Ask Lindsay

Brand

Why do we buy, and what does that mean for brands?

Lindsay Says

In a culture that values rationality and logic, we prefer to believe we are making calm, rational decisions.

Often, however, we make an emotional decision and then rationalize it. An oft-cited example of this behavior is in hiring: job interviewers tend to make a snap yes-or-no decision in minutes, then spend the rest of the interview seeking functional evidence to support their emotional decision.

The Dance Between Emotion and Function

When it comes to purchasing decisions, the research shows that emotion and function are intimately related. So it serves us well, when building a brand, to understand the connections between them.

A closer look at the purchase decision-making process reveals that the consumer oscillates between function and emotion as she evaluates the product. Let’s consider a few examples:

  • For a largely rational purchase, say what type of battery to buy, the consumer’s underlying motivation is whether it’s the right size, voltage and quantity. She doesn’t spend much time in an emotional zone, though she does gain peace of mind from knowing the batteries will be long-lasting so she can “set it and forget it.”

  • For a largely emotional purchase, say a wedding dress, the consumer is primarily focused on the emotional aspect: how will she look and feel in this dress, both on the special day and in photos for decades to come. She puts some thought into functional aspects like fit, and even less into features like the thread count of satin.

  • For something closer to the middle, say a new ski jacket, the consumer is more evenly split between emotional and functional considerations. She weighs the emotional side of enjoying something new that makes her look good and feel cozy against the functional side: does it fit right, will it hold up to repeated use, and is it in her budget.

What I’m most interested in is the middle territory, which is where the vast majority of purchases take place. Most brands are neither heavily emotional, like wedding dresses, nor merely rational like batteries. Most brands involve more evenly distributed aspects of emotion and function.

What changes is the emphasis – the amount of time we spend in either zone. For batteries, we barely touch on the emotional zone. For a wedding dress, we live there. But even these two extremes both involve a mix of emotion and function. There is simply more emphasis on one than the other.

Building Emotion and Function into Brand Strategy

To harness the ever-present dance between emotion and function, all of the brand positioning strategies that I build employ both a functional and an emotional component.

In fact, the foundational part of my work in building a brand strategy is creating a benefit ladder. The idea behind this framework is that a functional benefit (or lower rung on the ladder) supports and leads to an emotional benefit (higher rung). In turn, every emotional benefit exists because the functional benefit is there to uphold it.

To create the benefit ladder, we take a general benefit category, we make it extremely precise and specific, then we identify what specific emotional benefits are supported by the functional benefit. This is the heart of choosing a brand positioning: building a precisely calibrated benefit ladder that a particular business is able to deliver on for their specific target customer.

The Customer’s Journey – and the Company’s Journey

The next step in building a brand strategy is more subtle, and more dynamic. That is, now that we have this framework, where on the benefit ladder do we shine the spotlight, when it comes to various marketing tactics? The answer depends on the target customer’s relationship with the category, where the customer is in her journey, and just as importantly, where the company is in its journey of building brand awareness.

So I talk to my clients about distinguishing “awareness drivers” from “purchase drivers” from “post-purchase delighters.” For each particular messaging medium, we must be clear about our goal for this marketing tactic:

  • Are we trying to make someone who is unaware aware?
  • Are we trying to encourage consideration in someone who is aware?
  • Are we trying to motivate purchase in someone who is considering?
  • Are we trying to build loyalty and advocacy by making a current customer feel great about the purchase they just made?

Regardless of which goal is in play, marketing always involves elements of both function and emotion. A vital part of a brand strategy is to identify, for a particular business and its specific target customer, which tactics or stages require more emphasis on emotion versus function.

Know Your Customer

As we’ve seen, the idea of function versus emotion is ultimately a false binary. Function-to-emotion is a dynamic continuum – a both/and, not an either/or.

You can only know where your business should land on this continuum for any particular marketing endeavor by knowing your customer deeply, including how they relate to the category and to your type of product. You must also maintain an awareness of how those relationships tend to evolve over time.

That is why it’s critical that a brand strategy is founded in deeply empathetic customer insights. It isn’t based on what we want our customers to think of our brand, but how they actually think of it. That honest assessment has to happen before building a powerful brand. And it informs every touchpoint – including to what degree each touch relies on emotion versus function.


We help our clients tap into their customers' emotional and functional decision-making, with brand strategies built around this relationship. Find out more about what we do.