The role of emotion in sponsorship

emotion bw blog

The Psychology of Sponsorship #5

The 5th in our series of posts on the psychology of sponsorship looks at the role of emotion in sponsorship.

All these posts have largely revolved around the momentous realisation over the laast 20 years that decisions and judgements are more ruled by emotion than rationality.

Pioneers in neuroscience and the science of psychology have turned their focus to how we make decisions and been building an increasingly rich and profound understanding of our mental processes.

Click for more information on how we apply psychology to sponsorship planning.

Of these, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman is a luminous example – pursuing and exploring a clear theme of the role of emotion in decision-making over decades; and consolidating his findings in beautifully accessible publications.

Of these, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ synthesises much of Kahneman’s research and describes the habitual workings of the brain using the analogy of two very different systems – one and two, fast and slow.

System one is Fast

System One cruises comfortably on autopilot for as long as possible, serving up judgements based largely on associative memory and heuristics – helpful shortcuts to make rapid, intuitive sense of the world within our existing framework of understanding. System one helps us get through the day without the laboured processing and cognitive strain of System Two.

System two is Slow

System two is closest to the historic concept of the brain as an information processing machine making decisions driven by facts – at least, that’s what it tells itself. Its ability to provide Spock-like judgement is undermined by the fact that it’s lazy, has ADHD and is easily influenced by System One. 

Even mental multi-tasking and active information processing, produce measurable signs of physical exertion – dilated pupils, increases heartbeat and a sense of cognitive strain : brain ache, in other words.

Not only that, our so-called ‘rational’ head simply cannot function sustainably at this level. In ‘Descartes’ Error’, Antonio Damasio tells the story of Elliott, whose life fell apart after damage to his ventromedial frontal robe prevented him from making the sort of simple decisions that are the daily stuff of life – such as what present to buy for a friend or how to dress for a meeting and

Visual borrowed from Lewis Carroll, the UX Collective post on Thinking Fast and Slow

Slow - meet Fast

It’s the interaction between these two systems or ways of processing information and decisions that Kahneman has dedicated his life to studying. Because, although System one is incredibly effective – it’s majorly subject to bias. 

And much of Kahneman’s work boils down to determining the circumstances in which System one takes over from System two – and establishing the parameters of our bias which, he’s at pains to point out, is so hardwired as to be completely out of awareness.

Thinking Fast and Slow is much more than an articulation of biasses, even such an entertaining one as Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality. It explores and deconstructs a number of mental processes which have tremendous implications for sponsorship – and in many ways Kahneman’s book pulls together many of the strands we have been looking at in our Psychology of Sponsorship series.

Two key concepts

There are two key concepts we’d like to focus on in this post that have a close relation to emotion in sponsorship – cognitive strain and associative memory.

Cognitive strain

Processing answers to difficult questions, especially highly cognitive or abstract in nature, or studying difficult texts or concepts all produce cognitive strain. We all know this from own reactions to IKEA assembly instructions or Panasonic device instructions translated from Japanese. 

As mentioned earlier, we literally expend large amounts of energy on thinking and so we have evolved default mental processes to conserve that energy, which Kahneman labels associative memory and heuristics.

Our desire for cognitive ease creates a tendency for our associative memory and heuristics to rubber stamp our decisions. In the context of sponsorship, the rubber stamping we’re looking to achieve is unconscious familiarity, acceptance and approval of course. Anything which forces us to employ System Two, without good reason, will cause friction in this process.

On a very practical level, any processes, systems or activations which aren’t intuitive and easy push us away. We know this.

Associative memory

Association is quite a familiar term. It’s been there since the early days of sponsorship as an explanation of how it works. And it’s not far off. It just doesn’t go far enough.

Because association is a dominant subconscious thought process. In response to any question, our brains automatically search for comparisons and connections within our experience to create a reference framework to shape our answer. Most of the time, our minds work by association – System One.

Our minds unconsciously attach emotions and feelings to our thoughts and memories. These emotions then strongly influence our judgement because a word evokes associations and associated emotions, which in turn evoke physiological reactions. All this happens quickly and all at once. When these are associatively coherent, in Kahneman’s terms, they produce a feeling of congruity and coherence in our minds, and trigger a state of cognitive ease. And cognitive ease – from an evolutionary point of view – means safety, all is well. We relax, we lower our critical gaze and accept.

So the emotions that sponsorship evokes contributes to building positive association works on many levels: it normalises contact with the brand, making the brand familiar; it attaches the sponsor to positive feelings that we hold for the property or event; it embeds a wide range of verbal and non-verbal cues into our memory web; and it attaches emotional highs.

The emotional and often unconscious web of brand associations does not happen overnight. But once in place it helps maintain our approval and positive sentiment with little conscious thought. 

Just try to remember - we're an official partner

From the perspective of sponsorship design, this can be done better or worse. 

If you imagine your audience only dimly aware of the sponsor through the semi-opaque lens of the sponsorship, the goal is for the sponsor to fit comfortably and compatably in the background, intruding only positively into the foreground.

An absolute focus on CX is a minimum, to ensure the customer journey is easy and intuitive. It plays out in greater detail in the actual experience design of the live event and its touchpoints, with a focus on heightening emotional peaks. 

If the principal role of sponsorship is to build brand equity, as we believe it is, a role which Binet and Field highlight as its paramount strength, then we need to understand how to enhance its emotional imprint. At one level, this plays out in branding exposure and creating strong associations with colour, sound or any other aspects of brand, but it goes far beyond this.

The halo effect

Positive emotional association of sponsorship can create a halo effect. In everyday language, the term is used to refer to positive feelings which extend beyond their direct source – so from a brand to its employees for example, or in principle a brand to its products. Kahneman’s use is not so very different – his value is to have tested its effect and to define it more closely.

He gives a number of examples : if we feel good about a person, we are likely to attribute them with positive behaviours without any real evidence or justification. We are more likely to believe them, to trust them. Again, the industry has almost universally accepted the need for ambassadors to personalise and humanise messaging.

Positive initial impressions are hard to overwrite, and very likely to colour our subsequent experience – to the extent that we will interpret our experiences through the lens of that positive impression. Cognitive strain encourage us to hold onto our judgement as long as possible without the effort of challenge.

First impressions is a common enough concept – but how often does this idea really dictate our sponsorship planning across communications, welcome, launch, activation. 

Southampton FC's well chosen name for their sustainability strategy

Making better use of emotion in sponsorship

Much of what we do as practitioners in sponsorship is instinctive and grounded in experience. So in many cases we are generally already close to the mark. 

A psychologically-informed approach won’t transform your sponsorship practice. It isn’t a magic formula to deliver brand preference – but it will maximise positive association in audience’s minds. 

Of course, every single interaction can be psychologically optimised but we have built our framework around the strategic building-blocks of sponsorship : the proposition, the narrative, the audience relationship, the peak live experiences, activation design and of course, language and imagery. Each of these needs to be looked at to ensure we’re enhancing associative memory and reducing cognitive strain, along with many of the other dimensions covered in our previous posts.

The underlying principles are always to maximise the emotional connection ; avoid cognitive strain ; understand the emotional relationship with your audience ; and ensure total planning coherence. 

For further posts about the psychology of sponsorship, please click below or visit our blog here.

Psychology of sponsorship

The psychology of sponsorship

The Psychology of Sponsorship #1 Most books on sponsorship make large assumptions about the psychology of sponsorship. Back in the day, the phrase ‘brand value

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