Are you a human – or are you a chimp?

It’s not a trick question.

thinkingThe answer, according to psychiatrist Steve Peters, is that people are a bit of both. The “chimp” side of our brain is the emotional, irrational side. And the “human” side of your brain is the sensible, logical side.

But they are not equal.

According to Peters’ 2012 bestseller, The Chimp Paradox, our emotional impulses trump our reason. In most scenarios, we react emotionally first – and only then, if we let it, logic takes over.

The marketing world has long accepted the idea that our emotions are the stronger force – and have taken advantage of this insight to sell more products, services, and even ideas.

All marketers worth their salt will tell you the same thing: if you want people to buy from you, it’s not enough to explain the advantages of your product or service to them. You have to tap into their emotions – make them feel the need to buy or do something, not just accept the need rationally.

So, can this insight help us “sell” pensions to our employees?

Can employers use this basic marketing rule of emotion to improve the way they engage people with their retirement and savings – and change people’s behaviour, to get them to save more? And if so, how?

One solution is for them to look at how other industries use this idea.

Awaken Your Audience’s Inner Chimp

The first step in any marketing campaign is to understand the consumer.  But it’s not enough to get a good demographic snapshot. Great marketers want to understand what their target audience is feeling – what problems frustrate them, and what their hopes and dream are.

They also want to understand what emotions might drive them. For example, is there guilt to play on? Is there something that will shock them or anger them enough to make them take action? What might make them happy, sad, feel a sense of belonging, or gratification?

With a clear picture of all the emotions involved, marketers deliberately build campaigns which push these ‘hot buttons’. They try to awaken their audience’s inner chimp, because emotional triggers are more powerful than rational ones.

When people are on the receiving end of a marketing campaign, they will be aware there’s been an attempt to appeal to their emotions. On other occasions, things are a little more subtle; they might have received a message that hits home without them realising it has happened.

Let’s look at some examples.

Emotional Marketing In Action

Telling everyone they should wear a seatbelt should be a fairly straightforward message, using the logical approach. If you don’t do it, you are twice as likely to die in the event of an accident.

And yet governments and safety organisations have had to resort to emotional messaging to get that message across.

Typically, they show footage of someone being thrown through the windscreen. It’s the same message, but the shock of seeing the consequences appeals to people’s emotions, or inner chimp – instilling fear.

Recently, in the UK, a radio campaign ran which emphasised the risk you run of getting points on your license if you are caught without a seatbelt.

Although this sounds like a logical message, it  was designed to be emotional. The theory was that while dying felt like a remote possibility for most people, gaining points on your license felt realistic – and was therefore much more scary!

It’s the same with anti-smoking campaigns: no one thinks it’s good to smoke, but there remains a stubborn minority of people who have ignored the rational step of giving up and are now being targeted by pictures of diseased lungs and other gruesome images.

While some research now indicates that people are becoming immune to the ‘shock factor’ of these visuals, when they were first used they were designed to scare people about the damage they were doing to their bodies and their futures.

Anti-drink-driving messages have tried to appeal to several different emotions – the shock of being in an accident; the guilt of killing or injuring others; the responsibility of preventing your best friend from getting behind the wheel when drunk; the regret and inconvenience of being banned from driving; and the fear of going to prison.

A simple message saying, “Don’t drink and drive” should be enough for anyone sensible, but the impact of emotional triggers is far more effective.

Coca Cola’s name campaign

On the lighter side, Coca Cola has almost never marketed itself by emphasising the taste or content of its drinks. Instead, it plays heavily on people’s emotions.

Here’s one example.

In 2011, Coca-Cola started putting people’s names on bottles and cans of Coke.

The rational consumer knew that this was a marketing gimmick and that the product was exactly the same. And putting “Dave” on a bottle was hardly over-personal – there are probably millions of them in the UK.

Yet some people still have their empty bottles sitting on a shelf, simply because their name is printed on pieces of plastic wrapper.

Why did it work so well?

According to senior brand activation manager Chris Ross, the campaign took a global brand and “made it personal to consumers” (source:

People felt excitement and joy at seeing their name, and something as basic as printing a name on a can of drink engendered a sense of belonging – almost as if they were part of the “Coke family”. As people shared bottles with friends’ names on them, it awakened feelings of connection and community.

So, can this translate to pensions?

Let’s face it: pensions are dull for most people. They shouldn’t be, of course – saving for retirement is one of the biggest financial actions someone is likely to take. And when it comes to anything concerning money and lifestyle, there are enormous emotional issues involved.

But the jargon, the legalese and the administration can be boring, and when you add people’s inbuilt reticence to think about things that might be nearly half a century away, it’s easy to understand why it can be so hard to engage people with pensions.

Pensions are technical and there are so many rules and regulations around them, the pension communications that come with them tend to be a bit bland and technical too.

So perhaps companies need to be bolder if we want to make a greater impact and encourage people to save more. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of the emotional-marketing book.

After all, if the marketing of virtually everything else is about appealing to our chimps, it should work with this, too.

Posted by Johanna Nelson

Topics: Employee Engagement

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