Brands as People

An interesting study popped up in my weekly “brands and branding” Google news search.  The study, conducted by a company called The Relational Captial Group and a team of researchers from Princeton University, indicates that people evaluate brands in the same way they instinctively perceive and judge other people.  Judgments about warmth and competence are highly predictive of brand purchase intent and loyalty, according to the study, which was published in the April edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

I could not access the full study and had to rely on information from The Relational Capital Group for this article.  I am going on the assumption that the study methodology and findings are legit because of the reputation of the publication and the rigorous peer review process it employs.

The study researched attitudes towards 22 well-known brands, including Advil, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Mercedes, Shell and Tropicana.  The research was based on the concept that humans have developed an ability to make two kinds of judgments with speed and sufficient accuracy.  The first is about “warmth” or the intentions of others and includes factors such as friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness and honesty.  The second judgment is “competence” or the ability to carry out the intentions and includes factors such as intelligence, skill, creativity, efficiency and effectiveness.

“We’ve found strong statistical correlation between consumers’ perceptions of each brand’s warmth and competence and their intent to purchase and remain loyal to that brand,” said Dr. Susan T. Fiske, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology at Princeton University and a lead researcher on the study.  “These findings are consistent with other studies we’ve conducted that validate the influence and predictive power of warmth and competence on human behavior.”

The study also found that all brands studied fall short of consumer expectations on two critical warmth-related dimensions that are highly predictive of brand loyalty: “honest and trustworthy” and “acts with your best interests in mind.”

“Without those traits, genuine human trust and lasting brand loyalty are impossible,” according to Chris Malone, Chief Advisory Officer of The Relational Capital Group.  “It seems that in the eyes of consumers, the polices and practices of many companies consistently suggest that the company is primarily focused on advancing its own self-interest and can’t be trusted to do what’s in the best interest of the consumer, especially when no one is watching. News headlines provide fresh examples almost weekly.”

I found the study interesting not because it was surprising but because it puts some research behind what many of us in branding and marketing have felt instinctively: The only way to be an effective brand is to gain the trust of customers, much as we build trusting relationships with each other.  In a branding study I conducted with more 150 marketing and sales executives, “trust” and “reliability” were the two most mentioned attributes on the open-ended question “What makes a brand effective?”.

Another interesting observation by Malone: “It turns out that recent efforts by brands and companies to digitize, automate and outsource their interactions with consumers are fundamentally at odds with the way humans perceive, judge and build loyalty to brands.”  So it seems that attempts to gain greater marketing and operating efficiencies are diminishing the personality and effectiveness of brands.

For many years I’ve listened to branding consultants ask silly questions like “If your brand was an animal, what animal would it be?” or “If your brand was a color, what color would it be?”.  It turns out they should have been asking “If your brand was a famous person, who would it be?”.

The term “brand personality” has been used and misused in many contexts, but this study indicates that consumers really do perceive the brands they interact with as having personalities similar to human personalities.  Whether they like the brand’s personality traits—the way they like other people—is a determining factor in their purchase decision and loyalty to a brand.

© 2011-2017 Bill Fellows, Top-of-Mind Branding All Rights Reserved