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Have You Ever Really Loved a Brand?

Author: James McQuivey

I want to know who you love. I’m asking because love for a brand is actually a very hard thing to measure. At Forrester we’ve spent nearly a year trying to understand the emotional components of branding. Our colleagues in the customer experience (CX) team have years worth of data showing that emotion is the single most powerful driver of satisfaction with an experience. Designing to emotion, then, is a crucial method for success and my colleagues are all over it.

On the brand side, marketers certainly agree that emotion matters. They have always believed that emotion matters. They just don’t agree on how it matters. Or better said they don’t have clarity on what emotion really is and so it becomes more difficult to pin down how that emotion applies to their brands — is brand emotion different from CX-derived emotion? Do they relate to each other, act as influences on each other? It’s hard to say for sure when your mental model of how emotion works is inadequate to the task of addressing the fast-moving emotions of today’s empowered consumer.

On that note I’ll quickly plug a great book that came out earlier this month by professor Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern. The book, How Emotions Are Made, contains a summary of the most important, most recent developments in the neuroscience of emotion, many of them made by Barrett in her lab. The short answer is that our understanding of emotion is undergoing a true paradigm shift (in the original, stricter sense of the term, first coined by Thomas Kuhn in his treatise, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, not the loose, jargony way paradigm shifts are referred to today). That revolution in the science of emotion will dramatically alter the way we think of the job of the marketer. I recently joined Forrester CMO Victor Milligan on our Forrester Podcast What It Means (open to clients and non-clients) to discuss some of the early implications of this research and we’ll have several reports coming out throughout the year that help our clients know what to do about this changing knowledge. Stay tuned.

Study Brands You Love (And Hate)

But back to my question. Because one useful way to pin down vague and complicated topics like the role of emotion is to work on the edge cases. They’re easily understood, they communicate in broad strokes. Thus, if you want to know how emotion really drives brand engagement, you can get a good start by studying the edge cases — brands that people hate or that they love.

Hence my question: Have you ever really loved a brand?

In Stephen Covey’s classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey discloses a troublespot in his relationship with his wife that revolved around the simple question of which refrigerator to buy. For her, they could only buy a Frigidaire. Her commitment to the brand puzzled him. Only after significant discussion did they discover that her attachment to the brand was due to the fact that her father had worked for the company for many years and it had been good to him. Thus, she loved Frigidaire.

I can relate to that. Of the many vehicles we have owned in our family, nearly all of them have been Fords. Why? Because my dad was a Ford dealer and I will forever defend the Mustang against the Camaro, bordering on irrationality. But while these very edge cases show that you can love a brand beyond reason, they also suggest that such deep love is independent of the products themselves. That’s why I continued to pretend that Mustangs were cool in the early 80s even though they were lame and wimpy shadows of the brand’s former strength.

Four Reasons People Love Certain Brands

So I’ve been asking around to find anyone who really loves a brand, searching for people who love brands because of the brand itself, not because of some unrelated factor like employment or “that brand was important to me in an emotional period in my life,” which, although a valid reason to love a brand, is still relatively out of the control of the brand marketer. Here’s what I’m hearing from people I ask; they love brands that:

  • Are consistently there for them
  • Deliver their brand value easily
  • Reinforce their social preferences
  • Increase their esteem and status

That list captures the bulk of why people explain to themselves that they love a brand. Note that the professed emotion arises out of many things that are within a marketer’s control. And the first two are fairly functional, tied to CX, which underscores the importance of building the brand through CX. No doubt you have answered my original question for yourself and thought of a few brands. Now take one or two and see how they compare against these four points. A quick rundown will show that Apple, for example, a brand that many people volunteered as a love-worthy brand, does all of those things quite well, usually in a standout way. And it delivers on the social and status needs to the extreme. In fact, luxury brands in general perform well on those things, sometimes suffering on CX (you can only buy a Rolex from certain dealers, for example) which becomes part of the brand. That is a counterintuitive but important insight: Sometimes the poor experience is the experience people value. I’ll be blogging about that later this week because it’s its own category of emotional experience.

My colleagues and I are still simmering the input we’ve gotten in our year of brand-based emotion research and I’m still working up the best examples to share to illustrate these and other emotion-related points, but in the meantime be asking yourself some questions about loving a brand: Which brands do you really love and why? Do you love more brands or fewer than you did ten years ago? Does your love for a brand today have more or less force in your life than it did a decade ago? My research in hyperadoption and hyperabandonment would suggest that self-reported love for a brand is occurring more frequently, but that it’s more superficial and has fewer long-lasting consequences. That there are fewer cases today where people genuinely love a brand in the way people loved Pepsi or Coke in 1985. But that’s for you to verify or not in your own experience. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on the brands you love in the comments below.


James McQuivey, Ph.D., is a vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester. He is also the author of the book, Digital Disruption. He loves Ford and currently drives an F-150. Read more Forrester blogs here.

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