It is easy to believe that complex buying decisions are made primarily on reason, facts and numbers. However, evidence shows decision-making is far more complex. One can make a compelling case that in the end, emotions play a larger role than reason in business-to-business purchasing contexts. Such insights change the way that A/E/C firms should approach their brand-building and integrated marketing efforts.

Emotion-Driven Decisions

We are all familiar with emotion-based appeals for our money. Car companies tantalize us with blockbuster soundtracks, dramatic lighting, and images of cutting through curvy mountain roads with power and grace.

Bob Fisher speaking at the Design Futures Council's Leadership Summit on Design Innovation and Technology
Bob Fisher speaking at the Design Futures Council’s Leadership Summit on Design Innovation and Technology

Charities tug our heartstrings with stories and images of children who can be delivered—for just a few dollars a day—from living in squalor.

Companies and organizations of all types spend an estimated $600 billion per year to persuade their audiences through advertising. Agencies have employed emotion-based appeals for decades, and they will continue to do so for one simple reason: appealing to our feelings has always worked.

We think of emotional appeals and emotion-driven decisions—including the examples above—in business-to-consumer (B2C) contexts. But what about business-to-business (B2B) purchases? Do emotions really play a role when choosing enterprise-level accounting software or hiring an architecture firm to design a mixed-use waterfront development?

The clear answer—though counterintuitive to some—is a strong “yes.” In fact, research shows that emotions may be a stronger driver for business-to-business purchasers than for those who are buying consumer products.

Blending Reason with Feelings

A 2013 study from Google, CEB’s Marketing Research Council, and Motista shows that client and consumer connections to business-to-business brands can be more emotional than business-to-consumer brands. Not only did the B2B brands drive more emotional connections than B2C brands, but they weren’t even close. Of the hundreds of B2C brands that Motista has studied, most have emotional connections with between 10 percent and 40 percent of consumers. Meanwhile, of the nine B2B brands we studied, seven surpassed the 50 percent mark. On average, B2B customers are significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than consumers.

Gallup research on emotion in B2B purchasing decisions corroborates the findings from Google. In a study of German purchasers in the mechanical engineering, electronics and automation industries, Gallup found that while seven in 10 study participants said they disregarded emotion in purchasing decisions, more than 56 percent also said that they would let a deal fall through if they had a “bad feeling” about it, despite favorable facts. “These findings,” authors said of conclusions in the entire study, “suggest that the final decision isn’t a purely rational choice, even among German technical and engineering purchasers. In other words, even for the most rational of purchasers, feelings are facts.” In an environment of facts, clients still rely on their gut feelings.

Gallup’s research also contends that most B2B purchasing decisions are made not by individual economic buyers, but by groups it calls “decision centers.” As they are largely driven by emotion, decision centers make for a more complex marketing and selling environment.

Skeptics will rightly argue that facts play an enormous role in the choice of a design or construction firm (especially the “fact” of cost). However, the chief benefit of numbers and facts may not be the logical argument they enable; rather, it may be the emotional certainty the logical arguments engender. The result of a well-argued rational case is a client who feels safe to move forward with a relationship and projects. The Gallup study reinforced the idea that business purchasers blend reason and feelings: “Because of the risk involved, these (business-to-business purchasing) decisions often have both an emotional and a rational component. Members of a buying center typically decide in favor of suppliers that make them feel that doing business with them entails the least risk and delivers the highest benefits to the company.”

In brand, marketing and business development, I must satisfy the rational mind of the client or its doubts and complaints will turn the buyer’s heart away from me. If that happens, I have little chance of winning the project or the long-term client.

The problem is not that architecture and design practices entirely overlook the role of emotion in their clients’ choice of a firm. It is that most often the firms relegate emotional engagement to their person-to-person interactions in business development, missing the opportunity to create meaningful connections through the firm’s brand and marketing. Unfortunately, that also means they miss the opportunity at the beginning of the process to forge an emotional connection between prospects and the firm’s design work.

As we look at the ways in which firms create a conceptual framework for the world to see them, as well as their choice of imagery and words to represent themselves, we see a tendency to overemphasize the formal (aesthetic) and technical dimensions of their work. When describing the firm, many rely on lists that offer no inherent differentiation: markets served, project types designed, services offered, etc.

The issue is not whether it is bad practice to highlight the excellent proportions or use of materials in a building, or the sophistication of energy use made possible by rarified technical skill in sustainability. Rather, building an effective brand and marketing program is about integrating the structure and elements of your firm’s story in a way that integrates reason with feeling—as well as having the courage to let emotion take the lead.

 

Bob Fisher is editor-in-chief of DesignIntelligence.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly, 2Q 2017.