What is emotional branding?

Branding is so much more than just identity. It is how your business presents itself to the world, from letterheads to liaising with clients to how you answer the phone. Branding underpins key business activities such as marketing and messaging, driving engagement and, if applicable, sales. One way of achieving this level of brand success is by appealing to clients’ rational side projecting how, for example, your company might outperform competitors. That can work, certainly, but it needs to form part of a wider strategy that appeals to the heart as much as the head. That’s where emotional branding comes in.

What is emotional branding?

Emotional branding is shaping your business’s messaging to appeal to clients’ emotions. It means that everything that the business does from the smallest visual element to the sales experience is designed to target a client on a specific emotional level. It could be to provoke desire, stroke their egos or make them feel safe and secure.

Emotional branding vs. emotional advertising

So, is emotional branding all about heartstring-tugging Christmas campaigns then? Not necessarily. Advertising is an extension of a company’s branding. It needs to be consistent with the rest of the company’s image and messaging. Whether that advert is online or in print, everything from typography to photography has to hit the same emotional notes that the rest of the business’s branding does. Take a life assurance company for instance—there’s little point in filming a youthful, high-energy ad with pounding music when the rest of the company’s branding suggests reassuring, calm solidity.

Why create an emotional branding strategy?

In 2015, the Harvard Business Review published an article on the science of customer emotions which is as fascinating as it was instructive and ground-breaking. There are plenty of things to take away from it, but three statistics in particular stand out:

  • 90% of buying decisions are made subconsciously.
  • We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text.
  • 50% of a brand experience is based on emotion.

Whilst the article is chiefly focused on B2C selling, many of the findings can be extrapolated to a B2B setting as other studies show that emotional B2B marketing campaigns can be seven times more effective than purely rational ones.

As the HBR article outlines, an emotional marketing strategy was eventually developed by the authors based on two substantial bodies of information that they compiled.

The first involved categorising different emotional cues into sets of motivators. They listed hundreds, but boiled them down to ten motivators that significantly affect customer value. These included things like a desire to “stand out from the crowd”, “feel a sense of freedom”, “protect the environment” and “be the person I want to be”. They coupled those motivators with examples of how businesses could satisfy those desires. For example, the business could deal with the need to “be the person I want to be” by “fulfilling a desire for ongoing self-improvement” and helping them “live up to their ideal self-image”. The company could apply that however they saw fit within their own field.

The second arm of their study was classifying the value of clients based on their emotional connectedness to a business. The lowest value clients were those with little or no emotional relationship; the highest were those that were “fully connected”, i.e., those most receptive to the company’s messaging, most likely to advocate for the business and most likely to spend more. Because “fully connected” clients were of such high value, the focus with branding, the study reasoned, should be to invest in turning lower-value “highly satisfied but not emotionally connected” clients into “fully connected” ones rather than in trying to turn unconnected customers into “highly satisfied” ones. The former represented three times the return on investment than the latter. In short, the conclusion was that companies need to specifically align their branding with clients’ most profitable behaviour.

So, how do you use that information to create an emotional branding strategy?

It’s a matter of knowing your clients:

  • Who are they?
  • What does your business mean to them?
  • What are their values, motivations, needs, hopes and fears?
  • Where do they reside on the emotional connection pathway?
  • How much do they spend in each sector?

Data collection is a sensitive issue, but it has never been easier, and it’s one way to learn about your clients and to measure the effectiveness of your messaging. Another way to learn about your clients? Ask them. You can’t know what emotional cues you need to use and at which touchpoints unless you know a lot about your clients. That’s why, for example, as part of our branding process here at Dusted, we conduct interviews and workshops with key stakeholders to really figure-out what your business means to your clients.

Emotion and the Hierarchy of Needs

One reasonably effective way of knowing which emotions your product-offering (and hence branding) can potentially target is by applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory.

Briefly, it puts the full set of human needs in order of importance starting from the physiological (food, water) to, ultimately, self-actualisation (the realisation of one’s potential). How can that be applied to emotional branding then?

Depending on what your business means to your clients and what it does for them, you will be able to tailor your branding to hit specific emotions depending on where they are in the sales funnel. One stand-out quotation from the Harvard Business Review piece was the following:

In banking, the desire to “feel secure” is a critical motivator when attracting and retaining customers early on. When cross-selling products later, the wish to “succeed in life” becomes more important. To maximize results, companies must align their emotional-connection strategies with their specific customer-engagement objectives—acquisition, retention, cross-selling, and so on.

Does your product or service provide clients with a sense of safety, security or reassurance? Does it give them a sense of belonging by making them feel part of a community? Do they feel like your product allows them to be their best selves? Which of these emotions promises the greatest return on investment?

How to create branding with emotional appeal

Ethics, credibility and trust

Getting clients to trust your business, making them feel like you know what you’re doing and that you’re going to be there when they need you should be the baseline for any company. We’ve written before about how to build brand trust and its importance in forming lasting relationships with clients. There are a few essentials that you need to bear in mind beyond just delivering a great product and stellar customer service. In the area of branding, things like content, online engagement and an excellent user experience are all ways to not only build trust, but to project the emotions that you want your clients to feel. Credibility can also be bolstered or diminished depending on what vehicles you use to convey your messaging.

In terms of ethics, clients need to know that you not only have their best interests at heart, but, in an increasingly socially-conscious world, that your business has a social-conscience of its own regarding the environment as well as racial, gender and LGBT+ equality.


Yes, it’s an important way of building brand trust, but looking even more closely at user experience, things like typography, colour and design are major factors in establishing tone and mood. These are powerful tools for evoking client feelings at critical touchpoints, the choice of which should be consistent with your emotional branding strategy. The language you use in your communications, its style and register, also has the ability to hit the right notes as do things like music and imagery. Going back to the work published in the Harvard Business Review, client research will help you understand the relevant emotional motivators here.

As an example, the people behind the emotional branding strategy outlined in the HBR gleaned from their research the idea that customers would react well to seeing imagery of people like them in the studied store’s visual messaging. It encouraged customers to send in selfies wearing purchases from the store that could be displayed (with the subjects’ permission) on screens within the shop. The thinking was that this would foster “a sense of belonging”, also the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It did. The full extent of exactly how much was unclear at the time of publication, but initial results indicated that customers had responded well to that motivator with increased purchasing intent.


No amount of emotional branding is going to work to entice clients if your product or service doesn’t deliver on its promise. In that fact, the symbiosis between trust, empathy and logic in branding becomes apparent. If you fail to create brand trust, who will believe any claims you make about your product?

In a B2B setting, buying decisions can’t be as readily justified on pure emotion. You need to be able to effectively communicate that your business outpaces your competitors on performance and price. Of course these things are important factors in purchasing decisions, but establishing a trust and emotional connection between your business and your clients creates a loyalty that’s harder to break than one based on purely rational principles. Remember, it’s not machines that make decisions within companies; it’s people.

Benefits of emotional branding

  • Differentiates you from competitors
  • More effectively targeted communications
  • Stronger client loyalty and retention
  • Increases the lifetime value of clients

Examples of emotional branding

Nearly everyone has an opinion about Apple and its products, but one thing people almost universally agree upon is the quality of the company’s marketing. Taking that marketing and advertising as an extension of Apple’s branding, we can see where it corresponds, quite effectively, to the emotional rungs in the Hierarchy of Needs. One of the reasons that the fabled 1984 ad was so effective was that it hit several emotional cues at once, particularly “Belonging”, “Esteem” and “Self-Actualization”. The advert aimed to make clients feel like buying a Macintosh would set them apart from the crowd of obedient drones as part of a set of mould-breaking, free-thinking creatives. It suggested that they could become part of a liberated community, fulfilling their potential and being the people they wanted to be. Setting it in a totalitarian society also had the effect of hinting, at some level, possible physiological and safety advantages of choosing a Mac over another computer.

Looking at other examples of the correlation between Maslow’s pyramid and Apple’s adverts we can see that the iPhone was advertised as promising privacy, appealing to people’s concerns about their safety and online security. When the iMac came out it looked stylish and different to pretty much every other boxy and beige computer on the market. Such an unusual and good-looking machine meant that its users were design-conscious, free-thinking professionals and Apple’s marketing reflected that with its “Chic. Not Geek.” slogan. That theme of helping users become better and more creative versions of themselves (“Self-Actualization”) while boosting their self-esteem was also long reflected in the company’s tagline “Think Different”. This ethos was reflected in everything from the company’s product design to its user experience to its advertising to its bricks and mortar stores. Not only was Apple’s branding hitting desirable emotional motivators, equally importantly, it was consistent.

Best practices and key takeaways in creating an emotive brand

  1. Know your clients: How can you know what emotional motivators need to be leveraged if you don’t know your clients really well? Gather data, conduct surveys and find out what makes them tick before you embark on any emotional branding strategy.
  2. Focus on brand trust: Unless clients see yours as a trusted business, they’re unlikely to respond well to any emotive marketing cues or believe any claims you make about your business.
  3. Visuals: People are much more likely to emotionally respond to visuals than persuasive words. Everything from images to typefaces to colours can all play a part in making your clients feel how you want them to feel. It’s a highly specialised area though, so don’t be afraid to call in a professional branding agency.
  4. Personalise: Of course clients like to feel like they’re part of something bigger, but, conversely, they also want to feel like they’re the single person that matters most to the company. Customise your communications so that your clients feel like you’re appealing to them directly.
  5. Measure: If you have the right tools in place, you should be able to measure how effective your emotional branding strategy is. Do different sets of clients or those at different points in the sales funnel respond to different motivators? At which touchpoints is it most effective to use different aspects of emotional branding? Investigate and adjust accordingly.

How to create emotive branding

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If you want to talk to us about your brand, get in touch to arrange a call – without obligation but with the promise of strategic understanding and creative insight.