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:

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      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:

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         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.

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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


  1. Interesting overview. I'd be intrigued to see if the attributes/values of a product on something like the means-end model have more impact on relationship development though.

  2. Ah, young man... the first evidence I have had that someone was actually listening in class... and I thought it was going to be the Wright-angled triangle too... ! Not only acquisition, but retention, I guess ... more than I could ever have hoped for. Stellas all round then at Graduation....