Consumer brands want your love.
Consumers don’t put that much thought into what they’re buying. Many day-to-day purchases are the result of being mindlessly added to supermarket baskets. Think about the last time you bought tuna. Did you go in to the store with a brand in mind, or did you just pick the cheapest tin from the shelf?
But what about baked beans? Chances are you had Heinz in mind, and picked them up off the shelf even if Branston was on offer. You’d probably still do this even if the supermarket were offering a blind taste test, and you found out you actually preferred Branston.
So what is it that makes us form seemingly irrational attachments to some brands and not others?
Lust vs. Love
There’s brand love, and there’s brand lust.
On an ad level, one reason car ads prominently feature a sexy picture of the car is to get you lusting after it, and the product benefits are listed much smaller below, to give you the tools to rationalise the decision you’ve already made: you want the car.
We all know someone who seemingly irrationally wants a particular model of car. For example, someone I know wants an Audi TT. That person probably can’t give a concrete reason why the TT is better than a comparable BMW. But they’ll still probably spend close to £30,000 on it one day.
So, ads can make us lust after a brand/product, and ultimately buy it, much like lust makes us take people home to bed, but there’s a big difference between this and falling in love with a brand to the extent that the Tennessee man who tried to marry his Mustang did.
Can you really love a brand?
People definitely think they can love a brand. They even come out with comments like “I really think of Diet Coke as my boyfriend”.
But what do they mean when they profess love for a brand?
Plenty of studies have been done into whether you can truly love a brand. Most find that our physiological responses to brands are akin to our physiological responses to seeing a close friend – more like than love.
And brand love is inherently selfish. While the brand may benefit in terms of sales and some word of mouth promotion, for the consumer it’s me me me. People hardly have the brand’s best interests in mind when tattooing the logo on their body – if I were to get a tattoo of a brand’s logo, it would be because I think it says something about me that I want to project to the world, not because I have the brand’s bottom line in mind.
What is in it for the brand?
If people love your brand, they’ll do a number of things including buying it time and time again and acting as a brand advocate. These are clearly good things, particularly brand advocacy which has the potential to convert others into the kind of person who buys your product time and time again for zero ad spend in your part.
But it also offers something less obvious: resilience.
No big brand will forever avoid scandal – someone, at some point, somewhere in the company will do something questionable. But if you’re loved, it matters a whole lot less. Love for your brand means you can escape unscathed from scandals that hit other, less loved brands hard.
Last year, Amazon was the most loved brand in the UK. Even though last year Amazon only paid £11.9m in UK tax. In contrast, Starbucks, who paid £8.1m in corporation tax in 2015 was number 8 on the most hated brands.
The bottom line? Amazon’s sales in the UK continue to grow, while Starbucks’ have fallen.
Getting people to fall for your brand.
Love is complicated. There are a number of factors influencing how strong the feelings people have for brands are, but one of the most apparent is cult mentality.
If your brand’s product defines your users as a person, or as a group, you’re onto a winner. The textbook example is Harley-Davidson, who don’t sell motorcyles at all. In the words of John Russell, the former MD, “Harley Davidson sells to 43-year-old accountants the ability to dress in leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of them.” The result? Thousands of Harley-Davidson riders have the brand’s trademark branded onto their body.
Apple are another proponent of the brand cult – encouraging people to form an allegiance to their brand with the “I am a Mac” ad, which called users to define themselves by the product they choose: you’re either a hip Mac person, or a stuffy PC person, so pick your side. The result for them? They don’t need an official social presence – the cult of Apple does the job for them. There are 38 MILLION pictures tagged with #IPhone on Instagram, and across social media their fans are poised, ready to defend them against anyone who thinks other tech brands are better.
But be careful with brand love.
Brand love can be a double edged sword.
If people have an emotional attachment to your brand then changing it is risky business.
Just ask Coca Cola, who learnt this lesson in 1985, when they dared change their formula in an attempt to reverse loss of market-share to Pepsi. New Coke fared well in research groups – 55% of people said they preferred it to the old formula. But when it launched, almost half a million people were angry enough to let the company know. Coke hired a psychiatrist to listen in on calls, who likened consumers’ responses to the response to the death of a family member.
How did they get it so wrong? In research, no one asked how they’d feel if this replaced Old Coke. The participants who rated the taste highly thought it would be a product line extension. People had an emotional connection to Old Coke – they’d grown up drinking it, shared it with friends and boyfriends, and on top of this Coca Cola was The Original, The Real Thing. You can’t just replace something that people feel an emotional connection to. Back then, Coca Cola conceded and returned to the original recipe.
But some brands will never learn from each others’ mistakes, believing themselves infallible.
Look at Cadbury, who sold out to the Yanks, undermining their position as British Institution and undoing some of the national pride that keeps us buying Cadbury.
In 2015, £6m melted off Cadbury’s Creme Egg sales after a change to the chocolate used. A year later, people are still seriously annoyed, and playing out their grudge against the brand on social media.
If we hadn’t had such a long love affair with the Cadbury brand, would anyone even care?