TARGET: An emotionally intelligent marketer or using human nature to manipulate?

This weekend I had the true pleasure of “taking-in” a TARGET store- and not just running through it looking for the extra large containers of toilet paper and Tide.

Positioned as the household-one-stop everything- spot, replacing the old Main Street Five and Dime, TARGET understands the core reason buyers come in droves to buy. They have all the basics anyone would ever need to take care of their family. And for most of us, family means everything to us. What wouldn’t we do for someone we love?

So of course TARGET has a great assortment of lawnmowers, kids toys, clothes for every member of the family and tools for Dad at his work bench. Something for everyone. But most of these same items can easily also be found at Kmart, Walmart and Sears.  So how is it TARGET continues to lead the pack with their 2011 sales results?  What does TARGET  know that their competitors don’t know? Could they be an emotionally intelligent marketer? Or are they using their knowledge of human nature to manipulate and grow sales? And what is emotionally intelligent marketing anyway?

In their article from 1990, “Emotional Intelligence,” Professors Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer define emotional intelligence as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions. (Salovey & Mayer 189).

What does their definition of Emotional Intelligence teach us about how we can use it in consumer marketing? I think that our emotions can be used to guide logical thinking and goal-oriented actions; which makes EI particularly impact-filled in consumer marketing.

This also explains WHY sometimes highly successful brands can be viewed as being “emotionally manipulative.” Yet, if you know anything about human nature you likely already KNOW WHAT IS AT THE CORE of every single big loyal brand follower

The story of the Rider and the Elephant. It goes something like this.

There once was a story about a Rider who wanted to ride the Elephant and control him. The Rider was smart and tried to use his cunning logic on the elephant to persuade him to listen to him as his Rider.  But the Elephant could not understand a single word the Rider said. He could however feel the Rider’s motivation and it made the elephant angry and he refused to take even one step forward with the Rider on his back.

So how does the story end?  Does the Rider eventually control the Elephant with his great logic?  Or does the Elephant control the rider with his emotions?

The moral of this story: No stream of logic will EVER trump how we feel about something or someone. Human nature has proven it time and time again with both good and evil. The elephant inside us always wins.

The Golden Circle

Simon Sinek refers to the elephant within each of us, which resides in the limbic part of our brain that has no language, in his TED talk Start with Why; also known as The Golden Circle. Sinek explains that it is those few companies that know WHY they do what they do and can communicate it effectively to their herd of elephants who thrive.

All companies know WHAT they do and that’s why most are failing.  No one cares about another widget, another electronics store, or burger place. One more cog for the wheel doesn’t evoke any kind of emotional response. The elephant inside every customer will buy into WHY you do what you do, NOT what it is you do or even how you do it. The elephant will buy based on its visceral response to you.

So is the average TARGET consumer really looking for an emotional experience? What is the RIDER inside the average consumer going to TARGET thinking?

Well, how about something like this..” I’m out of paper towels, we have one more cap-full of Tide, I scooped up the dogs last dish of dried food, and I’d really like something more than a black cup of coffee in the morning.”  And behind that is the unspoken- ” I love my family. I want to care for them and give them what they need.”

TARGET understands this IS the reason for their being in existence. Their entire store- every ounce of it says ” We are here to serve the needs of your family.We are here to help you live more comfortably and enjoy your life. We want to give you more, so “expect more and pay less.”

And while TARGET might dress it up with a really cute dog,  they are hitting the emotional bullseye of every elephant- their customer-  every time they take one of their items displayed on basic peg boards and make it through the check out line.

How do they do this?

Let’s look closely at Salovey and Mayer’s  three characteristics of emotional intelligence.

The first is our ability to both appraise others emotions as well as express our own. Emotionally intelligent people are a good judge of character and have an authentic ability to communicating their own.

Emotionally intelligent people can control or regulate their emotions; which of course means we can experience the release of them but still remain emotionally high functioning because of our understanding of the emotions we feel.

And lastly, emotionally intelligent individuals have an ability to utilize their emotions to communicate clearly and directly.¹

 ¹ Under this final point Salovey and Mayer list four more categories. I think TARGET has carefully studied and learned  how to leverage all four of these EI characteristics into their brand.

These four additional characteristics are:

I came in to Target looking for some velcro- less than a $10.00 item- to help keep my pictures hanging straight on the wall, and came home, instead, with an additional purchase of these two holiday seasonal decorations for another $40.00 bucks.

1) Flexible planning. An emotionally intelligent thinker is one who is flexible in their planning. They can walk in a store with a list of things they are shopping for and yet can comfortably find themselves improvising and making an unexpected purchase or two in the store.

2) Creative Thinker. An emotionally intelligent person is a creative thinker. Ahh, here it is! The cereal aisle loaded with possibilities! What does this mean?  We will continue through my series of blog posts on Creative Theorists to see how much we can uncover about how vastly different others see what it means to become a creative thinker. But if we are talking about retail shopping? This is what I think it means.

TARGET consistently pairs more practical low cost items with something "extra" at many multiples of that low items price.

An emotionally intelligent shopper is going to see the creative value in buying the glittery Christmas tree-like decoration in addition to those bargain basement CUTE $2.99 wine glasses on their shopping list.  An EI shopper would be thinking: “I am already replacing those plain chipped wine glasses for something that looks really nice for the price. These glasses where not even 1/2 the price I expected to pay for them. I can afford to splurge with a little something festive and decorative to show them off.”

At this point the EI buyer is hooked. Logic won’t easily persuade you that your paying $14.99 for a foam cone covered in black fabric with a stapled piece of shiny material over it.


3) Redirecting Attention. An emotionally intelligent shopper is going to be really comfortable having their attention redirected to all different kinds of products spread across one store. Why? Because according to Salovey and Mayer part of our ability to utilize our emotions effectively to communicate is that we possess the ability to easily redirect our attention into new places.

4)  Motivation. And lastly, emotionally intelligent individuals demonstrate motivation. As such, if you are appealing to emotionally intelligent shoppers, who have the same values as you do,  your aisles are going to be filled with both lots of interesting and varied products along with lots of interesting people who want to buy most everything on your shelves.

Emotional intelligence means embarking on the path of self-actualizing

Another important aspect of  Salovey and Mayer’s insights into what demonstrates emotional intelligence, is their question about what emotional intelligence entails:

“People who have developed skills related to emotional intelligence understand and express their own emotions, recognize emotions in others, regulate affect, and use moods and emotions to motivate adaptive behaviors. Is this just another definition of a healthy, self-actualized individual?” (Salovey & Mayer 200)

The beauty of working with our emotions is that we naturally reap the benefits of getting to know ourselves more intimately. When we have a clearer sense of who we are and who we are becoming, we can make wiser choices in life by strengthening our response ability to everything that happens “to” us.

Self discovery is a lifelong process, and it can serve us for our entire lives. Self discovery is the basis for self care, and self care is the foundation for long lasting satisfaction and happiness in life, which are intricately linked to mental, emotional, and physical health.

Salovey and Mayer’s conception of Emotional Intelligence was  “The ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thought, understand emotions and to regulate emotions to promote personal growth.”

This ability-based model views emotions as useful sources of information that help one to make sense of and navigate their social environment.  I believe, this ability-based model works equally as well in defining an emotionally intelligent company.

As I see it, an emotionally intelligence corporation:

  • Perceives emotions and uses their ability to decipher emotions in faces, pictures, voices, and cultural artifacts to reflect back in their people and their branding. Emotionally Intelligent companies use and develop the ability to express emotions in their people and to harness emotional understanding, problem solving and whole brain thinking.
  • Understands emotions well enough to comprehend emotional language and to appreciate the complicated attachments we have to our emotions and the ambiguity they sometime need to cause until they can be clarified.
  • Can harness emotions, even negative ones, and manage them to achieve intended goals.

While we go to TARGET for diapers, underwear, workout clothes and socks, we leave with a wreath, flower vase and a new bed spread which we simply just felt we had to have. It’s easy to pick up the hood and look under it to see how this mega-retailer does it. TARGET is demonstrating their own emotional intelligent which masterfully helps them position their brand to emotionally impact their buying elephants.

The limbic part of your brain- the part which has no language- is  from where we fall in love with someone or something and from where all “purchasing” decisions are made. Target has found our sweet spot.



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