Startup Marketing And How Emotion Drives Customer Action

Editor’s note: Kobie Fuller is a principal at Accel Partners

Put down the calculator and ignore the data for a second. Contrary to popular belief, startup marketing is not all about quantitative metrics and growth hacking. It’s time to start mapping out what creates a connection between you and your customer. Specifically, I am talking about driving customer actions by leveraging human emotion through the art of storytelling.

Humans are intrinsically wired to connect with stories. They connect us to people, ideas, places, products and brands; they help us justify how we spend our money and which brands we champion by substituting promotion with engagement.

Digital media has leveled the marketing playing field – savvy startup marketers can tell compelling stories with equal impact as their larger competitors. Creative, emotion-driven marketing enables any size company to drive product awareness with millions of consumers in real-time. These digital and social direct-to-consumer channels have replaced traditional advertising that once favored larger companies with big budgets.

Many companies know exactly what they do and communicate it well (“we make X app”), but few companies advocate the why ­(“we believe that people should have an easier way to communicate with the people they love”). Eric Holmen, president of marketing automation company Invoca, says, “soliciting an emotional response is an intentional process that leads to buyers who see value and act with urgency (disclosure: Invoca is an Accel-backed company). Too often, startups focus on the tactics rather than the intentional emotions they need to create.”

It is easier to build marketing around the former (what), but storytelling originates in the latter (why). The why enables startups to tap into its product/brand’s intrinsic emotional advantages – like excitement, happiness, or contentment.

In short, startup marketers must tap into the “Story Button” part of the brain; an idea coined by advertising agency Innocean, a partner with Accel portfolio company YuMe on advertising initiatives, and neuroscientist Paul Zak. Through a story, startups connect through emotion-driven marketing, which creates more authentic moments of customer engagement.

Emotion vs. Data

Emotional marketing, however, is the ying to data-driven marketing’s yang. Despite the buzz around growth hacking, today’s most savvy marketers understand that consumers are more experience-driven than ever.

“Because of the abundance of data, there is a lot of focus on data-driven marketing, which is very powerful,” said Craig Elbert, VP of marketing at Bonobos, an e-commerce apparel pioneer. “But numbers will usually only tell you what is happening. To get at the why and create actions, marketers need to ensure they are spending enough time thinking about customer motivations and emotions.”

Elbert hits on an important trend: The most admired brands structure their businesses around meaningful, emotion-driven marketing material that doesn’t feel a whole lot like marketing. In short, great marketers make consumers feel something – fear, gratification, guilt, trust, value, belonging, envy, etc. These feelings, once elicited, drive action.

Companies like Apple, Nike and Virgin America have mastered the art of making customers feel connected to their brands. These companies, along with startups (disclosure: Accel invests in the following) like Atlassian (enterprise), VSCO (photography) and Etsy (marketplace) elicit emotional triggers that build trust, which drives loyalty, which drives brand advocacy, which leads to word-of-mouth growth, which 91 percent of millennials utilize to guide their buying behaviors.

The science behind soliciting an emotional response

Psychologist Robert Plutchik discovered eight basic, primary emotions that guide all behaviors: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger and disgust. These emotions are product-agnostic, and over time, establish brand-to-consumer relationships that transcend traditional boundaries of engagement.

The question is, which emotions should marketers target, and how do they solicit these emotions? Elbert outlines the following correlations in emotion with user behavior:

  • Intrigue and mystery – creates a curiosity that drives initial exploration and clicks; important for advertising and emails
  • Desire and aspiration – stokes consideration; helpful for site imagery, product pages and lookbooks
  • Urgency and fear – provokes a feeling of missing out, which triggers a purchase
  • Surprise and laughter – drives sharing, as seen through April Fool’s Day

“Emotions change the decisions we make by making us more impulsive,” said Kristen Berman, co-founder of Irrational Labs. “Given a person’s impulsive nature, brands can amplify efficiency by not only looking at the metrics and drop-off, but also in thinking about the human emotions at play during each corner of the decision-making process.”

Emotion-driven marketing for the startup

A startup’s brand strategy and messaging should tailor to the core psychological needs, desires and behaviors of any given audience.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: Marketing organizations must incorporate human emotion in all marketing practices, across all marketing channels. For startups, this is even more important as they aim to build early adopter loyalty and a tribal-minded community.


Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion explains that emotions are not only adaptive, but also play an important role both in cognition and behavior. His “wheel of emotions diagram (above) illustrates various relationships among emotions. In the world of marketing, this equates to purchasing a product not because of quality, but out of admiration, loyalty or even envy.

For startups, emotion-driven marketing means thinking about how a product or vision supports a broader cause that your community cares about.