Emotion Marketing 101 – Harnessing Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

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Despite modern marketing often pretending to be a cold, ruthless business of testing everything down to the last iota, relying solely on hard data to make decisions, there’s no denying that emotions – those bothersome, quintessentially human, unquantifiable bastards – play a critical role in just about everything we do. This includes everything that data devotees spend countless hours attempting to distill – conversions, interactions, shares, everything.

I won’t lie, I like emotions. In my moonlighting as a football writer, I very rarely produce stats-led articles, preferring to focus on the more raw, primal side of the game. Data has its place, but it’s a means to an end, not the be all and end all. While data can illuminate the minutiae and support an argument, it can also obscure the bigger picture.

Football crowd

“8% shot conversion, 8% shot conver-siooonnn, you’ve only got 8% shot conversion”

In the Moneyball-idealised world in which we live, the value and power of emotions has been downgraded and underplayed.

This article intends to put that right by demonstrating the immense power that emotions can have on content consumer’s behaviour, and how you can achieve strategic aims for your content marketing efforts by inspiring specific emotions through your topic selection and copy.

The Psychology of Emotion

There have been hundreds of psychological studies of emotion, but none more enduring or influential than Robert Plutchik’s work, which has come to be known as his “Wheel of Emotions”.

Plutchik postulated that there were eight key emotions:

Joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation

Wheel of Emotions

As demonstrated in this graphic representation from Muddy Lemon, each of these emotions are paired with a polar opposite. From these eight starting points, there are varying degrees of severity, and the eight basic strands are connected with eight derivative emotions that combine the two basic emotions they connect, such as anger and disgust combined together to form contempt.

Plutchik also stated that emotions were evolutionary survival methods, ingrained in our psyches and thus immensely difficult to overrule. It is for this reason that they’re so valuable when it comes to marketing.

Applying Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to Marketing




Joy is perhaps the basic emotion most commonly sought after marketers, but does it deserve that status?

Of course, having consumers associate your brand with happiness is a wonderful thing; the tough part is achieving it.

If you do want to go down the joy route, then selling your brand and the lifestyle you want to promote rather than your products is a wise course of action. Studies have found that in the long run, people derive far more happiness from their experiences than their material goods.

Relationships are one of the key drivers of joy, and if you’re able to create bonds between you and your customers then you can enter a self-perpetuating cycle; the stronger the bond, the happier they’ll feel, which will further strengthen the bonds.

Andy Dwyer reaction gif

However, a word of caution. Of all the eight basic emotions, joy is by far the most overused in general marketing. There’s nothing wrong with letting it inform your efforts, but making it the sole USP is unlikely to work without a truly inspirational idea, a mammoth budget or both – as was the case with Coke’s “Share Happiness” campaign – is an extremely tall order.

One way of inspiring joy and happiness is through humour. Naturally, humour is intrinsically subjective and how you deploy it – and how effectively you do so – will depend on the nature of your business. The key to nailing humour is always having your target audience in mind. Campaigns that attempt to make everyone smile often end up not really working for anyone.

Some good jumping off points are:

  • Satirising pop culture
  • Crowd sourcing audience response on social media
  • Making fun of yourself or your product

Despite everyone and their mother attempting to be funny in their marketing, it’s still a relative rarity that someone pulls it off, which means you can trigger surprise as well.



“Trust” is a term bandied about a lot in content marketing and SEO circles, with good reason. Trust is an obligatory cornerstone of any successful content marketing campaign; nobody’s going to link to anything you’re pushing if it doesn’t have an aura of trustworthiness about it.

trust gif

Plutchik identified the most intense form of trust as admiration, which should be what every content marketer hopes to achieve in the minds of their readers with every piece of content they produce. It’s this mindset that sets the great content marketers from the good, and what Rand Fishkin was talking about when he coined the phrase 10X Content.

Although “trust” and “admiration” may not be the sexiest marketing buzzwords of the moment, they are absolutely integral to brand building and link building alike. Content that is able to quietly assert its authority and expertise is far more likely to attract links naturally than content that simply regurgitates what others have written or which is so desperate to prove its trustworthiness that you begin to question its credibility.

Trust can be encouraged through a variety of methods in the digital world, the one unifying feature being that there’s no one silver bullet – it must be stressed through a variety of different methods.

Everything from social proof and customer reviews will help demonstrate openness and honesty, while a focus on straightforward, simple copy will stop readers thinking you’re simply trying to bamboozle them.

Selecting topics that address things others may shy away from discussing is another way of enhancing the trust between you and your readers. Copyblogger’s post on why they deleted their Facebook page did just this, and remains one of their most popular posts, with over 14,000 shares and 480 linking root domains.



Fear is often portrayed as a marketing boogeyman, not without reason. Scaring people into buying your product – think life insurance and related industries – can often cross the ethical line.

Old fashion scaremongering can spread like wildfire via sharing, but frightening your customers won’t do much in the way of brand building.

Scared cat

“You just lost yourself a customer, banana”

In the worst case scenario, people can come associate your brand with fear. While the human brain enjoys situations in which it is scared but is subconsciously aware that it is safe, such as riding a roller coaster or watching a horror film, having your brand only serve to constantly remind people of their impending death is never a good thing.

There is one type of fear that lacks the moral dilemma; the fear of missing out.

Stressing the time constraints on offers, limitations on stock and generally creating a sense of urgency will all help encourage conversions. By creating a fear of missing out and then offering customers a way of avoiding that, it creates a sort of call and response that can do wonders for conversion rates.



We humans are a tired, jaded species. We’ve been acclimatising and becoming desensitised to radio adverts for about a century and ones on TV for six decades. Although mainstream adoption of the internet has been a relatively recent phenomenon, banner blindness has already forced advertisers to invent and reinvent the way in which they serve ads online.

Subverting audience expectations – in other words, surprising them – is a fantastic way to cut through the walls of numbness and help build a brand by making it memorable.

There are two main ways that marketing can surprise us. The first and by far most common is through content. The second is by the form that the marketing takes.

Surprised Joey gif

The manner in which we’re presented with ads and the form they take has changed irrevocably thanks to the internet. Now, we get adverts that are catered to our tastes, and even ones which can take cookie data to input our actual names into an ad.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of Mad Men, they spend days and weeks deliberating painstakingly over every detail of a campaign. They also spend most of their time drinking and making passes at their secretaries. Putting it simply, it was a different time. 

Things like the spontaneous Oreos Super Bowl blackout Tweet are watershed moments, surprising us by breaking marketing convention (in this case the speed in which an ad can be produced), but these moments are relatively few and far between.

Unless you have some groundbreaking technology that none of us know about, you’re going to struggle to shock anyone through the form your marketing efforts take. However, you can still spring surprises through your content. Here’s some inspiration to get you started.



We’re all familiar with brands – often charities – using sadness in order to create empathy.

Empathy is a powerful emotional tool to tap into. If done correctly, it can create an irresistible bond between consumer and brand and make a truly lasting impression.

But that’s a big “if”.

A word of warning comes from marketing virality expert Johan Berger, who has found that sadness dampens a story’s potential to be shared. Utilising sadness is also a volatile strategy; leverage it too many times and people may begin to associate your brand only with unhappiness. It can also appear crass and manipulative.

Arrested Development crying gif

Sadness doesn’t have to be all sad, however. Something that’s an extremely common marketing trope (for example John Lewis, every, fucking, Christmas) is nostalgia, which occupies an awkward on-again-off-again relationship with sadness.

As I talked about in my post on heritage marketing, curating a sense of a nostalgia taps into your audience’s individual personal histories, allowing them to project their own experiences onto your brand or product.

Nostalgia can be a fantastic at initiating brand building.



Disgust can function as a pseudo-anger (see below) but can also function as a potential factor of virality in its own right as a propagator of sharing.

According to Daniel Kelly, associate professor of philosophy at Purdue University, we’re not entirely sure exactly what it is that leads us to take such delight in things we find revolting.

Clint Eastwood disgust gif

Something you find disgusting will definitely capture your attention because we’re quite sensitized to them,” says Kelly. A possible reason for the desire to share something which has caused us to feel disgust is, in a slightly twisted way, tied to community and belonging; we look for reassurance that it is disgusting and our sense of revulsion is in line with that of the collective populace.

Just think about how many times you’ve seen those infamous posts about McDonald’s pink slurry or KFC not being legally allowed to have “chicken” in their name because their meals don’t either flying around social media.

How about The Human Centipede, or, going back a few years in the internet’s sordid past, Two Girls, One Cup? Both of these cinematic masterpieces may not have achieved critical acclaim or had their name etched into an Oscar statuette (a travesty if you ask me), but both earned widespread notoriety even though the nature of their content meant that traditional social sharing was rarely an option.

It’s a dangerous, dicey emotion to play with, and if you’re after an earnest, intellectual debate in your comments section, disgust isn’t the one for you. For a bit of word-of-mouth press, however, it can work.



Alan Partridge smell my cheese gif

Of all the basic emotions, anger is arguably the most effective when it comes to sharing.

Similarly to disgust, we’re far more likely to share anger-inducing stories than ones that conform to our beliefs (which tend to trigger joy and trust instead). There’s a reason that for every occasion the Dalai Lama appears on your Newsfeed, Katie Hopkins is there hundreds of times.

The type of anger that gets people really sharing is righteous indignation. This allows them not only to alert their circles to the wrongdoing, but also assert their position on the moral high ground.

Anger shares the same drawbacks as disgust. Although it may be great for social leads and traffic, it’s unlikely to inspire much debate or engagement beyond readers demonstrating their anger.

They’re also far more likely to remember what made them angry rather than where they saw it, limiting anger’s potential to increase brand recognition or attract links in any great number.

The difficulties content marketers encounter when it comes to manufacturing anger don’t stem from coming up with ideas, but packaging them in palatable way. Defying the boundaries of moral decency, obvious hypocrisy and downright insulting behaviour (three key pillars of the Katie Hopkins School of Trolling’s curriculum) are surefire ways of stoking up rage, but there is such a thing as bad as publicity, and it’s writing a post for your dog walking business’s blog entitled “All Puppies are Twats”.

There are two potential routes around this.

The first is finding a commonly-held truth – for example, “the customer is always right” – and disagreeing with it in a reasonable, balanced manner backed by statistics.

Henry Ford customer always right quote

It helps when you’ve got someone like this on your side, too

The second is tackling a soft controversy, such as the direction that toilet paper should be rolled – everyone has a preference, but you’re (probably) not going to start WWIII by stating your opinion. The only downside is these opportunities are relatively scarce, and those that are out there have often been mined for all their worth.



We made it – basic emotion number eight. Thankfully, after navigating such troublesome waters, our final emotion – anticipation – is relatively straightforward. It works in a similar way to fear of missing out, as well as being related to joy (we’re hardwired to anticipate things that will make us happy).

Anticipation can be achieved through a variety of ways. The most obvious routes are things like a concerted PR campaign before a product launch or a staggered giveaway, which gradually builds anticipation by slowly revealing details and inching closer to a release date or big final payoff.


That said, there are more nuanced ways to tap into anticipation too.

Neil Patel offers a fantastic insight into optimising your landing page copy in order to create anticipation. By choosing a starting point that gets the reader nodding in agreement, they naturally begin to anticipate that your eventual conclusion will be something they agree with too, helping to improve conversions.

Anticipation can also be conducive to creating joy. By outlining a clear problem and then offering a resolution through your product, you take the reader on a journey.

The old adage of it not being about the destination, but the journey you go on to get there holds plenty of weight, and if the trip you take your reader on is one that has them concurring at every step, then you can trigger happiness by making the conclusion – your product – seem almost inevitable.

Images courtesy of Pexels, F-I-I, Giphy, Gif-Finder, Senor Gif, Virginia Tech and FreeImages.

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