Wednesday, May 23

Humanizing Business: Brand Research, Part 2 of 3

The Relational Capital Group (RCG) published some compelling brand research across seven different white papers in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. As a continuation of our RCG research review, which began with Four Brand Dynamics Every Marketer Ought To Know, we look to the extension published by Deborah MacInnis.

While the original research concludes that consumers judge and interact with brands in much the same way they do with other people and social groups, it also suggests that brands which exhibit warmth and competence have an easier time establishing trust and long-term loyalty. MacInnis questions that conclusion, recognizing that relationships to people and objects are much more complex than that.

In fact, she suggests that warmth and competence are not necessarily traits for brands to exhibit as much as they might be outcomes related to the people involved in the relationship. In other words, when consumers trust a brand, they may judge the brand to be competent (trusted to do the job) and warm (trusted to have my best interest at heart) whether the brand exhibits those traits or not.

Three Critical Questions To Ask About Brand Relationships.

How Impacting Are Relationship Types? MacInnis suggests that if consumers do develop relationships with brands like they do with people, then the varied degrees of relationships might apply. For example, some brands might secure a committed partnership (best friends) while others might be emotionally intense but short lived, like a fling.

If this is true, marketers might consider the true psychological weight of social media, which tends to create more intense but superficial relationships en masse than committed relationships. In fact, many online connections are causal in that people who are already committed to brands seek out online relationships with those brands. They also require significant affirmation that the brand can live up to the relationship that they have come to expect offline.

Are There Consequences In Relationships? In practical terms, communication professionals generally believe that brands which are more trusted, competent, and warm are more likely to survive a crisis than brands that are perceived as cold or less competent. But MacInnis suggests that this might not be the case. She surmises that  the more committed a consumer is to a brand, the greater the impact any infraction might cause.

This idea correlates well with our Fragile Brand Theory, which suggests that the further brand perception drifts from brand reality, the greater the eventual crash. Where warmth and competence might help facilitate forgiveness are likely confined to one-time innocent mistakes. BP provides an excellent case study in this area, given the company had established a trusted position as leading the way in green energy, which one careless accident quickly undermined and angered people.

Does Everyone Become Attached The Same Way? There has been other research conducted on how people interact with and attach to objects that might be relevant here. From those studies, researchers have noted that there are additional relationship influencers, such as the degree of relationship anxiety people have or the degree of relationship avoidance they may have.

In such cases, some might require reassurance of the relationship status while others might avoid such attachment all together. The reason this is significant is that it demonstrates how warmth and competence might appeal more heavily toward one personality type than another. "Specifically, whereas brand warmth may be critical to individuals whose attachment styles are characterized by high anxiety, it may actually be a relationship deterrent to those whose attachment styles are characterized by high avoidance," MacInnis wrote.

The takeaway here for marketers is that even if evidence suggests that brand relationships occur much like individual or group relationships, it doesn't mean that marketing will be even easier. If anything, the conscientious marketer will recognize that brand relationships are as challenging to maintain as any relationship.

From our perspective, the relationship does not always occur by a brand's ability to exhibit certain admirable traits, but rather its ability to do what it says it is going to do. Ergo, one would assume that if warmth and competence are always the advantage, then an airline like Spirit Airlines could not exist. Instead, what we learn is that Spirit Airlines sets an exceptionally cold expectation (in potentially charging people for bathroom usage) but consumers accept it because the company is up front about it.

To learn more about the papers and abstracts released to the study by RCG, visit their page dedicated to the research. The company specializes in the principles, process and science of lasting, mutually-beneficial business relationships. This study is groundbreaking in its ability to tie scientific data to long-standing theories within the fields of advertising, communication, and marketing.
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