The theoretical underpinnings of emotion have changed. New and exciting neuroscientific evidence show emotions are not reactions to the 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 distinct 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 bound 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 emotion 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 running 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 than a Bud Light after a 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 systems with high arousal content (imagine having to laugh at every ad we see?) try to be strategic with creative by developing advertising that generates the unexpected (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 Super Bowl ad and E*Trade 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 takes care to provide the “perfect crunch”, which gives rise to fresh, better tasting chips. And the warmth of a Starbucks coffee cup enhances the taste. Our environment involves many sensory stimuli that perceptually integrate, largely subconsciously, to create our emotional experiences. Brands that understand them can shape them. 

Measuring Emotion

Neuroscientific evidence has shed vivid 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 differently, there are no “gold standards” or “best measures” as every method has strengths and limitations which must be considered relative to the brands’ objectives.

Below is a 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 the second phase involves ‘implicit’ and ‘direct’ measures, which probe patterns and processes underlying the feelings which help understand why people feel the way 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 tell us a great deal of the contents of what people feel, that can be analyzed in a way that unearths the structure of emotion experience. 

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

Measure Emotional Granularity (Individual Differences)

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.  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 open-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.

Example of the Emotional Complexity Fear

Fear is Not Universal

Non-Corresponding Actions

Possible Biological Responses

  • Physical fear: attacked by a vicious dog
  • Social fear: public speaking
  • Pleasant fear: riding a rollercoaster
  • Tremble in fear
  • Jump in fear
  • Hide in dear
  • Attack in fear
  • Laugh fear in the face

Heart rate and skin conductance can:

  1. Increase
  2. Decrease
  3. Stay the same

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? 

  • Do they influence our behavior (does smiling lead to buying?)
  • 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). Biometric measurements should be coupled with subjective measures to fully interpret the emotional experience. 

6 Key Questions

  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 are 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 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.
  • 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.