The Art and Science of Brand Love

One of the assumptions of many brands is that that consumers will act out of love.  If a brand becomes the best loved in a category, then consumer behaviours will likely change their behaviour to buy their brand.  However, this topic has not always been the focus of empirical investigation or even conceptual support so there has been little to guide marketers on ways to drive behaviours based on love.

Many small, insurgent brands often manage to achieve levels of brand love that larger counterparts look at enviously.  So, what can big, established brands do to win the love of consumers and change their behaviour?  We believe that a rigorous, science-based understanding of brand love offers a pathway through to establishing a ‘loving relationship’.

The dimensions of love

Economists and marketers have tended to assume people operate based on self-interest.  But we often act out of love in a way that goes beyond any kind of self-interest or logic.  We do all sorts of things that may be considered less than optimal for our own well-being such as learning a musical instrument, writing books, tending to our gardens.  In these cases, there is nothing unusual when we talk about the way we are doing these things out of love – and this is quite different to acting out of self-interest.

This reflects the way that much of the psychology literature considers love to be an intense form of liking. The variables typically associated with love are affection, attachment, intimacy, caring, intense longing, passion  It is often seen to be a single, specific feeling, akin to affection (Richins 1997), which, like all emotions, is short-term and episodic.  This reflects what is called an ‘hedonic’ approach to well-being, that suggests we optimise the seeking out of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (Ryan and Deci 2001).  Of course, this can be the pleasure of the mind as well as the body (Kubovy 1999).

But, as philosopher Susan Wolf points out, there may be some instances where acting out of love may not always be a good thing.  We may fall in love and hand over all our possessions to someone or something that we may subsequently consider was not worthy of that love.  We may buy a brand that is somehow not representing itself honestly or is over-priced relative to others.  So, a caveat to this is therefore that the object of the love needs to be worthy.  And if this is the case, then behaviour which is guided by love but with an object worthy of our life is clearly important.

So, what can be worthy of our love?  Of course, there are plenty of ways in which we can find pleasure on our lives, Wolf suggests ‘Riding a roller coaster, meeting a movie star, eating a hot fudge sundae, finding a great dress on sale, can all give please, even intense pleasure’.  But may have all these things and still find something lacking.  We may like them, but do we really love them?  We can all see the way in which brands may operate in this way, thinking they are generating love but really, it seems that this may be falling short.  Pleasure, it seems, does not equate to love.

In the opposite way we may do all sorts of activities that offer us some purpose but do we really like them?  Writing a book, running a marathon or maintaining a garden can mean a great deal of stress and discomfort.  However, the fact that we willingly put up with that suggests that purpose is a driving force in the lives of many of us, in a way that is different from happiness or pleasure.

It is well known in the psychology literature that people look for strongly held values and existential meaning that is connected to something the respondent believed was deeper, such as self-actualization (Richins 1994).  This is known as the eudaimonic approach to well-being, as opposed to hedonic, (Ryan and Deci 2001) and focuses on meaning and self-realization.   According to the eudaimonic approach, happiness is NOT the principal criterion of well-being instead examines the degree to which a person is fulfilling or realizing one’s true nature (Waterman, 1993)

This means that love is inextricably linked with purpose.  But what do we mean by this?  Could we consider that an individual’s sense of purpose is their own business and can be found in all sorts of activity.  As Wolf suggests, perhaps someone likes to make handwritten copies of the text of War and Peace, or another person’s life revolves their collection of beer mats.  It can be hard to make negative judgements about other people’s life but can we really say these offer purpose?

This is a hard call to make but ultimately simply because a life is no longer boring it nevertheless remains futile.  There is no value to these efforts, nothing ever results from them even if we are happy.  Indeed, we can even take the view that it may even be worse to be subjectively fulfilled by something that is objectively ‘not worth it’.  Our Tolstoy copier or beer mat obsessive may be happy but at the same time it is hard not to pity them for being fulfilled by such a task. It seems far from ideal. As a result, it seems that our subjective experience is something that is necessary but not sufficient.

The notion of purpose is very important to consumers.  75% of consumers worldwide expect brands to contribute to their personal well-being, 71% of millennials prefer brands that promote social or environmental change (Shadpour 2018). Consumers claim it is important to have a sense of social justice or mission/community (Mission 2017).

Of course, there is a possibility that we get involved in purposeful activities that we do not find fulfilling – we may be helping the poor of our community but if that brings no reward to how we feel, then it is not clear if that offers purpose.  There is an expectation or hope that when we get involved in something objectively bigger than ourselves that we will find it subjectively rewarding.

One of the challenges of ‘purpose’ is whether it is done in an authentic way.  Mark Ritson, a well known sceptic of brand purpose, claims that consumers are highly sensitive to contrived attempts to communicate brand purpose. He suggests that it must rise organically from the organization’s core commitments and values. As an example of this, Rogers (2018) lauds Patagonia for their ability to create and communicate purpose. He says that their purpose is publicly stated, but also tangibly visible through their behaviours. He says their purpose – environmental activism – is a mission-driven approach to retail success, visible in their behaviour, where their founder established a non-profit alliance of businesses that donate 1% of their annual sales to grassroots environmental groups.  As he puts it, “You can’t reverse into a mission and values through marketing. The organisations that are struggling with this are probably the ones that are thinking about marketing first.”

It does seem that what is needed is that we can love engaging in something that is ‘objectively’ purposeful.  As humans, we have the capacity to look at ourselves in an objective, external perspective and when we do this, we want to be able to see ourselves as good and valuable and that in some way we leave a lasting impression.

The feeling of being involved in a topic that has independent value, that takes us out of our self is exhilarating as it speaks to our social natures and our desire not to be alone.  But critically, as Wolf puts it, this ‘objective sense of purpose has to be met with a subjective enjoyment. It is only when we have both of these together, do we have love.

Measuring love

The psychology literature has perhaps struggled to keep up with notions of love, appearing a little like Prince Charles on his love for Diana famously answering awkwardly ‘Whatever that is’.  The difficulty for psychologists is that love is not really about mental processes (how the mind works) but more about mental states (how we feel).  The only person who can really answer if they are in love is the individual themselves, we cannot really deduce it from their behaviour.

As such, survey data is needed to measure brand love.  One measure that has been used to determine ‘brand love’, this is the measure of closeness.  It has been found to have a strong relationship with a wide range of behavioural outcomes including, importantly, sales data.

What has been less rigorously understood, is how to enhance love and thus drive behaviours more directly and efficiently.  The linking of subjective experiences of pleasure along with objective measure of ‘purpose’ offers a means by which established brands can identify opportunities for generating love, leading to behaviour change.

Conclusions:  What can brands do

The opportunity for brands is to help consumers engage with them as a means of aspiring to a better self, as represented through our brand engagements and purchasing behaviours.  Some brands seem to leverage core elements of human identity. Lego, for example, provides purpose by allowing people to create. “’People just love to make things. It’s deep in every human being….Lego is a lot more than a toy – it’s a creative expression. We see a lot of adults hugely engaged with it. With Lego you can make the most amazing things – things you’d never imagine’” (Anderson 2014 – Daily Telegraph).  This seems to marry the subjective and objective elements that are core to making love happen.

Sports teams, often hugely successful brands, are often considered an expression of a fan’s sense of self and are attractive because they allow the individual to project their values vicariously through the team. They are part of something much bigger than themselves as they mirror the feelings, actions and hormones of the players (Simons 2015).

These examples indicate the way that experiences may be more fulfilling, purposeful than a physical good (Caru and Cova, 2007).  Disney has always been effective in creating pleasure via experience (Gilliland 2017). They are so effective in immersing consumers in their entire world and experience, which may create temporary purpose for the user.

We see insurgent brands using experiences as an essential part of their repertoire as they tend to have a strong element of digital which facilitates experiences.  But in addition, they are often services rather than simply products.  Many insurgent brands are offering direct to consumer subscription services which have a much greater experiential element.

Many marketers have often struggled to understand brand love and as such it is frequently seen as something to aspire, but which has to be left to advertising creative to somehow turn into something that shapes behaviour.   But by taking a science based rigorous lens to it, we can see that it is much more multi-faceted than may first appear but with that comes an understanding of the levers that brands can use to best effect.