Mood-Thematic Congruency

Anyone who's spent any great amount of time talking to me about branding and social marketing will have heard me speak of mood-thematic congruency. It's a term I picked up from Howard and Barry's 1994 paper The Role of Thematic Congruence Between a Mood-Inducing Event and an Advertised Product in Determining the Effects of Mood on Brand Attitudes and has guided me ever since.

In 2005-06, I investigated the concept myself as part of my university dissertation - I studied at the Victoria University of Manchester for a BA in Language, Literacy and Communication. I arranged access to Starbucks in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, and conducted my research - with permission - on real customers of the coffee shop.

The Theory

Howard and Barry studied the association between mood and brand perceptions - in particular, whether the theme in which a marketing message is presented can influence its success or failure.

Their research1 took two parts - the first, an investigation into whether thematic congruency (that is, presenting an advertisement in a context into which it naturally 'fits') could help a poorer advert to outperform a stronger ad presented in a non-congruent manner. Second, they looked at the same concept, but without the inclusion of a neutral state in the marketing messages supplied to participants.

In Experiment 1, the pair found a positive or negative impact on processing of ad information, dependent on mood and thematic congruency. Experiment 2 backed up this conclusion.

Notably, the pair found that a positive mood can actually diminish the processing of ad information, if the ad is presented in a non-congruent context.

My Research2

Starbucks Piccadilly is in a pivotal place, at the intersection of Market St and Tib St. In one direction, the mainstream shopping zone of the Arndale Centre; in the other, the alternative outlets of the Northern Quarter with their unique character and strong identity.

My research involved distributing poems to coffee drinkers at Starbucks. The poems all included positive imagery, designed to put the reader in a good mood. Each also mentioned either the Northern Quarter, or the Arndale Centre, to associate the positive mood with the relevant shopping area. Finally, half of the Northern Quarter poems were supported further by being printed in the closest typeface I could find to that used on the street signs and pavement art of the area.

The aim was to demonstrate that those who read the poem relating to a given area would be more likely to depart in its direction upon finishing their coffee. Control observations were made, to allow 'normal' behaviour to be factored into the equations, and departure directions assessed as one of three main options - Market St, Tib St, or into Piccadilly Gardens.

I'll save you all from the chi-squared tests and multi-variate analysis that went into my conclusions, but suffice to say, there was a positive impact on the decision-making process, albeit small. The statistical analysis identified the effect as insignificant in all but one case - the combination of the Northern Quarter typeface with the Northern Quarter poem.

For me, the research was a success - it highlighted that any one method of influencing the customer might have a small effect, but used in combination some simple branding and mood-influential techniques can lead to a significantly improved ability to control outcomes, while leaving the affected party in a positive mood.

What Does This Mean?

For marketers, there are a couple of incredibly simple take-home messages here.

They are:
  • put your buyer in a good mood
  • present ads in context
In other words, sell trainers in sports magazines and smart shoes in, say, GQ. Sell slimming pills - and not cakes - in slimming and fitness magazines or websites.

Keep in mind audience segmentation and demographic targeting, and you should find you naturally follow the rules of mood-thematic congruency, without having to become overly technical about the process.


1. Howard, Daniel J and Barry, Thomas E. The Role of Thematic Congruence Between a Mood-Inducing Event and an Advertised Product in Determining the Effects of Mood on Brand Attitudes. Journal of Consumer Psychology 3(1), 1-27. © 1994, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

2. Bardsley, Robert P. Caffeine Culture: Messing With the Minds of Java Junkies. Dissertation submitted as partial credit, BA Language, Literacy and Communication, Victoria University of Manchester 2006.