanding the many emotional motivators and their impact on your customers’ lives and create a customer experience that fuels the most impactful motivators.

So, how can brands make use of emotional motivators?

  1. First of all, brands need to start making emotional motivators an important metric of customer success.
  2. Second of all, every product motivates customers in different ways. Collect data to find out what motivates your customers.
  3. Lastly, turn insights into action by providing a consistent experience throughout the customer journey to turn satisfied customers into fully connected customers.

To give an example of how to dissect all the emotional motivators of your target customers, this study published in Harvard Business Review showcased a data-driven approach to identify top emotional motivators by their impact. After analyzing 300 universal emotional motivators with big data analytics tools, researchers identified the top 10 “high impact” motivators, which are:

  • Stand out from the crowd
  • Have confidence in the future
  • Enjoy a sense of well-being
  • Feel a sense of freedom
  • Feel a sense of thrill
  • Feel a sense of belonging
  • Protect the environment
  • Be the person I want to be
  • Feel secure
  • Succeed in life

As you can see, the top motivators are higher up on the Maslow need hierarchy. They’re mostly focused on esteem, belonging, and love needs, as well as a need for self-actualization.

While the top motivators listed above can serve as inspiration, they might not apply to your brand. It’s important to conduct your own in-house research, as emotional motivators vary greatly by product category and industry. Also, what you think you understand about your customers’ emotions is not always true. It’s best to test out your hypothesis with unbiased empirical research by truly understanding what goes on in your customers’ emotional lives.

Before you begin large scale research, make sure you segment your most valuable customers, such as the most loyal paid users of a freemium software, or those that passionately recommend your product to their peers. In other words, single out those who are already satisfied with your product and find an emotional connection with them. As the HBR research article has highlighted, fully connected customers are 52% more valuable than those who are just “satisfied”.

Next, map out high impact emotional motivators by analyzing customer attitude data with their behavioral data such as lifecycle and purchase behavior. Ways to collect customer attitude data include online focus group research, opt-in surveys, ethnographic study etc.

And don’t overlook the data you already have at hand: look into your owned customer database, what demographic information can you find? What emotional motivator can you infer from their demographic characteristics? What do they reveal about their emotional needs in feedbacks? What does their behavioral data say about their motivation?

How does all of this apply to a real company?

At Visme, a drag-and-drop presentation and infographic tool for non-designers, we already have a ton of data on our customers such as their location, job roles, industries, and type of content they create in the app. But there was a missing link: with all this background information, we couldn’t see the big “WHY” behind the purpose of their purchase.

So we set out to do a quantitative survey which allowed us to link demographic data with their motivation and pain points. Some of the discoveries challenged our assumption of who our customers were (the majority of them were much older than we thought, for example), and what their needs in communication were.

We took a step further to find out more qualitative data on their emotional motivators, not just about the use of our product, but also what motivates them in a broad sense. Through one-on-one interviews, we collected detailed information about their passion points and greatest sense of achievement.

Some of the top motivators we discovered were:

  • A sense of creative freedom
  • more confidence when leading the team and presenting to the board of directors
  • A sense of purpose

visme quote

As we discovered what fueled our most passionate users, we rolled out more features and content catering to these motivators. Feature-wise, we rolled out more widgets that allowed more creative visualization of data. Content-wise, we set out to create more content that helped users to design better and faster, become more confident presenters, and tell better stories through data. We’ve seen greater engagement in our app. And new user acquisition went up as a result of concerted efforts to connect with our users.

What are your brand’s top emotional motivators? Comment below to let us know your thoughts.

About the Author: Lucia Wang is currently leading Growth at Visme, a drag-and-drop infographic & presentation tool for non-designers. Previously she has worked in marketing roles at award-winning fintech startups, multinational brands as well as global media agencies. A user-centric marketer, Lucia’s approach to marketing is deeply rooted in consumer behavior science and data-driven research. You can find her on Twitter at @luciazw and Medium @luciaw.

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