Thursday, 26 November 2009

Can brands pull? Consumers, Brands, Relationships & Love

"Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired." Robert Frost 

  "I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I've ever known." Walt Disney 
     Whenever anyone mentions brand interaction with consumers, the term "relationship" seems to inevitably be used to describe the interaction between a firm a possible/current customers. Within such conversations, its usually stated that brands want consumers to engage in a relationship that involves "loving" (or at least consumer affinity) for the product or brand. If consumer affection is truly what brands seek, then some interesting similarities may exist between consumer-brand relationship dynamics and interpersonal (i.e. consumer to consumer) relationships. However, is what a brand obtains truly affection in any manner similar to personal relationships?

Why and how do people form relationships? or a quick overview of all of human behaviour....
        In comparing relationships across individuals (as both people and consumers) and brands, one first has to ascertain what the nature of both relationships are. The possible goals of forming personal relationships takes on a scale too large to fully discuss here. However, generally, one could say that people form three general categories of relationships with others: romantic, friendship/acquaintanceship and formal/functional.

       Romantic relationships at their most basic level aim to facilitate love (something we'll attempt to quantify loosely below) in its various manifestations, along with alleviating what could be argued are biological/evolutionary instinctual needs and sociological pressures (That's a seriously large concept to quantify). Friendship in its exclusively platonic form can be basically quantified as alleviating pressures for companionship and societal acceptance/esteem, as well as fulfilling instinctual drives for social behavior. Finally, functional relationships are generally formed based on a shared goal, position or objective and at their base fill the need to achieve the goal at hand.

       Along these rather basic and somewhat transitory categories, goals overlap and relationships may migrate. Exclusive friendship may transfer into a romantic relationship (or vice versa) and functional relationships based initially on a task or common goal may take on or migrate to additional categories. Proximity (literal or increasingly virtual) is said to play a large role in relationship building and it can be reasoned that it functions as an integral part of how relationships are formed in varying degrees by category.

         Along this rough framework, we can see how George Levinger's (1983)  theory of interpersonal relationship development may illustrate the transitory nature of relationships. Levinger theorized (initially for heterosexual adult relationships, but with later application to other groupings) that relationships had 5 steps:

Click for Larger Version..

      Through basic analysis of the model, we can see how interpersonal human relationships develop and relate to the roughly created categories.

How do interpersonal relationships differ from the basic consumer relationship model?

     While interpersonal relationships can quickly change their intended goal throughout development, consumer relationships are much more rooted in a fixed point. At the heart of all consumer/business interaction is the delivery of value. From a consumer's perspective, this makes the goal of the relationship alleviating a need or drive, while from the brand perspective this involves delivering the desired product or solution and completing the transaction. The general consumer buyer decision process states that 5 stages occur before, during and after the a consumer decision/purchase:

Click for Larger Version....

         Within the model of consumer purchase and interaction, value is what drives a repeat purchase. The brand must deliver on expected value to minimize post purchase dissonance and ensure that the consumer continues to keep the brand in a strong position within its consideration set.The failure of a brand to deliver on its value proposition may represent a possible "Termination" of an ongoing brand/consumer relationship, if the failure is strong enough. In this sense, the consumer decision model represents one interaction in what will hopefully be a string of interactions, while Levinger's model represents the development of an overall interpersonal relationship.

Is value an underlying force in all relationships?

   While both models seem to describe different aspects of varying relationships, there exists similarities between the two. Both the consumer/brand relationship and interpersonal relationship models rely on value as a driving force.While value may manifest in different ways between the two relationships, the overall implication is the same. Just as a consumer will prefer products that meet with expectations of performance and value, an individual will continue to develop relationships with other individuals that meet an individual's expectations of interaction. Logically then, it can be assumed that as value underlies both models, a combination of the two, with the consumer model describing micro interaction and Levinger's describing the macro or overall relationship development can be applied to both categories of relationships, as shown below.

Click for Larger Version....

If relationships develop similarly, does it mean a brand or product can progress down the model to love?

     While both categories of relationships can utilize a combined model, differences between the two mean that the rate of progression through the model and the final destination within it depend upon a variety of factors. Within the three stated categories of relationships, brands and individuals are most similar within the functional category, due to the limited distance traveled within the model to achieve such a relationship and the lack of complex emotional ties involved. Within friendship and romantic relationships however, a complex interaction of external factors and internal preferences and emotions drives the development of the relationship.

        Therefore, to understand the interplay between brands and love, we need to first look at how love can actually be defined. To define love fully is something that hasn't been accomplished in the course of human history and I highly doubt I'll be the first to do it. Love can be defined along scientific, religious, anthropological or psychological lines and even within the field of psychology, amongst multiple perspectives. For our purposes, love is defined amongst Sternberg's triangular model.

     Sternberg's model divides types of love amongst three main aspects (Intimacy, Passion and Commitment). The combination or absence of these key factors allows for the distinction of 8 different types of love, ranging from "Non Love" (the absence of all love) to "Consummate Love" (a perfect type of love involving all aspects of the overall concept).

     Though brands and individuals may share similarities in the combined model for development, their performance in evoking various components of love is different. This doesn't mean that brand's can't evoke some of the emotions involved in love, it just means that the limited performance in some categories effects what types of love a brand can possibly create.

The green area represents an approximation of a brand's possible positions within Sternberg's love model, based on the ability to evoke primary components from the consumer. It is admittedly,a very rough estimation. 

     Analyzing the three primary components, it becomes evident that brands can most primarily evoke "commitment" from an individual. By delivering value on a consistent basis, a necessary part of facilitating relationship development, a brand naturally develops commitment over time. "Intimacy", as Sternberg defined it, entails feelings of connectedness and bonding. While a brand or product can't achieve such feelings with a person the way another individual can, through marketing communications tools, a bond can be established between a brand image (and its stated values) and a consumer. "Passion" as Sternberg utilized it, entailed physical and sexual attraction and romance.While traditional elements of "passion" are possible for a brand to achieve, such as in the relationship between a luxury car and a auto enthusiast, the brand's inherent limitations keep it from achieving deeper levels of such.

      By generalizing a brand's performance in evoking the three core components of Sternberg's love, it becomes evident that out of the 7 types of love possible in interpersonal relationships, the consumer-brand relationship is assumed to achieve 4 of them (as shown above). The ability to create any of the 4 possible types of love with the consumer depends on a variety of factors, such as product, price and buying context.

Does a sports car evoke the same type of possible consumer love as a can of beans?
        If we follow the heavily generalized model created above, then it stands to reason that different categories of products can achieve different types of consumer relationships based on their inherent properties. A sports car may evoke passion in the consumer in a way that a can of beans wouldn't (barring the power of the bean lover's lobby)

A grid showing examples of the different categories of Consumer Involvement Theory (Laurent & Kapferer, 1985)

         In analyzing different products, Consumer Involvement Theory (CIT) can provide some distinctions between product classifications that will be useful in detailing the different types of love possible. CIT divides products across two axis, High/Low involvement (the amount of importance or effort allocated to a product) and Rational/Emotional decision basis (the context in which the product was evaluated). As shown in the above example, the matrix generated by CIT allows for products to be classified on a range varying from high end luxury items to routine FMCG purchases.

Approximating the location of examples of the 4 CIT categories on the Sternberg triangle shows how different products may interact with the consumer in affinity based relationships.

        Subsequently, approximating the position of CIT category examples on the branded section of the Sternberg triangle illustrates how different product categories form differing types affinities with the consumer.  

Low involvement/emotional purchases such as a music cd or other quick impulse purchases are rooted firmly in a passionate type of affinity. Forming such a relationship with the consumer may prove difficult for such products however, as the proximity and trust needed to work through the consumer relationship model to continuation aren't normally found in quick decision purchases. This lack of commitment is also found after affinity is formed, due to the fleeting nature of low involvement emotional purchase enjoyment.
Type of affinity evoked: Infatuation

Low involvement/rational purchases such as routine FMCG goods like a preferred breakfast cereal or cola hold a commitment of affinity with the consumer due to their extended relationship. The products in this category have delivered value to continue the relationship, but have failed to evoke passion from the consumer.
Type of affinity evoked: Empty Love

High involvement/ rational purchases such as Financial services are rooted in a high commitment, low passion type affinity with the consumer. The high involvement factor of products such as life insurance, mean that a commitment can be fostered through the consumer relationship, but that emotional elements are largely avoided within the product interaction. Products such as this also possess the possibility of forming a partnership type relationship with the consumer, increasing "intimacy" and allowing for the brand to take on a collaborative role.
Type of affinity evoked: Companionate Love

High involvement/emotional purchases such as a luxury sports car are primarily rooted in the passionate/emotional nature of the purchase. Interestingly though, this product category, much like High involvement/rational purchases, can build commitment or intimacy with the consumer though shared experiences and routinized use.
Type of affinity evoked: Infatuation or Fatuous Love

     Of course, these example classifications aren't static in their positioning within the Sternberg model. Approximate locations can move based on specific consumer perceptions, effectiveness of marketing communications and the overall performance of the product.

How can Marketing Communications tools shape the development of the consumer relationship?
       Since product positions within the Sternberg model of love aren't entirely static, the role of marketing communications tools extends beyond the basic consumer relationship model and has implications within shaping affinity types as well.

        Within the consumer decision model, marketing communications helps to shape favorable consumer perceptions of the product's value and ensure repeat purchase. During problem recognition, mar-comms helps to encourage consumers that a need is present and that such a desire is valid. Tools such as Advertising, DM & PR are useful during the information search & evaluation of alternatives through informing consumers of product features & promotions. Further, Sales promotions and DM can be utilized through the evaluation of alternatives and purchase to increase the value perception of a product. Finally, marketing communications efforts in the post purchase stage are utilized to reduce cognitive dissonance and convince the consumer the correct purchase was made (and should be repeated).

       Beyond this basic consumer journey however, marketing communications plays a role in the evolution of the consumer relationship. While its primary capacity is to aid in the consumer value perception, which continues the relationship, it also helps in aiding proximity. As was demonstrated earlier in the Levinger model, proximity plays a large role in the development of interpersonal relationships. Within the modified consumer model, product awareness plays the largest role in a consumer's search for information and evaluation of alternatives, which allows the brand to stay within a consumer's consideration set. In addition to this however, maintenance of product awareness between purchasing cycles may function in the same capacity as proximity for interpersonal relationships, helping to further along the development cycle of the relationship.

     Within Sternberg's model, marketing communications tools help products and brands to achieve capacity greater than that allowed by the product's characteristics. Once a brand has managed to reach a continuation within the consumer relationship, the product's general classification and characteristics should dictate what type of affinity develops. Marketing communication efforts can help to extend the position of the brand in the consumer relationship by increasing commitment from something initially classified as an impulse purchase or attempt to give passion to a routine FMCG relationship.

      For example, through mascot based advertising a breakfast food brand aims to add depth to a routine purchase decision by putting a personalized face on the brand interaction. Alternatively, a luxury car company may offer after purchase extras (i.e. free maintenance) to minimize dissonance about the purchase and create commitment in the relationship.

Not all mascots humanize the brand as much as others...but there's no denying Domo-kun's magnetic personality - Who wouldn't want to be on this guy's good side...


        In response to the initial question of this thought piece, it seems that brands can evoke "love" from a consumer. However, as shown above, the types of love a brand can generate in the generalized consumer relationship are incomplete in comparison to love in an interpersonal relationship. Such a conclusion seems to be common sense, as brands will eternally be handicapped by their avenues of communication and personal assets. A milk brand may, with time, develop to be a comforting breakfast time partner, but it won't develop into any other dimensions, either emotionally or in different aspects of the consumer's life.

        When looking at the similarities between brand and interpersonal relationships, it becomes evident that personal perception, continued communication and the delivery of value are key in any type of relationship. Just as avenues of communication, personal attraction and emotional value are key in developing a relationship with another person, proper marketing communications, a favorable brand image and key value delivery are necessary to foster a proper brand relationship. By analyzing the type of relationship a brand hopes to form with a consumer (i.e. functional vs. more complex) and rationalizing what emotional and involvement the product is capable of, marketers can hope to coordinate a strategy that forms the optimum type of affinity based relationship with the consumer.

        Paying for love jokes aside, it becomes evident that in any type of relationship, continued interest, perception of a partner's emotional/intellectual position and effort are necessary for go message Aleksandr Orlov on Twitter before he gets all upset again.

Suggested Reading:
Sternberg, Robert J. (1988). The Triangle of Love: Intimacy, Passion, Commitment
Curtis P. Haugtvedt, Paul Herr, Frank R. Kardes (2008). Handbook of Consumer Psychology
Dwyer, Diana (2000). Interpersonal Relationships

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Does Corporate Involvement Change Online Games?

      Last night I attended the RSA's "Design & Society: Gaming the City" talk, which held some amazing points about the nature of games overall, their future, history and the implications of their use in our society. Perhaps one of the most interesting points brought up during the lecture (which is available online here), was about the nature of the gaming experience when it relates to stated functionally and subsequently companies.

      The example used was about an on-line game, ESP (Requires registration), which allowed two anonymously paired players to attempt to describe an image placed infront of them. Without being able to communicate in any way with the other user, the players attempt to describe the image using the same terms. Points are subsequently awarded for using identical terms to describe the presented image. As the game was being described by the speaker, one could see how he and others enjoyed the spontaneous synchronicity of the game's experience.

       The point in presenting this game within the lecture however, wasn't specifically about the game's experience, but on factors that impacted it as the site developed. The underlying purpose of the game wasn't only entertainment, but to instead create a "Mechanical Turk" type device that crowd sources image recognition. The frequency of terms used by players allowed for the generation of meta data identifying what the picture was, something computer's can't reliably do. At this point, one can say that the game's experience isn't changed by an implicit benefit from playing it, but instead allows for added value to the overall experience (out of those that are aware of it's functional capacity).

Great as an image labeler, horrible as a chat room.....

       The development of ESP led to a Google version (aptly named) "Google Image Labeler" which, unlike ESP clearly states not only a corporate involvement, but also an explicit function of playing the game. Last night's presented argument stated that in changing from ESP to Google's version, something was lost from the overall experience and in this case, I tend to agree.

       Such an argument brings up an interesting question,"Aside from underlying functionality implications, how does corporate involvement fundamentally change the gaming experience?" Further, how do developers and marketers strike a balance between branding/involvement and the user experience?

This game is like agriculture based intellectual crack....

       When talking about such an issue with a few folks after the lecture, I found myself referencing the issue around the example of Farmville on Facebook. Facebook games are by themselves an interesting category, due to the fact that they exist as social and entertainment entities. Almost all gaming experiences based on the Facebook application platform gain atleast some of their value by rooting the gaming experience in sharing with friends. Farmville is no exception, as the virtual farming game allows users to move friends in as neighbors, tend to their farms, gift each other and assist in growing crops. Without the help of others, the game becomes a slow and repetitive experience (though personally, even with friends I view it in slightly the same way).

       With respect to the ESP example from earlier, I think that should I find out that Farmville was a secretive crowd sourcing tool to discern crop growth patterns, it wouldn't affect my user experience in many ways (though my thoughts on the state of actual farming would be shattered). However, what effect would explicit corporate involvement do to my hypothetical experience?

       If Farmville renamed itself "Tesco's Produce Aisle presents Farmville", I'd like to think I wouldn't mind, but I do believe that some hardcore players would be alienated. Contrary to this, the game's currently established currency system allows for players to gain special currency by filling out surveys or signing up for trials, something that seems much more corporate, but I accepted easily (though I never did it). While the current system put in place by games such as Farmville, which game maker Zynga seems to favor despite throughout its portfolio, explicitly ties business interests into the gaming platform, I never noticed because it was optional and it was there when I started.

This is an example of a piece of clothing that can't even be worn for irony....yet

      I think in such an example we find the crux of how corporate involvement can fit into online game development. I'd like to believe that corporate/business interests need to be upfront about their involvement in games (something that successful promotion seems to require), but it seems that proper integration into the game is much more important. Allowing players to function autonomously of the game's business aspects allows users to choose whether or not to interact with the brand's interests. Corporate promotions that follow such a maxim may be promotional without being garish, a possible reason why I don't mind paid aspects of Farmville, but at the same time slightly (very slightly) recoil at an explicitly Tesco titled version.

     Perhaps the other factor that controls successful involvement from the above example, is the establishment of involvement early on. As"Google Image Labeler" was clearly a derivative of ESP, user's had an expectation about the level of business/corporate involvement developed from their earlier gaming experience. With Farmville, atleast from a personal view point, I formed my expectation of the gaming experience with business/corporate interests present and therefore habituated to them quickly and without much notice.

     If a game is presented in such a way that marketing/business interests aren't overpowering, that the gaming experience can function in an unimpeded manner and if user's expectations allow it, corporate involvement and marketing interests can fit within some types of online games efficiently.

Of course, my example above is rather limited and based on personal views, leave some comments about your thoughts on the issue.

*I'd also like to point out that while I did play Farmville, I successfully extricated myself from its flash based veggie claws, something my lunch hour has thanked me for.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Social Media Thunderdome - Flickr vs. Zooomr

For Part I (Introduction), Part II (Media Bracket) & Part III (The Criteria) click the links.For a recap of Round 1 of the Microblogging sites, click here.
Traffic (Alexa Ranking):

Alexa’s Global 3 Month Reach Increase/Decrease:
+6.2% to a global monthly average of 2.196% of internet users
+.02% to a global monthly average of .0063% of internet users
US/UK Traffic Ranking
Largest National Traffic Source:
32.4% - UK
20.8% - US


Yahoo! - Santa Clara, California


Upload, Download, Syndication, Authorization & Groups Capable
Upload, Download, Syndication, Authorization & Groups Capable

Mobile Usage Options:
Mobile site, third pary and app integration, phone access

Mobile site, phone access

None present on interface
None Present on interface

          Photosharing sites occupy an intresting position in today's internet landscape. Whereas before the ubiquity of Facebook and Myspace, these sites represented the best option for posting photos to share. However, as long as mutli-content hosting networks offer features like Facebook's photo albums, one has to wonder if user's truly want to store content in one place and interact with users in another. The challenge facing photosharing sites is how to add value against offerings which aggregate much more content to a defined set of the user's friends.

         This isn't to say that exclusive photo/video hosting sites don't have a place, as they definitely do. Users who want a repository of content without the hassle of moving their collections from possibly fleeting social network to social network will welcome an external option to store content. Further, especially in the case of video/photography buffs, a network built solely around sharing photo or video content can take on its own networking appeal, in the context of shared values and information between users. One lingering question to these possibilities however, is that as mobile devices allow content to be uploaded simultaneously to blogs and networks, do the majority of users value photographic quality over instentaneous distribution?

I refuse to believe that normal photographers are able to take Filckr front page quality photos all the time

        Flickr represents (in most people's minds) the pre-eminent site for photo distribution outside of social networks. Having been established in 2003, it rose to prominence during the growth of social networking and has held a variety of positions with respect to dominant networks. Flickr has attempted to keep relevant with various technological trends by offering features beyond photosharing, such as geo-tagging, video, comment tagging, photo export to various products and attempted integration to other networks, all with varying degrees of success.

        While features such as geo and comment tagging are almost required now by users, Flickr's adding of video is perhaps the most telling about their network position and orientation. Like Youtube, regular and HD video uploads are allowed (to a length of 90 seconds), however, unlike other video sharing sites, only "Pro" or paid accounts are allowed to view in HD. Flickr, and subsequently their owner Yahoo!'s, addition of video belies an interesting orientation by the company against staying solely in their traditional photosharing capacity and diversifying out into other content to survive. What's worrying however, is that video sites will indefinitely do video sharing better than Flickr (and without paid accounts). If video can't function as a draw for Flickr, then is the traditional photo fare enough for most users?

The iPhone & iPhone 3GS seem to have cannibalized each other, but the Cannon vs. iPhone split shows some of the underlying trends for photosharing sites

       In assesing the value of solely Flickr's photosharing functionality, we come back to the introductory question of Flickr's stance in the juxtaposition of quality photography vs. instentaneous upload. User data from the site shows that the Apple iPhone holds a prominent position as one of the most popular platforms, showing that mobile uploads hold a place within the network's ethos. However, one has to assume that "quality" (i.e. traditional camera taken, edited and uploaded) may still play a larger part in the network's activity, based on the variety of other prominent cameras.

Zooomr's interface is a departure from the slightly more polished (yet some would argue corporate) interface of Flickr

      Compared to Flickr, at first glance, Zooomr seems slightly less polished. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as the site was first set up to allow the creator to share photos with friends in Japan and the interface manifests itself in a highly idiosyncratic and personalized yet functional way. Its zipline login page allows you to see a stream of user activity and its added features that seem to indicate aspirations in microblogging and geolocation functionality. These features do denote the possiblity that as a hub of socialization and content sharing between existing friends, Zooomr is a positive option. Furthermore, Zooomr's focus on gloablization, something that becomes evident when reading about its expanding localization options, presents the possibility that it hopes to grab user share in a variety of markets that may feel underserved by Flickr.

     Contrasting these possibilties with the overall experience of using the site however, seems to be a different story. I won't begrudge anyone for creating a network based on personal tastes and needs, but Zooomr, at least on a personal level, felt less standardized in its user experience than other sites. The array of possible features and content seemed scattered and I feel that even after having a play around with it, I'm still missing a variety of options that should be evident. Of course, Zooomr has a basic functionality that is evident and comparable to Flickr, but it doesn't seem to differentiate itself in any strong manner. Doing some Googling about Zooomr, I was able to discover that in 2005-2007, an array of interesting features were rolled out with many of them being changed or removed by the time I've reached it.

     Going back to the initial question of mobile vs. quality photography, I can't seem to get a position for Zooomr. It seems that the service allows for a distribution of photos that would help to foster a quality photography community, but the interface seems to be a sticking point for such a development. Further, I'm not really clear on its array of photo upload options readily available, so its hard to discern focus.

     With respect to Zooomr vs. Flickr, if we were to declare one as having a greater capacity for being a prominent force in social media, it becomes clear that Flickr's current prominence and design creates a superior position relative to a plucky and idiosyncratic Zooomr. Overall, the question for future rounds becomes not whether Flickr can survive a direct photosharing competitor with similar features, but whether it can survive changing consumer tastes, mobile proliferation and the prominence of the all in one social network and media repository.