The feelings economy: How to create marketing messages that get results

Want to know why your marketing isn’t producing the results you want? It’s because you’re being rational—and most of the time, people aren’t rational. According to legendary marketing pioneer Edward Bernays, “People are emotional and impulsive and hide it really well.”

For our August YMC Book Club, we dove into Everything is F***ed, a Book About Hope. Throughout the book, author Mark Manson draws a distinction between the “thinking brain” and the “feeling brain.” Manson describes the thinking brain as the part of your brain that represents your conscious thoughts, your capacity to make calculations, and your ability to reason through multiple options. Your feeling brain, on the other hand, represents your emotions, impulses, intuition, and instincts. “While your thinking brain is calculating payment schedules on your credit card statement,” Manson reasons, “your feeling brain wants to sell everything and move to Tahiti.”

Expanding on this idea, Manson rewinds to the 1920s and shares the story of how Edward Bernays turned the advertising world upside down by understanding that people used their feeling brain to make most of their decisions. He threw the middle finger to the traditional forms of advertising, the kind that relied on communicating a product’s tangible benefits as logically and concisely as possible. One of his most memorable marketing campaigns highlights his unorthodox approach.

In 1928, the American Tobacco Company hired Bernays to create a marketing campaign that would convince women to smoke their cigarettes. That doesn’t sound too hard until you consider that in the ‘20s, it was still considered impolite and unfashionable for a lady to smoke. “Honey, you might hurt yourself. Or worse, you might burn your beautiful hair” was a common warning during that era. But the tobacco companies, realizing that 50% of the population weren’t yet their customers, saw a massive opportunity in the female demographic. Bernays knew he would have to appeal to women’s identities, not their thoughts.

To make this appeal, Bernays hired a group of women and entered them into New York City’s Easter Parade. At a strategic point in the parade route, all of these women stopped marching and lit up cigarettes. To capture the moment, Bernays also hired a team of photographers to document all of this in the most flattering way possible. The photos were then distributed to all major national newspapers. His story was that these women were not just smoking cigarettes. They were lighting “torches of freedom” that represented their independence. 

The campaign worked just like Bernays had expected. It triggered all of the right emotions in women across the country. It had only been a few years since women won the right to vote, and many were now starting to work outside the home. They were sporting shorter haircuts and wearing more risqué clothing. Bernays brilliantly communicated the message that “smoking equals freedom.” As women across the country embraced that message, tobacco sales doubled. By appealing to the feeling brain instead of the thinking brain, Bernays ushered in a new era profitability for American tobacco companies. 

So, what is your marketing message? Which brain are you appealing to? If you follow Mark Manson’s advice (and Edward Bernays’ example), you’ll focus on the feeling brain. In his book, Manson reminds the reader, “Marketing specifically identifies or accentuates the customer’s moral gaps and then offers a way to fill them.” Facts and logic will connect with the thinking brain, but if you want to motivate people to act, you’ll need to appeal to their emotions and motivation—otherwise known as their feeling brain. 

“Trucks are marketed to men as ways to assert strength. Makeup is marketed to women as a way to be more loved. Beer is marketed as a way to have fun and be the center of attention at a party,” Manson says. Whether you agree or disagree, some of the best advertising invokes your emotion and makes you feel like you’re making a positive decision. Like it or not, the world runs on feelings.

If you’ll allow me to step onto my credit union soapbox for a moment, I want to keep preaching the message that “good rates and good service” aren’t your best option. If that’s what your marketing focuses on, you’re missing out on growth opportunities. Your marketing needs to connect people at a level that’s deeper than facts and figures. 

How does your marketing message make your members (or prospective members) feel? As an organization that helps people secure their financial futures, you have a better product than the tobacco companies and a more relevant product than makeup lines. Your product has more potential to do good in the world than the products offered by most other companies. You have a compelling story that can evoke powerful feelings—why aren’t you using it?

Bo McDonald

Bo McDonald

Bo McDonald is president of Your Marketing Co. A marketing firm that started serving credit unions nearly a decade ago, offering a wide range of services including web design, branding, ... Web: Details

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