Your Company’s Value Hinges More on Emotion Than Data

It's what your clients feel about you, not what they know, that matters

Every business decision has a twin called justification. Justification’s role in business life is to make the decision look smart and protect it from criticism. That’s why justification loves data.

Illustration: The Project Twins

Data is objective and dependable. It has so much to say about the customers, the competition and the health and direction of entire industries. Even when things go wrong, justification can still call on data to insulate the decision from blame.

But let’s not confuse justification (and its best friend, data) with the decision-making process itself. Feelings come first. By the time the decisive moment happens—and the executive says, "This is my choice"—quantitative analysis can only play catch-up.

Businesspeople, like all humans, are creatures of emotion and that will never change, no matter how much our lives are transformed by technology. Whatever choices we are making—at work, at home, at play—feelings ultimately rule. In a research project gyro conducted with the Fortune Knowledge Group, we polled over 700 executives (88 percent director level or above). The answer was clear: Two out of three said human factors outweigh analytical factors when making business decisions.These business leaders told us they listened to their hearts, or their guts, and placed their trust in softer qualities like reputation, culture and values. (To give one example, 70 percent cited reputation as the most influential factor when choosing a company with which to partner.)

And this is the lesson for anyone who wants to come out on the right side of a business decision. When decision makers are considering your company or brand, it’s not what they know; it’s what they feel that matters most. So tell your story in human terms. Show people the heart of your business and what makes it beat. Don’t just sell them your product; help them buy into your business and what it represents. That’s where the magic is.

Of course there is a crucial role for data to play. It’s good stuff, but the important thing is not to misuse it. And many marketers, intoxicated by the sheer volume and quality of the analytics now available, do just that. They make the mistake of building their communication plans around it. The data gives such an exact picture of our customers, they say. We must create our campaigns perfectly in their image. The great danger of this burgeoning obsession with quantification is that marketing becomes little more than a process of holding up a mirror to the audience, and reflection is not true insight. It misses a crucial point about human relationships: Having things in common is important, but we aren’t looking for replicas of ourselves when we choose friends and lovers. We are drawn to people with passions, thoughts and feelings that complement our own. We love in them what we can’t find in ourselves. That’s why the best advice for anyone on a first date is "just be yourself." What data can bring in great abundance is relevance. But relevance alone is not enough. The only way to truly earn the love of your customers is to have respect, too.

This goal can’t be achieved by telling people what you think they want to hear. Nor can you synthesize an emotional connection out of the numbers, as brands often try to do when the metrics say certain folks like X and certain folks like Y. If the audience loves comedy, bring on the dancing elephants. They’ll love us too, they say. Probably not because it’s manufactured. It’s empty.

To avoid this temptation toward empty-calorie “quant” marketing, why not try looking deeply into your business instead? What do you love? What’s the authentic emotional truth about your company? What was it born to do? What does it stand for now? Then, just be yourself and let your customers decide on you because of what they feel about you. Hey, you might even get a second date. I’ve always believed emotions ignite creative and meaningful work, and the mission of the agency I helped create is to forge and champion ideas that make good business sense by being humanly relevant. We can justify what we do with data, but the way it feels is what really counts.

Christoph Becker is global chief executive officer and chief creative officer of gyro.