emotional PR

By Sue O’Gorman, Marketing Director at davies tanner

It’s a general rule in PR and marketing that you should tell brand stories and create brand experiences that are emotive – make them appeal to emotions. Even when there’s a logical reason for your audience to change their behaviour in the way you want, such as ‘this will save you money’ and its backed by clear evidence, building your message with an emotional trigger will make it more effective. For people to act, they must first care. And there’s a scientific reason why.

You may be thinking it’s because people are naturally resistant to change. That it is comfortable, less risky and easier to ignore evidence of a better way and carry on regardless with their own tried and tested solutions (which you know is less effective than your solution). But, people don’t resist change when emotions are involved. Consider the commitment parents make to the change to their lives a newborn baby brings: living every day with hardly any sleep, constant screaming and being vomited on several times. If your boss did this to you you’d find another job, but people volunteer for the behavioural change of becoming parents. Why? Because they are emotionally driven by the desire to have a child and the love they feel for their new-born baby.

Marriage, moving to a new home, even getting a new smartphone, can all bring big change to our lives, but because we’re emotionally engaged, we embrace the change. However, logic and evidence tell us to eat less fat, drink less alcohol, give up smoking, it makes sense to do these things and we want to do them, but most of us find it really really hard. Why?

It’s difficult to take these sensible actions because the heart and mind disagree. It is scientifically proven that our minds have a rationale side and an emotional side. If we didn’t, you wouldn’t need a snooze button on your alarm clock! You’d just get up when your alarm goes off, which is what you know you should do. The emotional side of your brain loves the cosy bed and just wants to stay there all day. A snooze button is there to give your rationale side enough to time to win the argument it must have with your emotional side about whether or not you should get up before you’re late for work.

The emotional side is strong and unruly. The rational side is weak. How much easier is it to get up early to do something you want to do, like catch a plane to your holiday destination? The bed is still cosy, but the change of behaviour between lying in bed and getting ready to go is easy, because you want to do it.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, the University of Virginia’s acclaimed psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares the rationale and emotional side of our minds to an elephant and a rider. According to Haidt, our emotional side is an elephant and our rational side is its rider. The rider has reigns to guide the elephant, but this only works when the elephant agrees with the rider. The powerful elephant is perfectly able to go his own way if he wants. And the rider doesn’t stand a chance if this is what the elephant decides to do.

Admit it, your rider has lost to your elephant from time to time. When you’ve picked the alarm clock up at 5.00am and chucked it across the room. When you’ve taken another cream cake. Lit a cigarette two days after giving up. Texted your ex at three in the morning.

Think about it. When you were in these situations, your rational rider was there, telling you this is wrong. But that emotional elephant went ahead and trampled over the logic and rationale. Your rider lost control.

So, if you want to change someone’s behaviour, you have to get both their rider and elephant on side. The rider will do the thinking and give direction, the elephant provides the energy and passion.

Tips on appealing to emotions:

  • Show don’t tell. Instead of telling them the figures ‘30% more’ show them what 30% more looks like. Think Nanette Newman Fairy Liquid adds in the 1980s – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G4OiYGQAyo
  • Be specific. For example, instead of talking about providing education for hundreds in Africa, charities tell the success story of a specific child – ‘your £3 provided Grace with books and an education, now she has a job and can feed her family’. Surely a story about helping hundreds or thousands should be more compelling? But it’s intangible and difficult to imagine, whereas we can relate to a story about one child, it cuts straight to our emotional desire to protect and pleases us to see the results our small donation can make.
  • Appeal to people’s self-interest. Put your audience in the situation – an appeal with the word “you” throughout, instead of “people” will be much more successful. Emphasize what they care about – features over benefits – the sizzle not the sausage, the hole not the drill, the lawn not the grass seed.
  • Make associations. Tell your brand story using things your audience already cares about – use analogies to quickly associate your product or service to a powerful emotion we long to relive – how you felt as a child when you baked cakes with your grandmother, the look in the eyes of a sad puppy, the pride of watching your football team play live and win, the first time you fell in love, passing your driving test, arriving at your dream holiday destination.

Put yourself in the position of the people you’re appealing to and you’ll be creating emotive brand communications in no time. Remember, if you need some help or advice, get in touch with us. davies tanner is the UK’s leading independent Hospitality, Leisure, Travel and Tourism PR agency, we specialise in creating engaging and powerful brand communication strategies and we’re here to help you.


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