Eat Your Greens

Fact-Based Thinking to Improve Your Brand’s Health

IS THERE ANY SUCH THING AS BRAND LOVE?

Written by Helen Edwards

Brand love is a contested concept. This chapter argues that it is an overstatement - but draws on remarkable new academic research to show the power of an ‘emotional something’ that exists between consumers and their favourite brands. If not love, what is it? A contribution to personal identity. Extrapolating from three decades of academic research into symbolic consumption, the chapter goes on to show why people use brands to bolster their sense of self, which kinds of brands tend to get disproportionately chosen, and how marketers and planners can use the theory to give a brand a ‘tie-breaker’ edge in prompting consumer choice.

‘Brand love’ is a concept routinely evoked in the PowerPoint charts of marketing teams, and the agencies who advise them. Scholarly papers have been devoted to it. At least seven books, two of them bestsellers, have evangelised for it.The industry journals Campaign and The Drum have published articles on the steps marketers need to take to achieve it. And why not? This is love we’re talking about - why shouldn’t every marketer want that for their brand?

Because, says the evidence-based school from its locus at the Ehrenberg- Bass Institute for Marketing Science, it doesn’t exist. Citing data to advance the more transactional virtues of salience, easy availability and wide reach, its adherents pour scorn on the pursuit of brand love, and deride as baseless the commercial objective to which it is normally shackled: brand loyalty.

 

This isn’t a well-mannered divergence of views on a trip down one of marketing’s many arcane byways. It is a schism at the level of fundamentals. Is our discipline really so plastic as to be wide open to interpretation at the most vital interface of all, the one between consumers and brands?

Less than love, more than transaction

One of the problems here is looseness of language.‘Love’ is a short word, but a huge one - a bare syllable that seeks to convey the profound emotions that give meaning to our closest human relationships. perhaps it can be justifiably extended to the animals we welcome into our lives, and to religions and countries - but brands, do we really think these were commercial fragments are up to bearing its weight?

True, consumers themselves are apt to slip into declarations of seemingly amorous intent towards the brands or products that have captured their enthusiasm: ‘I just love the new iPhone X’. ‘We love the way First Direct doesn’t feel like a bank’.‘How can you not love Oreos?’

But, as a 2012 academic study from Rajeev Batra et al has warned, there are ‘numerous problems’ in equating the concept of ‘interpersonal love’ with the feelings people have towards brands. It is one thing for consumers to launch into hyperbole in casual reference to the brands they most favour, quite another for marketers to appropriate that language in earnestness.

In the context of the marketplace, then, ‘love’ is an overstatement. Let’s put the word to rest. But that still leaves a space where a quieter force holds sway. I will not be the only marketer who has over the years observed an ‘emotional something’ that exists somewhere along the spectrum between cold transaction at one end and full-on love at the other.A sense of closeness, of personal aptness, that some brands inspire.

What should we call it? How does it come about? Is there any evidence out there to support its existence and demonstrate its effect? As this is a book about evidence in marketing, let’s take that last question first.

The ‘Brand Aid’ study

In a paper published in October 2017 in the Journal of Consumer Research, three authors demonstrated the remarkable effect that ‘close brands’ can have on people’s sense of wellbeing.

Conducted by academics from the University of Arizona in the US, and Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, the study aimed to explore whether ‘close brand relationships’ could mimic close interpersonal relationships in their ability to help people cope with pain.

Volunteers were asked upfront to name brands they felt particularly close to a list that included BMW, Nike, Zara, Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe’s, Adidas, Guinness and Ford.

Across seven experiments, involving 1,511 participants, the authors showed that seeing, or even just contemplating, a favoured brand resulted in lower reported levels of pain induced in the experimental setting, and also in remembered pain from an accident or event in the past.

In the first experiment, volunteers placed their hands inside a ‘cold compressor’ ice chest - ‘an established method of inducing pain’. While doing so, each was asked to look at an open laptop in front of them.

The group had been randomly divided into two. In one half, each volunteer saw on the screen the logo of a brand they had said that they felt particularly close to. The other half - the controls - just looked at a fixation cross in the centre of the screen.

When asked afterwards to assess on a six-point scale the pain they had felt, those who had seen their favourite brand reported much lower levels than the control group.

In other experiments, controls were given ‘neutral’ objects to focus on or imagine - such as a basket or chair - to discount the possibility that seeing or recalling a brand constitutes a distraction which could explain the findings. Those in the ‘close brand’ group still reported lower levels of pain.

‘Across seven studies,’ concluded the authors, ‘the current research demonstrated that contemplating close brand relationships insulates against physical pain.’

Most marketers, of course, are not in the business of helping their customers deal with pain. Nevertheless, the findings illuminate the remarkable transference of feelings at the brand level to a more generalised positivity, in a situation where the brand’s functional qualities are irrelevant.

That still leaves a vital question unanswered: the nature of the ‘emotional something’ that prompts this generalised enhancement in the first place.

The authors reach for the explanation of brands as ‘relationship partners’, echoing a much earlier concept from Susan Fournier. It’s not so far from the typically vague notions the industry conjures to fill the void, brand engagement, emotional connection, attachment, bonding.

We can do better than that. We can be more specific. The place to look, in our search for the ‘something’, is the three decades’ body of academic research into symbolic consumption and the role of brands as contributors to personal identity.

Symbolic consumption and the concept of ‘brand for me’

The founder of the theory was Russell Belk, with his seminal 1988 paper ‘Possessions and the extended self’. Since then, the interplay of consumption choice and personal identity has been the subject of intense scrutiny by a suite of behavioural and psychological academics.

Key to the flow of reasoning is the concept of ‘self’. Socrates’ admonition to ‘know thyself ’ dates back to three centuries BCE, yet for almost the entire intervening period the freedom to ‘be thyself’ has been a privilege denied to all but a few. Even as recently as the mid-20th century, what a person really was at heart would be buried beneath the welter of circumstance: birth, gender, location, occupation and social class. For most of history, to know yourself was, in large part, simply to know your place.

This changed during the period social academics call the ‘post-modern era’, and what the rest of us would call the 1970s. With the dismantling of the barriers of social class, individuals began to enjoy a new freedom; to express who they really were, and to vary that expression over time, rather than accept the stable social roles society had hitherto mandated.

Not as easy as it sounds, as it turns out, since people now had to work out for themselves what their true identity was, and construct a narrative scaffolding to support it. In 1991, Anthony Giddens in his book Modernity and Self-Identity reduced the dilemma to three reflexive questions: What to do? How to act? Who to be?

The way that individuals went about answering these questions came to be known as ‘The project of self ’ - summarised by John Thopmson in 1990 as the process by which a person actively constructs an identity out of ‘the available symbolic resources in order to weave a coherent account of who she or he is’.

The ‘available symbolic resources’ include brands, which are a potentially vivid means of self-endorsement: ‘This is the person I am inside, and this brand helps me feel that’. Note that the point is not outward display - not ‘badge values’ signalling status to others - but rather the internal whispering of self to self. The upshot is that all kinds of brands are potentially involved - even those kept out of sight from others in cupboards, handbags or sports lockers.

Industry commentators have glibly paraphrased symbolic consumption as ‘You are what you buy’. This is too passive and reverses the arrow of agency. The truth is more forceful, more actively self-determined: ‘You buy what you are’.

A brand that makes it across the membrane of self is not there by accident; it survives the audit because it carries sufficient meaning to reflect an identity that a person not only feels profoundly, but has probably pondered at length too. It is a brand for me. The intimacy of that symbolism is why it is credible that the brand’s mere contemplation could trigger a generalised sense of ‘rightness’, sufficient even to take the edge off perceived pain.

We have found our ‘emotional something’. Now, which kinds of brands inspire it, and what commercial rewards might it bring?

Meaning, belief, culture and roots

Taken at the level of any single individual, of course, a ‘brand for me’ could be pretty much any brand out there, no matter how unremarkable, bland and listless 􏰆 there’s no accounting for taste.

Some brands, though (like the ones cited by the volunteers in the pain study), manage to pull off the trick of inspiring a strong appeal to self at scale. They induce stronger feelings of closeness, across more people, than their competitors, even where functional capability is at parity. Is there a common ingredient that helps them achieve this?

It is more like an amalgam than a solitary ingredient - a sense of authenticity, integrity and inner strength that some brands convey, which disproportionately suggests them to consumers as potential expressions of identity.

Underlying this, as the foundation of those constituents of meaning, you will often observe something else: a belief, a point of view about the world that is both related to and yet bigger than the category in which the brand operates.

The US retailer REI is a strong example of a brand with a belief-led point of view, not just because of the trenchant simplicity with which it is set down, but also because of the company-wide, totally integrated and sometimes commercially sacrificial intensity with which it is manifested.

Some brands, sensing an ideological vacuum that has led to brand drift across the years (or being made aware of it by consumers), turn to their roots for inspiration. Ford and Avon (see below) are examples of brands that have recently pored over the words and deeds of their long-dead founders, and reinterpreted them for consumers today, to foster the combination of authenticity and relevance that could encourage greater appeal to sense of self.

Meanwhile, the US academics Douglas Holt and Grant McCracken point to culture as another dimension on which brands can increase their traction in consumers’ quests to express identity. McCracken has deconstructed breakthrough repositioning successes such as Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ and Persil’s ‘Dirt is Good’ to show that they could not have been devised through either consumer understanding or internal values alone, but needed the alchemy of cultural insight. More recently, the fashion retailer Jigsaw has bravely used the UK’s Brexit cultural backdrop as an amplifier for its ‘Style and Truth’ positioning, with its challenging paean to immigration.

Through overlapping means, centred on some kind of ideological firmness, certain brands offer customers more meaning for their money - making them greater units of utility in the expression of self. What commercial rewards do those customers offer in return?

Loyalty at parity

Here’s what it isn’t. It isn’t biceps tattooed with the brand logo, nor Kevin Roberts’ famously optimistic ‘loyalty beyond reason’. The concept of brand loyalty has had a bad press of late, and the tendency of its advocates to overrate it may be part of the reason why. In the world of brands, where asymmetries lurk everywhere, loyalty can only ever be a relative concept.

Martin Weigel, head of planning at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, has a nice way of urging marketers to curb their ambitions for customer loyalty. His counsel - paraphrasing the late Andrew Ehrenberg - is not to think about ‘our consumers’, but to regard them as ‘consumers of other brands who sometimes happen to buy ours’. He is right. But what if we can improve on that ‘sometimes’ just a little?

It may be easier to come at this as a thought experiment. Imagine a routine sort of category where one brand happens to appeal more to your sense of personal identity than its competitors do - even though you’re happy to buy them too.

Your preferred, brand-for-me option and one of those competitors are side by side in a supermarket aisle. Both tidily displayed, both easy to reach, both the same price. It’s not hard to conclude that you would, almost intuitively, reach for your more favoured brand. Not through any perceived superiority at the product level, but because it just feels a bit more ‘you’.This is loyalty at parity: the tendency to always choose one brand when everything else is equal.

But of course, it is very often not. If there were a promotion on the other brand, would you still choose your favoured brand as before? Unlikely. What if the other one commanded a more prominent position on the shelf? Probably not.What if your favoured one were not there at all, because it had a weaker distribution footprint, and you’d have to walk a couple of blocks to get it? Definitely not.

Loyalty at parity is worth having but is not a killer advantage. It is an all-things-being-equal tie-breaker. Its significance, in the industry’s heated loyalty debate, is that it does not conflate ‘loyal’ with ‘frequent purchaser’ - since there can be many occasions when ‘parity’ does not come into play, and competitors get bought.

For marketers, it means there may be opportunity for a relative loyalty play in that long tail of occasional purchasers - a chance to persuade more people to make a positive choice then the playing field is level. If ‘brand for me’ status can achieve that, then it is an edge - no more. But, in today’s oversupplied markets, where the functional attributes of brands tend towards high quality convergence, an edge is sometimes the best you can hope for.

Much of this chapter has been devoted to a diminution in the elevated status of much discussed industry concepts. Not the high peak of fierce brand love, but the lower plateau of brands as contributors to self-identity; not the marketer’s nirvana of diehard brand loyalty, but the marketplace reality of a tie-breaker edge; not the single heroic virtue that all great brands embody, but a tangle of linked perceptual assets that tends to characterise a ‘brand for me’.

And that ‘diminution’ motif, if I’m honest, applies at the level of evidence, too. The reader might have expected firm, quantitative, incontrovertible data to buttress the assertions I make. In their place I have offered an experimental academic study, a body of loosely connected interpretive research and empirical observation. In the messy, variable-rich, all-too-human domain of brand marketing, this is generally the kind of evidence I get to work with, and interpret.

It would be nice to offer instead a scientifically proven, one-size-fits-all framework to show marketers how to confidently build their brands. I’m just not sure it exists.

References

Batra, R, Ahuvia, A, and Bagozzi, RP. ‘Brand love’. Journal of Marketing. 76(2), 2012 Belk, R. ‘Possessions and the extended self’. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2),

1988
Ehrenberg, et al. ‘Brand advertising as creative publicity’. Journal of Advertising

Research, 42(4), 2002
Fournier, S. ‘Consumers and their brands: developing relationship theory in

consumer research’. Journal of Consumer Research, 24(4), 1998

Giddens, A. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford University Press, 1991

Holt, DB. How Brands Become Icons: The principles of cultural branding. Harvard Business Review Press, 2004

McCracken, G. Culture and Consumption: New approaches to the symbolic character of consumer goods and activities. Indiana University Press, 1990

Reimann, M, Nuñez, S, and Castaño, R. ‘Brand-aid’. Journal of Consumer Research, 44(3), 2017

Roberts, K. Lovemarks: The future beyond brands. Murdoch Books, 2004
Sharp, B. How Brands Grow: What marketers don’t know. OUP, 2010
Thompson, J. Ideology and Modern Culture: Critical social theory in the era of mass

communication. Polity Press, 1990
Weigel, M.‘Why we should stop worrying so much about loyalty and relationships,

and focus on getting a lot of penetration’. Canalside View blog. https:// martinweigel.org/2010/09/07/why-we-could-do-with-a-little-less-talk-about- loyalty-and-relationships-and-a-little-more-about-conq/

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