Q&A: Dan Hill

SAN FRANCISCO Dan Hill, president of nine-year-old Sensory Logic, is teaching the science of understanding consumer emotions to CBS, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and other companies.

With his latest book, Emotionomics: Winning Hearts and Minds, Hill, 48, shows marketers how feelings win out over logic and how to apply the study of emotions and facial expressions to their brands and their customers. To make his point, he launched a blog (thefaceoftheweek.blogspot.com) this summer that interprets the expressions of the famous, from presidential candidates to Paris Hilton.

In a conversation with Adweek senior writer Joan Voight, Hill cautions about the dangers of depending on rational metrics and shares the surprising revelations that come from studying faces.

Q: Doesn’t traditional branding pay enough attention to emotions?
A: People in marketing talk about emotions, but they don’t strategically understand them. What they are really talking about is emotionally related relevancy. Emotions are what you feel, what the audience feels about a brand or product. You don’t feel relevancy. For instance, in our work a while back we analyzed a print ad for a food product that showed a happy family setting, but the father had a [subtle] look of disgust on his face. The ad was relevant to the brand, but the emotions were all wrong. Marketing agencies tend to grasp that visuals and emotional punch make a difference, but their clients want relevancy.

What is the biggest aspect of emotions that marketing agencies are missing?
Their sand trap is that values are emotionally laden. For instance, a company has a target audience made up mostly of good ol’ boys who haven’t been to college. But agency meetings to discuss that company’s brand consist of 14 people who all went to good colleges sitting around a conference table trying to figure out how to connect with that audience. Their marketing work might be emotional, but not have a clue about the values of the target. America is a religious nation, but marketing agencies tend to be more secular, so there’s often a values and emotion disconnect.

Can emotions fit into strategic planning?
Yes, but it takes some doing. Corporate people like systems and find comfort in them. Many have an engineering orientation. Every company also thinks its products are differentiated in the marketplace, and customers know that they aren’t. The goal is provide a system that puts emotion into the process and helps the company move into the shoes of the customer. Typical metrics tell you where the customer is, but not where they are going. They tell you people bought a product, but not if they bought it enthusiastically or it was a default purchase. Metrics data don’t tell you if the customer will defect easily. They give you the outline of a person but not the core of the person. But by studying the rational and the emotional reactions of people you get a complete picture of what they are likely to do.

How do you logically study something as illogical as emotions?
We analyze the facial expressions and body language of customers to find out how they really feel about a brand. Our facial coding analysis is a scientific system that marketers can understand, and is a way to allow them to quantify the role of emotion. The results can be surprising. For instance, about three years ago we were researching the effectiveness of an ad for a mortgage company that featured a little girl. Viewers all said they loved it, but when we studied the facial expressions of the viewers, we found that half reacted negatively. Further questioning revealed that people didn’t want to criticize the cute little girl, but they thought mortgages were an adult topic and the brand was trying to manipulate them by using a little girl. It became a trust issue.

How does facial coding work?
Facial coding measures emotional buy-in by studying facial muscle activity. It identifies seven core emotions across all cultures. In the business world, it gives marketers and employers a way to know people’s actual emotional response.

What marketing strategies does facial coding debunk?
One strategy is the approach of insulting your rival products and brands. Studying consumers’ emotions shows that if a beer brand trashes another beer brand, any customer who has ever bought that second brand of beer feels bad and insulted. It is hard for a brand to move upstream in people’s minds, by putting another brand or another person down. Speaking of beer, there have also been some beer campaigns that mock women in a sexual way as a way to appeal to young men. That is another poor strategy from an emotional point of view. You are destroying your brand to the broader audience [of women] in order to try to appeal to a narrow target. Showing contempt toward anyone or anything, even if you think it is something the target agrees with, is the most guaranteed way to sink a customer relationship—and a very bad way to build a brand.

If rational discussions don’t reveal emotional truths about brands, why have focus groups?
Focus groups can show the social dynamics of products, but they are overused and are a risky way to gauge the effectiveness of branding strategies. How emotionally open will I—or you—be in a room with 11 strangers? Plus, bright people will not respond to the classroom setting [of a focus group] and just endure it. The wisest voice, the one with the most buying power, does not buy into that process. Actually, when I was starting my career and I was first exposed to focus groups at a large utility company, I couldn’t believe that was how companies researched their customers and that huge business decisions were based on information gathered that way.

What is the role of storytelling in emotionally smart branding?
Storytelling can build an emotional personality for a brand, but it takes a long time to create a lively and enduring personality. Most companies don’t have one. Virgin and Apple have a clear personality and consumers respond to that. Trader Joe’s has an esprit d’ corps among staff and fellow shoppers that give it a personality. Verizon has the can-do nerd guy that we might want to have working for us. By contrast, nothing comes to mind when we think of Kraft Foods or Lipton Tea; we don’t conjure up any associations or personality.

Your blog applies facial coding to people in the news to reveal what they are feeling, often in contrast to what they are saying. What is the common facial expression of Hillary Clinton?
She often shows the social smile. It flashes quickly and goes away abruptly. The eyes are not involved in a social smile; they don’t twinkle or gleam as they do in a true smile. It looks like she wills that smile on her face and then takes it off.

How about President Bush? What emotions do his facial expressions reveal?
His emotions are all over the place and he quickly goes from one to the next. In a few moments he is scared, angry and then contemptuous. Loyalists see that as confidence, critics see it as arrogance. Contempt is the defining emotion on the faces of this White House administration.