“That Car Seems Like a Good Choice” versus “I Love That Car!”

Rational and Emotional Branding

Most consumers are driven by a combination of thoughts and feelings, both of which have been developing long before it’s time to pull out their wallets. The most successful brands deploy a mix of rational and emotional branding strategies. But which type of branding is more effective?

To Be Sensible . . .

Rational branding is straightforward; it’s about appealing to consumers’ analytical side by highlighting the features and benefits of a product. For example, when buying a car, consumers will rationally compare quantifiable specs, such as each vehicle’s fuel economy, passenger capacity, number of doors and amount of cargo space; rational branding speaks to that thought process.


. . . Or Sentimental?

Emotional branding strategies focus on how consumers feel when they buy or use the product or service. Some cars may make consumers feel faster, richer, or more confident, while others may make them feel safer or more responsible. A car is, at its essence, a method of transportation. So, most of these feelings about a car (or any product) are the result of successful emotional branding.


The Science Behind Emotional Branding

Vincent van Gogh said, “Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.”

Emotional branding plays on a spectrum of innate human desires, including love, joy, connection, trust, confidence, security, power, adventure and inspiration. It also caters to consumers’ wishes to avoid fear, anxiety, worry and anger.

On a fundamental level, people want to feel emotionally connected to the brands they select. Renowned psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary posit a “belongingness hypothesis,” which describes people’s basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others. Humans are wired to be drawn to other like-minded people — and brands.

Buying into a brand can be an expression of a consumer’s personality, identity, and style, so it’s natural to feel an affinity for brand personalities that are similar to their own. Brands communicate their personality through images, packaging and words. Effective storytelling can create emotion and connection around a brand, helping draw consumers into wanting to be part of that story.

Buyers probably don’t realize the magnitude of the role their emotions play in purchasing decisions. According to Psychology Today, “Most people believe that the choices they make result from a rational analysis of available alternatives. In reality, however, emotions greatly influence and, in many cases, even determine our decisions.” This is especially true if buyers have any emotions that are associated with previous decisions or experiences. For example, they might relate strongly to the recent Subaru Forester commercial, which plays upon parents’ worry about the safety of their potentially distracted teen driver. A consumer’s emotional response to an advertisement can far outweigh their rational response.



Consider the prevalence of name brand products that consistently outsell equally effective generic brands. There is no rational reason to buy a brand name drug, but consumers are influenced through effective marketing to think brand name medicines are somehow better, even though they are paying more for the exact same product.

Additionally, emotional branding fosters loyalty. Loyal consumers are less likely to succumb to marketing efforts of a competing product, regardless of its branding efforts.

Neuromarketing? What’s That?

Advances in the burgeoning field of neuromarketing, also known as consumer neuroscience, continue to blur the line between rational and emotional human response to marketing. Nobel laureate Francis Crick hypothesized that “all human feelings, thoughts, and actions—even consciousness itself—are just the products of neural activity in the brain.” That could mean that one day marketers will be able to precisely predict and thus manipulate the emotional aspects of decision-making.

Decisions, Decisions

Brands that rely too much on rational marketing ignore the fact that not everyone is wired to respond to rational arguments. Likewise, emotional marketing can be tough to get right, especially when trying to connect with a demographic or culture that’s different than that of your marketing team.

Some buyers will be swayed by logical value propositions, while some will be persuaded by emotional appeals. All will be influenced by some combination thereof. The most effective brands strike a balance, resulting in a powerful hybrid that speaks to the largest possible audience.

A Dash of This, a Dash of That

This infographic can help you find the perfect balance of rational and emotional branding strategies for your marketing efforts.


Thinking + Feeling = Buying

Whether you’re marketing to the kind of car consumer who experiences love at first drive or one who has to spend hours researching before rationally selecting a few to test drive, you’ll have the most impact with a hybrid approach of rational and emotional marketing.




Cobalt-60 is the name of our blog, an online digest dedicated to the art and science of communications. (It’s also an isotope of the element cobalt.)

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