A lot going on below the surface

Editor's note: Peter T. Bürgi is vice president, qualitative, at Chicago-based Beall Research Inc. 

We often hear from clients that B2B customers live in a “rational” world and make decisions in a less emotional way than retail consumers. But is that really true? What if emotions are actually at the heart of B2B decision-making too? In this article, we argue that B2B decision makers are highly emotional and that identifying their emotional drivers will lead to insights that businesses can use to drive growth strategies. 

Common wisdom is that decision-making is a rational process, a weighing of facts or inputs, and that emotions somehow hamper or obstruct this rational process. The truth is just the reverse: decision-making is an intrinsically emotional process. The human emotional system evolved as a mechanism for quickly assessing a situation or environment (for instance, fear leads to avoidance of or retreat from a situation), so emotions are deeply linked to behavior. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown that the people who have experienced damage to the parts of their brains most deeply associated with emotions, but whose reasoning skills and other brain functions were otherwise unimpaired, either cannot make decisions or make very poor ones. These findings led Damasio to conclude that emotions are not what cloud decision-making but rather what enable decision-making.

Underlying emotions 

Our approach to B2B market research has sought to uncover the underlying emotions that drive decision makers’ major purchasing decisions and we have found that identifying rational responses alone would have been a mistake.

For example, a major manufacturer of industrial electrical testing and measurement equipment wanted to learn about purchasing behavior of its equipment in the oil and gas industry, so we conducted a series of interviews. The manufacturer wanted to know who made the purchasing decisions and which features and functions of the testing and measurement equipment were most desired by users.

The research showed, surprisingly, that it was typically the equipment users who selected and purchased the instruments themselves – remarkable for industries well-known to have highly centralized purchasing functions. Even more surprising were the emotions respondents attached to their purchasing decisions. 

“If I’m going to put my life on the line every time I touch a piece of electrical equipment, and either fry myself or ignite the ambient gas fumes with a spark, I’m gonna be damned sure I buy the brand of equipment that is reliable enough for me.” 

“When you’re wearing one of those multimeters, with that bright color on it, that color tells everyone that you’re a professional and you know what you’re doing.” 

Their responses show the deep feelings of professional pride and dignity that they attached to this brand. As a result of identifying the emotional dimensions of this B2B purchasing situation, the manufacturer had two options for action in its marketing campaign: 1) it could focus the campaign more intensively on users rather than purchasing officers (by leveraging chat communities, word of mouth at conferences and trade shows, etc.); and 2) it could refocus the advertising campaign content away from features and functions and toward the emotional “badge” effects of owning its equipment. It developed a marketing campaign that helped it penetrate its target industry further. 

We also conducted research for a very large specialized bank that subsidizes mortgage liquidity among its membership, which consists of various financial institutions (banks, credit unions, insurance companies). The sponsor bank wanted to know how it could strengthen engagement with its member organizations. The research identified some minor changes it could make to its offerings but it also revealed that many of the member banks trusted the sponsor bank to an extraordinary degree, with such an uncommon depth of loyalty and emotional connection that product changes were not actually necessary. Our analysis found that particularly small banks and credit unions used significantly more friendship-related verbiage than would be expected by chance. The CEO of one small bank said: “They are a huge partner, very important part of our success …We would be lost without [Sponsor Bank], honestly.” These findings were very useful to the bank: knowing that it had this deep reserve of trust and relationship allowed it to strategically dedicate significantly more resources than had previously been the case to tightening its engagement with members through high levels of personalized service and relationships. 

Let’s look at a third case study. We also helped a very large and iconic IT company understand how its business strategy was being received by the market – was it understandable, relevant and credible? – and determine what the key segments of the markets were in terms of needs and perceptions. In the interviews we conducted with directors and VPs, many respondents claimed it would be “risky” to use the iconic company as a primary vendor. When we probed about risk, respondents said they wanted predictability and clarity. Many admitted they did not understand the icon’s business strategy or fundamental offering clearly enough to choose it confidently as a primary vendor. It was, ultimately, anxiety and fear of uncertainty which prevented respondents from engaging with this widely known older company. The challenge the company faced, we concluded, was not just to redouble communication about what its strategy was and what it offered but more fundamentally to restore the marketplace’s confidence and allay its fears.  

Emotional dispositions 

So, identifying the emotions that drive customer behavior is often an important part of B2B marketing research projects that address specific commercial challenges. But what about research projects with broader goals, like developing segments? When segments are described in terms of personas, these descriptions capture not just the demographic or psychographic attributes of different groups but their emotional dispositions as well. Recent work we did for a large and globally known brand that manufactures specialized electronic equipment illustrates this latter point. The client was interested in identifying specific segments or personas among existing and potential electrical engineer customers younger than 35 years old, with the goal of getting to know the core “customer of the future” better. 

We conducted ethnographic, at-the-workplace interviews with 17 electrical engineers from five different companies that each purchase large amounts of our client’s branded electrical equipment. In addition to the intensive, face-to-face interviews, we toured the workplace in each instance, asking further questions about equipment, tasks, concerns, preferences, etc. The rich body of data from this fieldwork helped us define three personas among the younger demographic. One of the segments defined was that of a middle-of-the-road, play-it-safe individual. This is the sort of person who prefers not to stand out and who values conventional and predictable technology. When it comes to purchasing products, they often rely heavily on crowdsourced ratings and well-known brands, believing that the most popular choice is the safest choice. The most important emotion typical of this segment when it comes to technology is anxiety – the fear of making the wrong decision, following the wrong process, making the wrong purchase. These individuals crave security, which they often find in following the herd. This segment might best be summed up as the person who says to themselves: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”  

The emotions described in this segment provide the client with two things. First, richness and depth that makes the segment less like a grouping of attributes and more like real human beings. Second, insight that can drive commercial success for its products and services with the “customer of the future.” 

So, what can a client that manufactures electrical equipment for this segment do with the information about the segment? Highly innovative and unusual product design is unlikely to resonate well with these buyers. Instead, the potential leverage with this segment lies in how the product could be marketed. A marketing program, for example, that focuses on allaying anxiety of the purchase would be effective – emphasizing the reputation of the client’s brand, how widespread the client’s equipment is in the market and stressing the positive ratings provided by large groups of users. These are the sort of messages that are likely to be sought by the play-it-safe segment – and likely to resonate well with them.

A better predictor

It’s important to help clients see the importance of emotions in all human behavior – even seemingly emotion-free B2B. It may involve having to talk through things like the basic findings of neuroscience showing that emotions enable decision-making or talking about the findings of behavioral economics showing that immediate emotions and expected emotions profoundly affect the supposedly rational pursuit of economic utility. Perhaps most important of all, market researchers should be trained to recognize and analyze emotional data because emotional data is a better predictor of behavior than just rational verbal data.

Research continues to bring us closer to a full answer to the question of how exactly emotions affect purchasing. Recently we designed and fielded two large surveys of 17 major consumer brands designed to shed light on the emotions consumers associated with them and identify which emotions most drive purchasing. The data focused on the current and expected feelings consumers have when thinking about and using brands as well as how feelings about oneself influence buying. Statistical analysis of the data produced a model of emotion dynamics that attempts to explain how and when emotions influence purchasing, what emotions matter and how they result in purchasing and loyalty. This model aims to identify the few key emotional drivers that trigger decision making. A study such as this is difficult to field and demanding to analyze but it builds on years of theory development by psychologists and robust concepts about consumer behavior and emotions. 

When it comes to the B2B part of the marketplace, however, there is still much work to do – models of emotion and decision-making need to be developed and discussed, studies need to be designed to shed light on specific elements of behavior and relevant data need to be gathered and analyzed. But underlying all that work is the foundational truth that a B2B purchase decision can be as emotional as any consumer one is.