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How Brands Tap Into Deeper Emotions

It comes down to revealing the emotion beneath the emotion.

Key points

  • At the core of a strong brand is a deep, underlying, emotional motivation.
  • Discovering this is difficult. To do this, brands employ specific techniques to probe people's emotions.
  • This approach can be seen in AirBnB, which built a brand around around a key human need: belonging.

Fans of Simon Sinek will know his famous adage: “Consumers don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This is a compelling idea, but it only gets us half of the way there.

First, the “what”, your product, does of course makes a massive difference. There’s a difference between buying a car that works vs. buying a car that doesn’t. And while consumers are sensitive to your motivations, what’s actually most crucial here isn't your motivations as a brand. It's the motivation of your consumers. And this is what needs to be placed at the core of your brand strategy.

Josh Redd via UnSpash
Source: Josh Redd via UnSpash

One framework that brands often use is to find the emotional beneath the emotion. It's about finding the "why" beneath the "what". Think about your favorite brand. If you’re like most consumers, the results aren’t too unexpected. The most popular global brands feature heavily: Apple, Nike, Coke, and AirBnB are all common responses.

But why? Why is this your favorite brand? At first blush, these might seem obvious and superficial. For Apple, maybe it’s, they “have the best tech”. Or for Nike, they “make me feel cool”.

But why are these features important? Here’s where the true why comes in. It’s the “why” behind the “why”. Why does it matter to have the best tech? Why does it matter to feel cool? And this is where we get into uncharted territory.

When it comes to brands that tap into these emotions, going deeper is crucial. It's about finding why consumers value the basic utility of the product or service, and then going several layers deeper. When it comes to creating these deeper emotional associations, the brand can't be satisfied with the skin-deep.

Probing Deeper Emotions

But before we get to the test itself, it’s important to understand its role within a brand. At the heart of what the brand should deliver is the consumer’s core motivation. The brand must address the deeper elements of human nature that a customer has that drive their behavior, such as the need for security, accomplishment, self-esteem, belonging, or perhaps family.

This goes beyond the simple, obvious need the product might be solving. Lego, for example, makes toys for kids but the essence of what it delivers is the ability to “creatively pursue mastery”.

S-B Vonlanthen via UnSplash
Source: S-B Vonlanthen via UnSplash

This speaks directly to a deep, core, motivation of the consumer. In this way, the brand goes beyond sheer utility and into a deeper, emotional domain that the product on its own doesn’t deliver.

A stellar product imbued with a deeper motivation is a formidable combination. Think about Airbnb. At a basic level, the need is simple and straightforward: a place to stay that isn’t a hotel.

But the key insight that enabled Airbnb to flourish was tapping into a much deeper need that its competitors had overlooked: that sense of belonging.

And this brings us back to the “true why” test.

How AirBnB Went Deeper

Finding true consumer motivation requires market research and consumer insight. The end goal is to find the ultimate “why” of the consumer. It requires you to ask a series of probing questions until you get to the ‘true’ motivation. Start with the product, and then go deeper.

As one example, consider how this could be done for Airbnb:

  • Why is this product important? Not only are hotels overpriced — they are generic and unspecial.
  • Why does that matter? People don’t want to feel like tourists when they visit a new place; they want to see it like the locals do.
  • Why does this matter? Because they want to have authentic experiences, not manufactured ones. They want to feel they’re genuinely experiencing a place as an insider.
  • Why does that matter? Because they travel to make their lives richer.
  • Why does this matter? Because the moments we remember are not the mundane ones in front of a computer or doing laundry, but the ones when we truly feel a part of something, where we belong to something bigger.
  • Why does that matter? Because we’re all going to die.

Almost every time we do this, we end with this grim realization. This is no accident, as this is arguably the defining feature of the human condition. But as I tell my students, once you get morbid, you’ve gone a little too far. Go back to your last step and you'll find the best motivator for a consumer to become devoted to your brand.

Tyler Heery via UnSplash
Tyler Heery via UnSplash

For AirBnB this was a key insight: fundamentally, people want to belong. This became the focus of their first major rebrand, and directly inspired their tagline: “Belong Anywhere”.

By grounding the brand with a deeper emotional motivation, AirBnB was able to go beyond the sheer utility of their product, and into the realm of the intangible. This positioning was crucial to their early success, and to their large ($47B) IPO valuation.

The Power of Deeper Emotions

People don't wind up at AirBnB due to sheer serendipity. They actively seek it out because it's tethered to a deeper, more emotional need.

AirBnB is a great example of the power of consumer psychology applied to branding. While AirBnB is often heralded as an innovative product, the basic idea — a platform that allows users to rent out their homes — wasn’t new at all. HomeAway launched in 2004, and Vrbo started way back in 1995 — when Airbnb’s founder Brian Chesky was 14. Their ability to differentiate may have come down to their brand positioning.

While the existing players chugged along, highlighting their ‘lower than hotel’ prices, Airbnb went deeper. From the very beginning, it wasn’t merely the cheaper option, it was the one that delivered this deeper, psychological intangible: belonging.

It's worth noting why, at the level of psychology, this is effective. The brand feels like a real entity, but it's not. It's intangible. The brand is ultimately a complex pattern of associations, etched into the mind of the market over countless exposures. This is why the brand strategy is so crucial: it’s the set of organizing principles that forge untold amounts of content, and that ultimately cultivate these associations. As we can also see with the rebranding of Lego and Walmart, understanding these deeper consumer needs is crucial for strengthening the bonds with consumers.

Any given advertisement, on its own, has a transient impact. It’s the consistent theme, radiating from the brand strategy, and consistently displayed, that cultivates these enduring associations.

When these associations reflect the emotional motivations of the consumer, the brand is able to go beyond the simple, functional benefits that it provides. Instead, it endears the brand within the minds and lives of the consumer.

This post also appears on the marketing psychology blog, Neuroscience Of


Johnson, M., & Misiaszek, T. (2022). Branding that Means Business: Economist Edge: books that give you the edge (Vol. 1). Profile Books.

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