Buying decisions: rational, emotional or both?

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As consumers, are we rational or emotional? Many marketers believe that appealing to the rational mind is the best bet to get consumers to make a buying decision – be it brand switch or entry into a category. We can see it across categories – be it FMCG or retail. A price off or a freebie along with a soap is believed to deliver results and often does. Retail brands hope to entice foot-falls through discounts, bundled offers and such like. Consumers believe that they are making a wise decision by opting for such offers which provide a tangible benefit – it makes them feel intelligent, feel good about their choices. In countries like India where the concept of value for money (defined as believing that one has extracted maximum value for a low price) is prime, such rationalisation is even more important. However, it is true that even those who buy a Mercedes, BMW or stay in luxury hotels believe that their purchase too is great ‘value for money’ though their definition of value for money is not related to low price but a product experience. Anyway, I digress.

In my view, a consumer may make a brand choice for purely rational reasons in certain categories while succumbing to pure emotions in some other category. A commoditised category like say, sugar may be driven by rational reasons like price. But even when a rational hook is on offer for a brand of soap, deep down, emotional reasons come into play. If the brand does not have affinity among the audience it is trying to attract no amount of rational reasoning is going to work. Fundamentally you have to like the brand (an intangible, emotional reason) to buy into its rational promise. As Prof Baba Shiv says here, ‘the rational brain is great at rationalising what the emotional brain has already decided’. So a consumer may rationalise that she chose a brand of floor cleaner for its fragrance or price off but her emotional brain played a role in finding either the packaging or the brand’s residual imagery (thanks to advertising or other stimuli) appealing. Of late a lot of handset brands (running Android mostly) are advertising in India highlighting their rational features (screen size, screen resolution, expandable memory etc.) in the hope that the laundry list of features will clinch the sale. But ultimately, there is something called a brand pull (created through sheer media muscle or quality of the branding message) which is purely emotional. An unknown brand or a brand with poor reputation may suffer when it comes to brand choice even though the rational mind may veer towards it.

Some categories are driven purely by appealing to the emotional brain – no rational arguments necessary. High end perfumes, fashion brands and even some consumer durables come to mind. Most of the successful brands in this space create desire by appealing to the irrational brain in us. We just succumb to the charm of the brand – created through a combinations of factors – packaging, the product, retail ambience, advertising and so on. There is an element of mystique and ‘distance’ they aim to create. Some brands pitch themselves so high that it is clear to most that it is beyond their reach. Super luxury hotels, watches, jewellery, pens and other lifestyle brands come to mind. However, there are brands which maintain that tantalising distance – they are desirable yet approachable, once in a while.


In this context,Chanel N°5 #theonethatiwant campaign featuring Gisele Bundchen is a perfect example of appealing to the emotional brain. It paints a perfect world where everything and everyone is good looking and super premium. Our world may not be like that but we desire such a setting. We then subconsciously seek that experience, rational arguments be damned. The same consumer who buys into this proposition may take a very rational decision to make a brand choice in some other category.

On a related note, I strongly believe that the same principles will apply when it comes to the actual product launch of Apple Watch. Until now, smart watches have been positioned as a ‘geek’s companion’ – pushing notifications, keeping track of physical activity and such. Apple has pushed the fashion button strongly and is likely to appeal to the emotional mind. It will be bought for the same reasons people buy a new pair of shoes or handbag – to make a statement, feel good from within.

Even traditional watch purchase hinges on such factors – wearing a certain brand of watch gives us confidence, a sense of power…makes us feel good. With Apple Watch, the fact that it tracks physical activity, has health-related features are factors which may help post-purchase rationalisation. It is the emotional brain which will drive the purchase primarily. ’Obey your thirst’ said Sprite, famously. In most of our purchase decisions we obey our emotional brain. Sometimes to the rational brain and often we think we are obeying our rational brain.

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