Emotion Trumps Reason in Branding and Politics

Lawrence A. Crosby
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

​What? Like brands, political candidates can earn or lose constituent loyalty by appealing to emotion.

So what? Emotional motivation is reflected in feelings of trust, social approval, self-respect, and pride.

Now what? Failure to activate emotional motivation with a large cohort of the public can doom a campaign, much like it can a brand. 

Failure to activate emotional motivation with a large cohort of the public can doom a campaign, much like it can a brand. ​​

I often examined the applicability of customer centricity notions (i.e., satisfaction, loyalty, relationships, engagement, CX, etc.) in various eclectic domains, e.g., “healthy relationships” (healthcare), “philanthropic relationships” (giving), “sustainable relationships” (ecology), etc. One domain that I’ve avoided, with great trepidation, has been politics. This is partly due to the maturity of the field and all that has been written and said about the topic from applied and scientific perspectives. As a marketing columnist, I also want to avoid alienating readers who might take offense at comments made about a particular candidate or party. But let’s face it: The current presidential race is pretty darn interesting and is dominating the public discourse. 

There have been highly polarized elections in the past (I remember Johnson vs. Goldwater and McGovern vs. Nixon), but this one seems particularly contentious if not an outright Donnybrook. It virtually begs comment. So let me weigh-in with a few candidate- and party-neutral thoughts from a relationship-marketing standpoint. I am inspired by a former colleague and co-author, Bruce Corner, who noted how the brand loyalty model seemed to explain losses by such candidates as John Kerry (2004) and Michael Dukakis (1988). His premise was that in the war of emotion over reason, emotion always wins. 

It is not unusual to think of a political candidate much like a product or service that voters can decide to “buy.” While the analogy isn’t perfect, there are notable similarities. This probably explains why many advertising and marketing research agencies have a political arm. As in brand marketing, voters develop an affinity for candidates in the consideration set over a period of time based on a variety of experiences, including communications. Campaign managers hope that what emerges is a large base of loyal supporters who actually go to the polls and vote. Since campaigns in the U.S. often last many months, if not years, the strength and resilience of that voter-candidate relationship is of paramount importance.  As in the current presidential race, voters are constantly bombarded by influences that could deflect their loyalty emanating from friends and family, co-workers, debates, press interviews, editorials, endorsements and political advertising.  Looking even further down the road, if the candidate is lucky enough to win, the re-election cycle is just around the corner, raising the risk of loyalty erosion due to the politician’s actual performance in office.


SEE ALSO: Is Hillary Clinton's 'Terrible Brand' Hurting Her Campaign?


Let’s examine this notion of voter loyalty a little deeper. As in brand marketing, it is not a singular behavior: buy vs. not buy, pull the lever in the voting booth or don’t. There is actually a complex of behaviors that are important to a successful campaign that reflect the strength of the voters’ attachment to the candidate. These include passing on favorable word of mouth, donating to the campaign, attending rallies and events, canvassing door-to-door, voting in the primary before the general election and posting on social media..  A better measure of voter loyalty might be the willingness to engage in multiple pro-candidate behaviors.

I’ll consider some of the factors driving voter loyalty again from a brand marketing lens. One factor often overlooked relates to “switching costs” and “switching opportunities.” Every act a voter makes in support of a candidate can be considered an investment in the relationship which adds to its stickiness. While these behavioral investments are technically a sunk cost, it doesn’t feel that way to the voter. One implication for campaign management might be to foster progressive investments in small steps (e.g., “come to our rally and at least hear what the candidate has to say”). From the standpoint of the opposition, the flip side of switching costs is to create switching opportunities that can weaken or negate voter loyalty to the competitor. Certainly the strongest switching opportunity is a viable alternative candidate, but the concept is also about paving the way and making it easy to switch.  In some circumstances, loyalty-to-the-party can be a play (e.g., “the only way we’ll win the general election is if we all unite behind Candidate X”). In other situations, it might involve Candidate X adopting positions advocated by Candidate Y to draw in Y’s support base.

While not to diminish the importance of switching costs and switching opportunities, brand marketing tells us that voter loyalty is probably best explained by the mix of emotional and rational motivation. For centuries, philosophers and psychologists have debated the role of emotion vs. reason in decision making.  One school of thought posits that humans make decisions based on emotion which they then justify with rational arguments. It does seem possible to statistically separate these two influences.  In an article co-authored with Sheree Johnson, we presented data showing that (for B-to-C products and services) the impact of emotional motivation on loyalty outweighs rational motivation by a ratio of 5:3, and that this holds true across global regions. Since this ratio seems to apply to everything from cars to banking, my guess is that it explains voter loyalty as well. As brand equity theorists such as David Aaker, Kevin Keller and others have noted, emotional motivation is reflected in feelings of trust, social approval, self-respect, and pride. It is tied to the symbolic meaning of the brand (or candidate) and the reinforcement of the person’s self-concept (especially the ideal).  In contrast, rational motivation is more about cognition and logic. In the realm of products and services, quality and value (“what I get for what I give up”) are important rational motivation concepts. Perhaps the counterpart in politics might be the voter’s sense of the candidate’s qualifications, the degree of agreement with his/her policy proposals, and a confident belief of being better-off if the candidate is elected (in terms of safety, standard of living, etc.).



Theories abound on how brands (and candidates) go about making that necessary emotional connection.  One is by reference to archetypes (think Carl Jung). In the case of an election, the notion is that voters process a candidate’s story through archetypes which are universal symbols found in stories and mythologies across cultures. They are thought to be rooted in the “collective consciousness” or reptilian brain as some might say. Essentially a method of categorization, they govern our expectations and responses. Donald Trump, for example, has been variously classified as the “outlaw” (reference his anti-establishment style, disdain for political correctness, being a Washington outsider) and as the “creator” (reference his wealth and business accomplishments). Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is often characterized as the “Ruler” (reference the Clinton dynasty, being a member of the Washington elite) and as the “caregiver” (reference populist views on education, healthcare, the economy, etc.). While voters may share archetype associations, groups have different reactions depending on their aspirations and self-identities. Communications, including both message and media, go a long way in shaping archetype associations that can trigger positive emotions (or not). For example, John Kerry was probably seen by many as the “sage” or “scholar” which is an archetype that not everyone coveys up to.

Failure to activate emotional motivation with a large cohort of the public can doom a campaign, much like it can a brand. I have always found it rather quizzical that some candidates feel they can win mainly by making a rational appeal and directing voters to examine their detailed policy proposals buried in their websites. Does anybody really go there except journalists? This may partly explain the failure of the Jeb Bush campaign that did little to channel the anger and desire for change that other candidates have apparently tied into.

It does seem that the brand loyalty framework has utility for understanding the voter-candidate relationship. Both campaign managers and marketers can benefit from examining and taking note of what works and doesn’t work in each other’s fields.

Author Bio:

Lawrence A. Crosby
Lawrence A. Crosby, Ph.D. is the recently retired dean of the Drucker School of Management and serves as President of L.A. Crosby & Associates, Inc. He can be reached at lawrence.a.crosby@gmail.com.
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