Friday, May 25

Humanizing Business: Brand Research, Part 3 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 and Three Critical Questions To Ask About Brand Relationships, the third abstract to focus on is the paper by Nicolas Keryn, Susan Fiske, and Chris Malone.

The abstract builds upon the Stereotype Content Model and tests several brands against the Intentional Agents Framework, which suggests consumers have relationships with brands much like they have with people. The study has the potential to change the way marketers think about brands and interactions with customers, consumers, and the general public.

People And How They Relate To Brands.

The concept that people relate to brands much in the same way they relate to people (and objects) has been around for more than a decade. The paper cites several studies, some dating back to 1998.

Although early research frequently refers to models of social perception developed in social psychology, we noticed that there is considerable crossover (not referenced in the paper) in the field of cognitive psychology. Simply put, cognitive psychology recognizes that people categorized people, places, things, qualities, etc. in groupings. This is an asset because it aids recall and association. It can also be a detriment because it provides the framework for stereotypes, incorrect or otherwise.

We can see this phenomenon in one of the examples provided by researchers. By asking people to assign warmth and competence to a variety of groups, they identify different groups as warmer or colder, more or less competent. For example, wealthy people might be seen as more competent but colder. The disabled as less competent and warmer. (Neither is necessarily true, I might add.)

Brands were categorized in much the same way. In the study, for example, Campbell's, Johnson & Johnson, and Coca-Cola all scored high in terms of warmth (intention) and competence (ability). Mercedes, Porsche and Rolex scored lower on warmth but high on ability. Veterans's Hospital, Public Transport and USPS scored high on warmth and low on ability. And AIG, BP and Goldman Sachs all scored low on competence and low on ability. (The paper includes 16 brands.)

It was mostly these brand clusters that suggested the combination of warmth (intentions) and competence (ability) was formed. These were also paired against another framework model, which showed how brands elicited feelings of pity, admiration, envy, and contempt.

Expectedly, the study found that well-intentioned brands received much higher warmth ratings. Unexpectedly, high ability brands also received slightly higher ratings, suggesting that brands with high  ability (those that do what they say they will do) have an advantage. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that marketers ought to strive for warmth and competence.

Although the researchers did not identity the correlation, the difference between brands scoring higher or lower on warmth is frequently tied to accessibility and frequency of contact as much as good intentions. Even brands that have earned public contempt are further hampered by their distance from the consumer, with many of their products being passed through to the consumer by another party.

What Does This Mean For Marketers And Brands?

While it only scrapes the surface, tempering the findings of this paper with the article presented by Jennifer Aaker, Emily Harbinsky, and Kathleen Vohs could be critical in any decision making. They argue that while warmth and competence is an ideal pursuit for many brands, they also found that competency is more important than warmth in spurring consumers to purchase.

One may also surmise that brands that do not naturally fit into a persona of warmth could undermine their own competence if they try too hard to exhibit that quality. In fact, the Aaker, Harbinsky, Vohs paper notes that brands that are overtly warm (like nonprofits) can unintentionally reduce the perception that they are competent. They also note that other brands, those that earn too much admiration, begin to express another emotion that wasn't necessity tested for in the original studies. That emotion is awe.

What this means for marketers and advertisers from our perspective is how important it is to tie the four brand dynamics and marketing messages to the observed mission, vision, and value statements. By observed, I mean mission, vision, and values that are actually being applied in every facet of operation (not those that collect dust in old annual reports).

It also suggests how companies ought to prioritize their overall operational objectives to how they want to position the company in the marketplace (as well as the appropriateness of that position), with an emphasis on competence (high quality products and services). And, although the researchers did not include for it, unless the company is trying to be disruptive in a space, degrees of warmth and competence can also be tied to the overall feelings people have toward an industry, the accessibility of the brand, and the frequency in which people come into contact with 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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