Friday, September 3

Buying Into Brands: Not So Different From People

Every day, people make second-by-second judgments about other people within their proximity. It happens so fast that much of the information is processed in the subconscious, managed by whatever cognitive filters we've built up over the years, e.g., we might avoid people who look angry or flash a smile to someone in return.

Over time, those perceptions might stick with reoccurring experiences and repeated exposure. If the person always seems angry, our mind eventually labels them as an angry person. Conversely, people who are always smiling might be categorized as happy.

Our Judgments About Brands Aren't Much Different Than People.

A new study conducted by the Relational Capital Group and a team of researchers at Princeton University recently found that we shape opinions about brands much the same way. We develop perceptions about the brand based on experiences and repeated exposure, with brands that have warmth and competence.

"Since the emergence of mass market brands, products and services have been defined by their features and benefits," said Chris Malone, chief advisory officer of the Relational Capital Group. "This new study suggests that features and benefits are simply an incomplete subset of the broader categories of warmth and competence that consumers perceive and judge brands against."

The study links back this new understanding to early development. According to the study, the researchers recognize people as the first brands, with faces acting as the first logos. The most common judgments people make toward symbols: their warmth (intention toward us) and their competence (ability to carry out these intentions).

To break down this understanding further, warmth includes traits such as friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness, and honesty. Competence is reflected by traits 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, one of the two lead researchers. "These findings are consistent with other studies we've conducted that validate the influence and predictive power of warmth and competence on human behavior. In effect, it shows that people were the first brands and faces were the first logos."

The Uphill Battle For Brands To Earn Trust And Succeed.

In the eyes of the consumers, however, brands have to earn trust to break away from the preconceived notions that already exist about companies in general. Specifically, many companies convey that they are primarily interested in advancing their own self-interest and can't be trusted, especially when no one is watching. While the study provided examples of companies that have succeeded in doing this, it didn't offer concrete suggestions for improvements.

Having studied this concept before, we know several. Here are three that come quickly to mind, with an emphasis on warmth.

• Innovative companies tend to earn trust quickly because they have worked to do something for the customer first.
• Customer service oriented companies tend to exhibit warmth because they create a people-to-people connection.
• Engaged companies, such as those who have off-sales conversations online, are frequently considered more helpful.

Once a company or organization can dispel the notion that it only has self-serving interests, repeated exposure and reoccurring positive experiences will prove the company's competence. For example, the warmth associated with Apple convinced people to test drive Ping, but the execution made some people question its confidence and intention.

Conversely, when Apple originally launched the iPhone, the warmth people associated with the brand overcame the prelaunch criticism. And then, when people learned Apple really did reinvent the smart phone, it reinforced a perception of competence.

You can apply these findings to nearly any organization. Our most immediate judgment is generally based on our perception of someone's intentions toward us. Ironically, these initial perceptions are often proven incorrect (for good or bad outcomes), but it doesn't change the fact that this is how we're wired.
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