How to Measure & Manage Emotional Brand Experiences

Originally Published with the Insights Association

The theoretical underpinnings of emotion have changed. New and exciting neuroscientific evidence show emotions are not reactions to world but are concepts that are learned and shaped through past experience, culture, and contexts (Barrett, 2017). In PART I we discussed the new science and in PART II we will show you how to apply it to create more valuable and distinctive emotional brand experiences.

Build Emotion Associations 

Emotions are best conceived as concepts, similar to other brand associations (e.g., premium quality, good value), which are learned through experience and within specific contexts. Therefore, brands can actively influence customers emotional experiences by anchoring emotion associations and shaping their conceptual meaning.

For example, Coke wants you to open up a can of happiness. Whether people crack smiles when consuming coke is up for a debate, but the brand is actively helping customers think and feel this experience by shaping perceptions of happiness. They are not leaving their emotional experience to chance, or uncontrollable factors (e.g., bad mood or long work day) but are actively shaping the feeling of happiness.

Shaping new emotion associations with your brand is similar to creating any other brand associations outlined by Keller’s seminal work on brand image (Keller, 1993). Just like building brand benefit, attribute, and attitude associations, we also want to build emotion associations linked to the brand to increase distinctiveness and brand equity.

Create Distinctive Emotional Experiences 

Everyone’s experience of emotion is unique and how we ascribe meaning to emotion is a result of past experience and bounded within a context. For instance, Coke may be associated with happiness because you drink it leaving work every day or with your favorite meal. Whereas, others may perceive Coke as unhealthy and feel guilty drinking it. How we categorize emotions concepts is critical for building better brand experiences.

Brands can leverage this in two ways. First, brands can shape emotion experiences through consistent marketing efforts with coherent emotion associations. For example, McDonalds integrates “happy” throughout their branding with the “Happy Meal”, Ronald McDonald’s personality, and even smiling faces on the box. Alternatively, Redbull gives new meaning to fear by using professional athletes and extreme sports to inspire you to ‘conquer your fear’ as opposed to run from them.

Secondly, brands can take advantage of emotional experiences across different contexts. For example, the emotion experience for drinking bud light for the charged-up football party will be starkly different then a bud light after long day of work with your favorite meal. This creates tremendous opportunity for brands to align emotion associations tailored to specific consumption environments.



Garner Attention with Curiosity & Surprise

Instead of overloading peoples’ sensory system with high arousal content (imagine having to laugh at every ad we see?) try to be strategic with creative by developing advertising that generates unexpectedness (prediction error in our brain). The best movies use curiosity and surprise to keep our brains guessing (simulating narratives) by providing ‘information gaps’ in the storyline to keep people interested and engaged. Mountain Dew mastered surprise (prediction error) with their Puppy Baby Monkey superbowl ad and eTrade with the baby with adult voice. With our bandwidth for information processing limited, and perception designed to filter out what our eyes consider ‘business as usual’ (regularities in the visual environment), leverage curiosity and surprise to capture attention and fuel engagement.

Engage Multiple Senses

Emotional experiences are constructed within contexts involving complex sensory integrations from what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. For instance, the Marriott travel experience is enhanced by the perfect combination of music and lighting to set the right mood for your stay. Abercrombie’s creates an unforgettable retail experience with their signature scent. Pringles pays attention to the details, by having the perfect crunch when eating chips which gives rise to fresh, better tasting chips. Lastly, a warm touch of Starbucks coffee cup (like the hot coffee) makes it tastes better. Our environment involves many sensory stimuli that perceptually integrate, largely subconsciously without our awareness, to create our emotional experiences. Brands that understand them can shape them.

Measuring Emotion

Neuroscientific evidence has shed tremendous light on the complexity and individual variation of our emotional experiences which has considerable implications for measurements. Just as everyone’s experience of emotion is unique, so are the measurements that should be applied to understand how to maximize brand outcomes. Stated directly, there are no “gold standard” or “best measures” as every method has its strengths and limitations which should be considered relative to the business objectives.

Below is a guiding framework for structuring measurements of emotion experiences. The first phase is exploratory, acquiring a comprehensive understanding of emotion words used to mentally represent experiences (“what they feel”), and second phase involves ‘implicit’ and ‘direct’ measures which probe patterns and processes underlying the feelings which help understand why people feel the they do.

Measure Mental Representations of Emotion

The best way to assess the properties of emotional experience is to ask people how they feel and to examine the content of their answer (Lindquist & Barrett, 2008). Treating self-reports as ‘verbal behaviors’ allows you to examine how people use words to mentally represent an experience. Allowing consumers to characterize their experiences using emotion words tells us a great deal of the contents of what people feel that can be analyzed in a way that unpacks the structure of the emotion experience.

This can be achieved using experience sampling procedures, using hypothetical emotion eliciting experiences and Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale (Conner et al. 2003Lane et al., 1990). The closer to real-time the better and open-ended is preferred to assess what is felt as opposed to be prompted with anchor scales that prime respondents. Be cautious of emotion recall methods, as previous emotional states are unintentionally distorted through an inference process.

Measure Emotional Granularity (Individual Differences)

Instead of asking “can people verbalize their emotions”, let’s understand “why can’t people verbalize their emotions”

Some may argue that people are unable to verbalize what they feel (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Instead of asking “can people verbalize their emotions”, let’s change the question to “why can’t people verbalize their emotions” because significant differences likely exist with how people categorize, and communicate their emotional experiences (Barrett, 2004). Some may report at an abstract level (e.g., pleasure), where others more elaborate in their emotional knowledge, can differentiate emotional experiences at a more granular level (e.g., joy, excited, aroused, interest). Herein lies an opportunity—identify those who have low emotional knowledge (low granularity) and build new untapped emotion associations tied to your brand.

Measure the Broader Contextual Associations

Emotion experiences are typically situated among other non-brand related features including location, people, energy levels, time of day, and objects. Identifying these contextual associations can be achieved through numerous means from opened ended self-reports, projective techniques, and reaction time protocols (e.g., implicit association tests, contextual priming tasks). The goal is to identify how different physical, environmental, social, and biological elements bind together to create our emotional experiences.

Measure ‘Implicit’ Associations

Measuring subconscious and automatic emotion concepts people associate with brands can be advantageous in narrowing the range of emotions and determining the strength of associations. Reaction time protocols (e.g., implicit association test (IAT)) and priming techniques (e.g., affect misattribution procedure (AMP)) are commonly used methods to capture these deeper and automatic emotion associations.

Measure Physiological with Perceptual

Facial expression coding, fMRI, heart rate variability, skin conductance and other biological based measures are great complements to subjectively reported emotional states. They allow one to probe the objective reality and identify patterns across individuals. These measures are limited in answering the question: so, what?

  • What does a smile mean? (Rychlowska et al., 2017)
  • If so, what direction (e.g., does high arousal (heart rate) mean negative fear or positive excitement?)

Our emotional experience may occur without biological activity and biological activity may occur without an emotional experience (Kreibig, 2010). Coupled biometric measurements with subjective measures to fully interpret the emotional experience.

6 Key Questions to Stimulate Research

  1. What emotion words (concepts) are categorized with your brand experiences?
  2. What are the individual differences of the emotion concepts?
  3. Are multiple emotions experienced at the same time?
  4. What is the temporal dynamics of the emotional experience (e.g., anger with purchase process, frustration with the packaging, pleasure with the consumption)?
  5. What contextual/situational features are categorized with the emotional experiences?
  6. How do different emotional experiences impact key brand outcomes?

Always be aware of the assumptions and the limitations of methods.


  • Barrett, L. F. (2017). The theory of constructed emotion: An active inference account of interoception and categorization. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
  • Conner, T, Barrett, L, Bliss-Moreau, E, Lebo, K, & Kashub, C. (2003). A practical guide to experience-sampling procedures. Journal of Happiness Studies.
  • Keller, K. (1993), Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Managing Customer-Based Brand Equity. Journal of Marketing.
  • Kreibig, S. (2010). Autonomic nervous system reactivity in emotion: A review. Biological Psychology.
  • Lane RD, Quinlan D, Schwartz G, Walker P, Zeitlin S. (1990). The levels of emotional awareness scale: A cognitive-developmental measure of emotion. Journal of Personality Assessment.
  • Lindquist, KA, & Barrett, L. (2008). Emotional complexity. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions.
  • Nisbett R, Wilson TD. (1977). Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review.
  • North, AC, Hargreaves, DJ, & McKendrick, J. (1999). The influence of in-store music on wine selections. Journal of Applied Psychology.
  • Rychlowska M., Jack R, Garrod O, Schyns P, Martin J, Niedenthal P. (2017). Functional smiles: tools for love, sympathy, and war. Psychological Science.
  • Spence, C, & Zampini, M. (2006). Auditory contributions to multisensory product perception. Acta Acustica.
  • Williams, LE & Bargh, JA. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science.

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Jason Martuscello

Jason Martuscello

Jason lives and breathes behavior change. His personal transformation losing over 100 lbs drives his curiosity to source the latest science to deliver cutting edge solutions. His work cuts through the jargon, to provide unique insight, and applied solutions to today's most pressing business problems. Jason holds an MSc and an MBA.

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