No matter how good we are at defining and expressing the uniqueness of our brands, success in the marketplace depends upon building strong commitment from customers. How can we strengthen consumer attachments to our brands? Cutting edge knowledge on consumers and brands provided by our partners at ACR (Association of Consumer Research) identifies some ways to solidify consumer commitment.

These breakthrough insights from thought leaders in branding provide useful guidance for marketers to stand out from advertising clutter, change consumer perception, develop preference, and foster brand loyalty. The intelligence suggests that marketers must consider five factors that have strong consumer behavior consequences: relationship norms; information availability; credibility or trustworthiness; emotional needs; and growth and change. Below is an edited compilation of the key findings and implications for marketers from the ACR. Making Brands into Friends, or Is it always best to develop communal relationships between consumers and brands?1

It is often said that some brands like the VW Beetle, the Apple Mac, Harley Davidson, or even the omnipresent Coca-Cola have an appeal that goes far beyond what can be explained by the mere fulfillment of a functional need. Some marketing researchers have suggested that this is because the consumer-brand interaction crosses the threshold of a mere commercial transaction. In fact, it has been suggested that people sometimes form relationships with brands in much the same way in which they form relationships with each other in a social context.

One important study finds that if the actions of the brand are not in keeping with what is expected in the particular relationship, it is likely to lead to lower satisfaction. Conversely, if the actions of the brand conform to the expectations of the relationship, then consumers are likely to be satisfied with the brand's actions.

The relationship metaphor helps explain why different consumers may respond differently to the same action taken by a brand. Further, when brands behave like socialized members of a culture, then they are evaluated by the rules that govern the society and have to act in accordance to these rules. Brands, thus, have to go beyond providing mere utilitarian benefits to what is perceived as the right thing to do. They must strive to build relationships based on the type of norms associated with a particular type of relationship. Why Memory Matters: Consumers' preference is based not solely on what they know about a brand, but also on how easily the brand comes to mind.2

Most people would agree that what consumers know about a brand plays an important role in shaping their preference for the brand. But researchers in recent years have found evidence that consumer preference may also be based on how easy or difficult it is to process information about the brand.

The research demonstrates that consumer preference for a brand may be affected by advertisements of other products, suggesting that a brand can benefit from generic advertising of the product category, or from advertising of a competing brand.

In addition, a context that offers a familiar setting for the brand leads to more favorable evaluation of the brand. The implication is that strategies that leverage novelty to attract attention may be trading off share of heart for share of eyeball. Making Brands Credible: Managing brand credibility is an essential element in successful brand management.3

This research examines the role of brand credibility (trustworthiness and expertise) on brand choice and consideration across multiple product categories. These categories vary in regard to potential uncertainty about attributes and associated information acquisition costs and perceived risks of consumption. It presents evidence for brand credibility's effect on the formation of consideration sets, over and above its effect on brand choice.

Credibility is broadly defined as the believability of an entity's intentions at a particular time and is posited to have two main components: trustworthiness and expertise. Thus, brand credibility is defined as the believability of the product information contained in a brand, which requires that consumers perceive that the brand have the ability (i.e., expertise) and willingness (i.e., trustworthiness) to continuously deliver what has been promised.

This research sheds light on why a brand's credibility influence consumer consideration set formation and subsequent brand choice. It focuses on the impact of credibility on consumer consideration and choice through perceived quality, perceived risk and information costs.

In extremely low risk and relatively low involvement categories (e.g., juice), neither perceived risk nor information costs seem to matter in consumer choice processes. Thus, in such settings credibility effects operate through perceived quality.

However, it also finds that credibility affects consumer choices through perceived risk, information costs saved and perceived quality in most categories, even those with only moderate levels of uncertainty. Furthermore, although credibility impacts brand choice and consideration set formation more and through more mechanisms in contexts with high uncertainty and sensitivity to such uncertainty, credibility effects are present in all categories.

This research also finds evidence for stronger credibility impacts for individuals who perceive higher uncertainty when choosing in a given product category. Finally, the results indicate that trustworthiness affects consumer choices and brand consideration more than expertise.

Understanding the multiple roles credible brands play in consumer decision-making has implications for consumer welfare (e.g., credible brands reduce consumer information costs), management (e.g., successful brand management requires managing credibility successfully in the long run and our research sheds light on how to manage brand credibility) and public policy (e.g., mandatory information provision rules in product categories where brand credibility is low, and consumer risk is high). I Love My Brand: What is strong emotional attachment to a brand and why does it matter?4

An attachment is a type of emotional bond that binds the consumer to particular brands and, from a marketing perspective, is what helps to explain why consumers are committed to certain brands.

Because these kinds of brands are important and meaningful to consumers, they often go out of their way to own and protect them. This study develops a measure that is designed to assess the strength of a consumer's emotional attachment to a product brand.

The result is a measure that has a three-dimensional structure. That is, emotional attachment reflects the fact that consumers who are attached to brands report feeling affectionate towards, passionate about and connected to the brand. The paper also shows that consumers who are high in emotional attachment tend to be loyal to that brand and are willing to pay a premium for it as well.

This research makes a contribution to the foundational discipline of psychology by demonstrating that not only do consumers form attachments to brands (a relatively novel object), but that one can directly measure the strength of this attachment bond in a parsimonious but theoretically-informed fashion.

The findings should prove useful to marketing practitioners because it proposes and empirically tests a measure that may be of particular use to consumer marketers who are interested in assessing certain aspects of the relationships that consumers often have with product brands.

Because the scale has been validated by “real consumers,” practitioners can have additional confidence that the scale is both robust and reliable. Finally, because the scale is relatively short and economical, marketers can use the scale in a relatively efficient manner. Managing Relationships: The Dark Side of Promising Sincerity and Brand Trust5

Consumer researchers have reported results in a recent article that deal with the complex and under-explored question of how consumer-brand relationships grow and change over time.

The authors focus on two factors that affect relationship development trajectories: brand personality and the commission of brand transgressions.

Two personality types – sincere and exciting – are particularly noteworthy in the contemporary branding landscape as well as in the personality psychology literature. Research in the human personality domain suggests that these two personality templates drive people's conceptions of ideal partners in intimate relations, guide inferences regarding partner capabilities and efforts in managing the relationship, and thus exert particular influence on relationship strength.

Results of a longitudinal experiment showed that while, over time, the sincere brand indeed enjoyed stronger consumer-brand relationships than the exciting brand, the transgression event did remarkable damage to consumers' relationships with the sincere brand. Surprisingly, consumers' relationships with the sincere brand relationship exhibited no signs of recovery despite apologies and attempts to make amends.

In sharp contrast, consumers' relationships with the exciting brand slowly deteriorated over time in the absence of transgressions, and, in the event of transgression and recovery, the relationship with the exciting brand surprisingly strengthened and improved.

In this light, the transgression served as a critical and foundational incident in the relationship: one that caused participants to re-examine and re-adjust their expectations of partner performance and hence, the type of partner and relationship at hand.

For consumers interacting with the sincere brand, the transgression constituted a betrayal of the very essence of the relationship: a violation so fundamental that the relationship could not recover to its prior state despite recovery attempts.

For the exciting brand, the transgression was not altogether unexpected, and served, in fact, to inject new energies into the relationship through the recovery event. When the exciting brand apologized and atoned for its errors, this allowed trust, accountability, and responsibility to be established in the relationship for the first time - thus re-invigorating and actually reversing the trend in relationship growth.

The research helps to explain contrasting findings in prior service literature wherein service failures have led to both higher and lower levels of post-failure satisfaction with the brand. Objective evidence, such as contained in the act of a brand transgression, is filtered and interpreted through prior experience and relationship-fueled expectations, as were differentially set here through varying personality profiles of the brand.

The research also sheds light on the mechanisms by which expectations are set in consumer-brand relationships, and encourages further work on the nature and evolution of the varied rules and contracts guiding consumers' perceptions and actions with brands, particularly as these vary along cultural and temporal lines.

The findings also reveal a potential dark side in pursuit of ever-deepening, long-term relationships with consumers, and highlight the risks involved in the invariant pursuit of relationships.

More details about each of these research papers are available at the ACR Web site.

1. Relationship Norms (by Pankaj Aggarwal, based on "The Effects of Brand Relationship Norms on Consumer Attitudes and Behavior" by Pankaj Aggarwal, University of Toronto. Journal of Consumer Research, 2004).

2. Availability of Information About the Brand (by Angela Lee and Aparna Labroo, based on "Effects of Conceptual and Perceptual Fluency on Affective Judgment" by Angela Lee, Northwestern University; and Aparna Labroo, University of Chicago. Journal of Marketing Research, 2004).

3. Brand Credibility (by Tulin Erdem and Joffre Swait, based on "Brand Credibility, Brand Consideration, and Choice" by Tulin Erdem, University of California, Berkeley; and Joffre Swait, University of Florida. Journal of Consumer Psychology, June 2004)

4. Emotional Attachment (by Matthew Thomson, Queens University, based on "The Ties That Bind: Measuring the Strength of Consumers' Emotional Attachments to Brands," by Matthew Thomson, Deborah J. MacInnis, and C. Whan Park. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2004)

5. When Good Brands Do Bad (By Jennifer Aaker, Susan Fournier and Adam Brasel, based on "When Good Brands Do Bad," by Jennifer Aaker, Stanford University; Susan Fournier, Dartmouth College; and Adam Brasel, Stanford University. Journal of Consumer Research, 2004)

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.