The ability to recognize and use emotional data at scale is one of the biggest, most important opportunities for companies.

Intuitively, it’s easy to understand that emotions play a role in shaping customers’ experiences with brands and service providers. And yet, beyond marketing, very few organizations are adequately thinking about their customers’ feelings, or more importantly, acting upon how and when emotions impact connection and loyalty to a brand. In today’s highly personalized consumer landscape in which people have grown to not only expect but relish in authentic and responsive interactions with brands, this represents a potent opportunity.

Deloitte’s new research study, Exploring the value of emotion-driven engagement, offers compelling, actionable findings about how emotions influence customer behavior and brand loyalty at key moments that extend well beyond marketing. In addition to conducting primary research with more than 800 consumers, we developed an innovative multimethod approach that integrated social listening, an online panel, and data meta-analysis to contextualize results. The research, which sought to understand how and why brands can humanize post-purchase interactions to drive lasting profitable relationships, yielded four key themes with repercussions for brands seeking to deepen customer connections.

human emotion research

Get sticky

Our research considered three elements of connection between consumers and brands: emotional responses, rational considerations, and shared values. We found that when consumers initially interact with brands, rational considerations such as price, loyalty programs, or promotions are top of mind. These rational influences also tend to prompt the end of a brand relationship. The majority of people who leave while using a product or service leave for rational reasons like increased prices, faulty products, or wrong orders.

Emotional responses, on the other hand, are paramount to almost everything that lies between the beginning and end of a consumer’s relationship with a brand. They inspire brand “stickiness” or loyalty, as well as advocacy. It’s telling that well over half of long-term customers use words like love, happy, and adore about their favorite brands. That’s the same way they talk about their family, friends, and pets.

We find it fascinating that while shared values are clearly helpful for marketing and brand positioning, these shared values reflect a need that is satiated at the beginning of the brand relationship. In fact, only a tiny percentage of people would recommend a product or brand to others based on the company’s values or corporate responsibility principles—whereas nearly half would do so based on emotional criteria.

Clearly, there is business value in collecting and using the right kind of data to strengthen emotional connections with consumers. However, achieving this will be contingent on having a cohesive technology ecosystem in place that is capable of dynamically translating human insights into actions.

Inspire friendships, not “brand relationships”

When consumers describe the kind of relationship they want to have with brands, it sounds a lot like a good old-fashioned friendship. Across digital and in-person interactions with brands, today’s consumer wants responsiveness, contextual awareness, personalization, and empathy. They expect two-way dialogue that builds and deepens over time, just as with a friend.

Therefore, brands must learn to mirror the qualities of positive human relationships by listening and engaging with customers contextually and automatically. Nearly three in four surveyed consumers say that a brand relationship includes providing feedback—and most expect the feedback to elicit a response. In fact, many consumers surveyed expect companies to integrate their feedback into future product and service design, and to provide special offers based on loyalty.

While friendships may take years to develop organically, we believe that brands can speed the conversion of new customer to loyalist with appropriate interactions at just the right time and place. To start, our study found that a majority of customers expect brands to know their purchase history and their service history—and to be able to draw upon that knowledge to contextualize and personalize interactions.

Which begs the question: As a brand, what type of friend are you? Are you the friend who never stops talking about yourself? Are you only available when you want something? Do you remember what your friends told you just a week ago? Harnessing and acting on emotional data can help brands move beyond CX, basic customer experience, into the broader, deeper connections that make up human experience, or HX, becoming the kind of friends they need to be.

Know the line between responsiveness and reconnaissance

Consumers are not naïve about the information that brands collect about them. To the contrary, they recognize and expect that brands amass a great deal of personal data. Where people draw a line is with “sneaky” surveillance and monitoring that doesn’t serve to deepen the two-way connection. For example, people do not want brands—even their favorite ones—to know their browsing history for similar products or services in order to serve relevant ads or to provide chatbot help.

Consumers are also very particular about the way brands respond to their social media posts. While many expect a company response to their negative online posts within three days or less, they do not like it when brands chime in after positive online posts about the brand. It can come across as controlling and self-congratulatory, thus dimming the good, authentic glow created by the original post.

Given that a majority cite trustworthiness as the emotional reason most aligned to their favorite brand, brands must earn and protect customer trust by being respectful in their usage of the information they’ve gathered. After all, trust is broken more easily than it is established. Cross the fine line between responsiveness and reconnaissance, for example, and the hard-earned trust is breached. Proactive companies are weaving this kind of data risk assessment into the very fabric of their HX ecosystem.

Create predictable wow

Consumers adamantly expect a consistent voice and predictably memorable experience across all touch points with a brand. Almost 70 percent of surveyed consumers say “reliable, great customer service” is what makes a brand their favorite to shop online, and this expectation extends across every interaction—from online shopping sessions to in-store dressing rooms, from email newsletters to packaging.

Therefore, brand experiences that feel disjointed erode the emotional connection that is the foundation of loyalty. Think of how disappointing it would be to order items from a company that wins you over on social media with beautifully curated images, only to receive the wrong color of merchandise and then to be placed on a long hold while customer service investigates your complaint? These aren’t necessarily signs of a doomed company—but they are certainly signs of a company that is trying to deliver CX via siloed departments, rather than through a unified operational structure.

When emotional connections are damaged, rational thinking rears up again. At this point, consumers are more inclined to leave a brand for reasons such as high prices or inaccurate orders. Fortunately, the damage is not intractable. Many customers who have formed a strong connection to the brand are forgiving about missteps so long as there is an honest, empathetic, and timely response to their concerns. When they feel the issue has been addressed in that way, a solid majority of people will stand by a brand.

All of this goes to show that the foundation of trust that consumers have with their favored brands is fortified by consistently positive brand interactions. It’s remarkable how willing customers are to share with brands what they like, what they don’t like, and how they prefer to interact. But it’s up to brands to handle that information with great care. Only by capturing, understanding, and appropriately responding to the consumer’s emotional state can brands hope to deliver predictably incredible HX.

Leaping toward better HX

Emotional data is key to building reliable, meaningful, loyal relationships with customers that stand the test of time. However in order to sustain those relationships, data needs to be handled carefully. Customer engagement needs to be contextually appropriate, consistent, empathetic, and responsive.

Given the sheer quantity of touch points between customers and brands—online and offline—the challenge of collecting, reading, and reacting to every emotional cue in appropriate ways is enormous and growing. But many organizations already have a wealth of data about customers that can help jump-start this process. It’s gathering and using that data—at the right time, in the right way, at scale—that will distinguish tomorrow’s most beloved brands.

Where to start? The answer is going to be very different for each stakeholder in an organization, and obviously the needs of each organization vary.

The key is, simply, to start.

Learn more about the value of emotion-driven engagement

To learn more about using emotional data to foster deeper connections with customers and decrease the likelihood of brand switching, read the full report or check out our main human emotion research page. If you’re interested in developing a technology ecosystem capable of collecting, synthesizing, and using emotional data across an entire organization, read about an emerging capability we’re calling Operational CX, or OpCX.

Tim Greulich is the Operational Customer Experience Practice leader at Deloitte Digital, and a managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP. He is a thought leader on Operational CX, with a focus on taking innovative concepts and turning them into executable realities.

Jennifer Buchanan is a Customer Experience Insights leader at Deloitte Digital and a VP of alliances with Deloitte Consulting LLP. She is a thought leader in CX research, with a focus on finding innovative approaches to understanding the human perspective.